This other Eden, demi-paradise? – a review by Noel Kingsbury

April 3, 2015

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

Such a relief when someone says ‘fantastic doesn’t mean flawless’…. Thanks, Noel!

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon


Eden Project Biodomes Copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0739

Review of the Eden Project by Noel Kingsbury

The Eden Project, since its opening in 1999, has kept itself in the top 15 or so British tourist attractions. Brilliant, given that its subject matter, economic botany, was always the most boringly presented part of most traditional botanic gardens.

Eden is, quite simply fantastic.

But fantastic does not mean flawless.

Just because something is wonderful does not mean that we should all lie on our backs and kick our legs in the air. So, what I’d like to do here is critique it, looking at what it says on the tin (“We aim to inspire people about their world”) and at Eden as a garden (it also says on the website “creating stunning gardens” and at the place’s success in supporting bio-diversity.

Eden is a family-fun day-out place, and one very much in the tradition long established by London’s Science Museum, a place to pull levers and push buttons. Its an incredible learning place, with interpretation second to none, with the didactic very often taking the form of elaborate, colourful and whacky art installations. I learnt a lot on my visit, I really did. It’s truly wonderful that such an incredibly popular, and unashamedly populist, place should have as its centrepiece teaching us about our relationship with plants.

Moringa exhibit Eden Project, copyright Noel Kingsbury

The interpretation is incredibly balanced. It is never corporate (there are no corporate sponsors as far as I know) but neither does it bleat the Prince Charles anti-technology, anti-Green Revolution line which worthy ‘green’ projects often do.

As a garden though, I am not so sure. It’s inconsistent. The original landscaping was done by a major company who I do not intend to embarrass by naming, as it was a while ago that they did it. People-flow works well (that’s the really important bit) but basically the overall landscape of the place is an incoherent mess. There seem to be a lot of strips, which is ok if it is agriculture which is being addressed, less so if it is natural environments. None of the strips cohere into any kind of pattern but have a random quality. Odd things appear, like a triumphal way of pleached limes which leads from nowhere to nowhere. Having said that the planting of bulbs, hellebores and other springy things underneath the limes was masterly (but that’s the Eden Hort team not the landscape designers).

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury

Very effective and perennial spring planting, the cheerful colour combinations being very typical

Eden Project 1. copyright Noel KingsburyDSC_0737Worst of all are some vast slabs of evergreen shrub planting, particularly of Quercus ilex. They form a dreary biodiversity desert in contrast to the bright natural covering formed by the wild gorse on the far reaches of the opencast mine Eden is situated in. There are more slabs of this supermarket style shrub planting in the outer zone of the project too. Since Cornwall seems to have some of the best wildflowers to be seen in Britain, I’m amazed by how little of the natural flora there is to be seen here.

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0741

Green cement if ever there was.

Getting down to near the biome domes, things improve as this is where the Eden horticulture team take over. They have developed a quite unique style, which is very formal in a way, but totally unlike what we normally understand by this word. There are a lot of monocultural strips, but in bold stripes or curves, interspersed with areas of densely interplanted perennials and bulbs, often with bold colour combinations. A lot of it looks highly intensive, but bears no relationship to traditional bedding or municipal planting. You could say it was a contemporary version of a parks style, but it lacks any of the pretentiousness which so often accompanies the word ‘contemporary’. It really is very successful, and all the better for being very simple. It is also wonderfully colourful and flows around the often very sculptural exhibition material.

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0744

A good early year example of the very simple and effective seasonal planting

The dome-shaped biomes are what the Eden project is really famous for. There are two, a Mediterranean climate one, and a so-called Rainforest one (although Tropical would be a better title). The Mediterranean one integrates the natural environment with the human/plant relationship with little stone structures, a mock Spanish church tower and even a French Resistance Maquisard encampment. The natural planting is the most genuinely naturalistic I have ever seen in a botanic garden greenhouse, with a lot of plants intermingling just like they would in nature and a great deal of self-seeding of various Mediterranean annuals going on. I took quite a few pictures that could have been taken on the French Riviera/South African Cape/California. The sheer naturalness of it (which is probably highly supervised) really convinces. Its even better than the Mediterranean-climate great glasshouse in the Welsh National Botanic Garden, and that is saying something.

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0750 copyThe Rainforest biome was a deep disappointment on my first visit years ago and remains so. Its sheer scale and basic success as a hot, sticky and green experience should not blind us to what a massive lost opportunity it is. Its interpretation, which is centred around tropical crops and the use of tropical plants is truly excellent, often involving lots of colourful props such as a lorry, the bows of a ship, straw huts etc. Kids must love it. The planting though is incredibly tedious. Apart from the crop plants (many of them trees) the planting is done with bog standard house-planty stuff, like Boston ferns, peace lilies and that horrible purpley ground-cover thing you used to buy in yogurt pots at church fetes.

The overall feel is of those tropical regions which have been thoroughly trashed in order to grow crops, and which have lost most of their original flora. There is no celebration of the natural biodiversity of the tropics. Epiphytes, for example, are virtually non-existent: about a dozen bromeliads and one (yes one) orchid. It really is a travesty, especially in comparison to the (much more modestly-sized) Mediterranean biome.

Eden deserves our support; it really is a wonderful place, but it could be even better.

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0833

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0837

Eden Project copyright Noel Kingsbury DSC_0836

Noel Kingsbury

Noel’s website and Noel regularly blogs here.

Noel Kingsbury copyright Charles Hawes



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Sven Jefferson May 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

Apart from the problems with Eden Garden Project that you’ve stated, I still think it’s nearly perfect. After my last visit in 2013, I was sure that this is one of the best places around the UK. All the flaws are what makes it wonderful, I can’t imagine something as sad as the perfect one. It’s just unnatural, it’s against nature itself.

Valerie Lapthorne May 16, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Saw the Eden project at the beginning and was impressed, in particular how adults and children were engaging with the interpretive information provided. Did they have hens under the Malaysian house then or was I carried away by the atmosphere? And I was pleased how spot on the planting was in the maquis. The smells were right, although a couple next to me commented that it would be nice when it was finished. I was therefore disappointed this time to find that a restaurant encroached upon this area and the smells of pizza killed any Provencal perfume. The difficulty of providing what the public requires with what Eden would like to introduce. And the tidily little borie, looking like a garden shed. Bories are drystone with no cement and the stone sloping outwards to deflect the water outwards rather than inwards. And was the stone Cornish?

We came upon the granite sculpture in its alcove and I rubbed it to feel the texture and a man and his wife looked at me strangely. I said it was lucky to give it a rub. Next thing they are taking each other’s photos rubbing the sculpture and they then told the people who followed them. So they can blame me if a shiny bit develops in the middle. Let’s hope the rubbing works as a placebo.

I’ll go again in a year or so.

Margareth Hop April 28, 2015 at 3:04 pm

I visited Eden two years ago, and really enjoyed it. But I could also see some missed opportunities. The take-home message seems to be, that nature is very important for our food supply. Very 1990’s. But since Eden was built, there has been a lot of research about the other things plants do for us. I didn’t see any information about the positive effects plants in cities have on us for instance (the ecosystem services). And they would even have to change very little in the park to do that, just provide the information, just like what they already do for the service of “stimulating biodiversity” . Some info about the Urban Heat Island effect, the importance of planting to protect cities from flooding after rain storms, plants for air quality etc. The ” triumphal arch” Noel Kingsbury mentions would be a great illustration of how trees cool a city. (I visited on a hot day, you could feel the temperature difference under the trees.) There are green roofs, but where are the green walls? They do have a green school playground, but adding modern city elements like a demo healing garden for a care home could quite easily give Eden a more 21st century feel.

Adam Hodge April 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Noel seems to have written a gracious critique of the Eden Project but his starting point for his criticism of the external landscaping is not in itself one which is actually relevant to the Eden Project.
”Since Cornwall seems to have some of the best wildflowers to be seen in Britain, I’m amazed by how little of the natural flora there is to be seen here”.
As soon as mankind imposes on the earth their own event we interrupt the distribution of natural flora. Since the EP is a very major interruption why not take advantage of the other bonus of Cornwall- the gentle climate enabling the proliferation of tender hugely decorative flowering trees and shrubs that in a setting as enormous as the EP would look spectacular. The ‘concrete slab’ Noel despairs of could be retained but used as underplanting to hundreds of himalayan Magnolia’s or the hybrids seen at Caerhays Castle down the road. A lot of the hillsides could be planted with more massive drifts of exotic tree form rhodo’s etc that we can enjoy at the more grand gardens along the southern counties or the west coast of the UK or Wales. The place could be such an awesome sight of tree bloom and beauty, it in itself would become a world floral spectacular and bring hoards more visitors which would help the coffers of the Project.
The original Landscape architects missed a massive opportunity. [They exercised an expanded urban styling with a lot of very dreary planting, as Noel indicates.]

Matt April 5, 2015 at 3:16 pm

It looks like an interesting place. The domes remind me of epcot center. How big of a place is it and what is the drawing on the wall? It look like the pictures are from early spring before things started to bloom or is it always lacking colorful blooms?

Ben's Botanics April 5, 2015 at 10:26 am

The only time I’ve ever been all that satisfied with the Eden Project was a trip to see Amorphophallus titanum in flower. To be entirely honest I was just happy to see the titan itself!

The Eden Project is a tourist attraction and nothing else. Their botanical credentials fall apart under even the lightest scrutiny (the final straw for me was an article in their magazine that told people in no uncertain terms that Puyas in South America had evolved to become carnivorous and prey on sheep!). If, like me, you enjoy the effect of a garden but also have an interest in the ingredients that make up the garden, the species used and how they’re grown, you have no hope at the Eden Project- in my experience you have absolutely no chance of finding the name of an unlabeled plant; the best even the more horticulturally aware staff can do seems to be to read the information boards out to you.

I go when my friend (an Eden Project member so I go for free) insists we go, but on every visit I have felt the place to be soulless, depressed and living on its former glory.

Sue Radmore April 4, 2015 at 6:01 pm

Despite its wonders, there is a lot wrong with Eden, especially its overt commercialism, which is driven by its need to survive. But I suggest you return to the rainforest Noel in June and see the masses of exquisite flowers at every turn in the biome and eat your words. It is truly magnificent then.
And Tristan, Cornwall is not that distant and is full of botanical treasures. Try it sometime.

Tristan Gregory April 6, 2015 at 8:14 am

I believe you but it’s quicker to get to a real rainforest than to drive to Cornwall from Herefordshire.

Tristan Gregory April 3, 2015 at 8:10 pm

An enjoyable and useful review.

One can’t help wondering what fate would befall Kew if it was re-located to such a distant place, away from the tick it off the list visitations that keep it just about carrying on.

The problems of the tropical house do seem fairly typical of the breed, much like tigers in zoos I’d rather know they were safe where they should be and aspire to see them there. I agree about the green cement as well but at least that could be fixed with some bindweed.

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