Prizegiving Speech (2015) – Richard Bisgrove

Precis from a fantastic prize-giving speech in 2015 by Richard Bisgrove – Ed.

I have been to several Prize Days at Kew and listened to several eminent guest speakers so it is a great privilege to be standing here today, especially as the guest speaker is chosen by those students who are about the graduate. This means that the students probably enjoyed my lectures but I wonder if they are also putting me on the spot. Because I live north of Reading our modus operandi is that I battle along the M4, we switch on the projector at 9am and I ramble on for six hours – with coffee breaks – then head off back on the M4 before the rush hour traffic is too bad. I suspect that Course 50 want to see how I cope with less than an hour to speak, and with no projector!

This afternoon I would like to tell you something about three people. The first is me. I lectured at Reading, in Horticulture and Landscape Management, for forty years and two weeks. In the last five years of my Reading career I was given Honorary Life Membership of the Kew Guild, the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Peter Youngman Award by the President of the Landscape Institute. In my first five years that triple honour would have been impossible: the botanical, horticultural and landscape architectural professions had almost watertight boundaries and many opportunities were lost as a result of inter-professional rivalry, sometimes amounting to enmity. Gradually the botanists have realised that nature conservation and habitat restoration involve what is in essence sophisticated gardening. Only this morning I heard on the radio of micropropagation and pelleting of sphagnum moss in attempts to restore peat bogs.

Landscape designers have slowly come to recognise that grand plans are useless without sophisticated gardening to see those plans evolve to fruition. In 1978 the Institute of Landscape Architects became the Landscape Institute and widened its membership to include landscape managers and landscape scientists. It is no coincidence that by far the most successful Landscape Architecture Department in Britain is at Sheffield, headed by their Professor of Horticultural Ecology, James Hitchmough, who was your guest speaker last year. The Kew Diploma can be a painful experience as it involves such a wide range of subject material, from DNA sequences through practical horticulture to landscape design and management but the graduates from the Diploma course are ideally qualified for the new environment of inter-professional collaboration.


The second person is one of our former students at Reading. I’ll call him Smith. Young Smith was a bright and hard-working student so it was no surprise when he gained a first class honours degree in Horticulture. He stayed on at Reading for his PhD and, in a department with research interests in organic horticulture, in synthetic soils and other aspects of sustainable horticulture, gained his PhD with his thesis, ‘A study of the effects of protein-based fertilizers on the growth and development of vegetable crops’. In the course of his research Smith adapted a dot matrix printer (then new technology) to produce very large numbers of very small samples of liquids for analysis. Doctor Smith then went to the Water Pollution Research Laboratory near Stevenage, where he built up a substantial research team. He was then appointed Professor of Environmental Management at Imperial College in London where he has developed multi-million pound contracts in Egypt, Australia and elsewhere in waste management and energy capture from waste materials.

I was invited to hear Professor Smith’s inaugural lecture. The Dean of his department stood up to introduce him and started by saying that Professor Smith’s career started in Horticulture – and he actually sniggered as he said the word, with knowing chuckles from his senior colleagues. Professor Smith then stood up to deliver his lecture and started by saying that he thought Horticulture was the best possible start for a career in environmental management as no other subject brought together so many aspects of science and technology.

My third person is John Claudius Loudon, a Scotsman who came down to England to teach the English how to farm and garden properly. Loudon was the first documented workaholic, going one night a week without sleep in order to study languages and suffering the loss of an arm and other painful experiences while working himself into an early grave. He died in 1843 with typically Victorian melodrama, dictating the last chapter of his book on the self-improvement of young gardeners to his young wife. Loudon preached that young gardeners should be tidily dressed and well-spoken at all times and should devote themselves to study. In return he thought that employers should respect their gardeners and foster their career development. He bewailed the fact that gardeners, often the most highly educated and literate of the army of servants, were so little appreciated and so poorly paid.

I would like to end by congratulating the students of Course 50, and the apprentices now completing their apprenticeship, for their achievements and to wish them well in their careers. They may be sniggered at from time to time as ‘mere gardeners’, they will almost certainly not be paid as much as they deserve, but they will probably save our planet.