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Mud Kitchen Fun

The families at our first Mud Kitchen (for children aged 5 and under)  in April had fun playing at making mud pies and other tasty treats which included a birthday cake, with twigs for candles, and a mud pizza with extra grass topping.

If you’ve never been to a mud kitchen before you might not know what to expect. There are only two essential ingredients: earth and water, everything else you can improvise.  

A mud kitchen can be set up in any outdoor space, with old pots and pans or plastic containers; small tables or even old milk crates to use as mixing stations and access to some water.  Don’t worry if you don’t have an outside tap, we used a rainwater butt which we filled with water and had more than enough for over 30 families.

Having fun playing with earth and water is probably one of most people’s earliest childhood memories. That’s not always the case for children today so we thought we’d bring back some messy fun for families in the Horniman Gardens; with the added bonus for grown-ups that they didn’t have to clean up afterwards (thanks to our great volunteers).

The children had fun pretending to cook their mud pies in our makeshift oven, experimenting with measuring and mixing as well as practising their pouring skills.  The adults had an important part to play too, advising their little chefs on which decorations to use on their creations – beautiful daisies and dandelions growing in the grass - rather than our Gardeners’ prized flowers.   

Families were able to drop into the mud kitchen anytime between 11.00 am and 12.30 pm on the Friday morning.  Some stayed for a short time to make one or two ‘cakes’ before heading off to enjoy some non-pretend food at our cafe.  Others were so engrossed in creating their masterpieces,that they stayed for the whole session.  It was great to see everyone, both adults and children, having so much fun outdoors and getting closer to nature.

If you want to join in the fun, and encourage your children to explore nature and enjoy playing outdoors then come along to one of our Mud Kitchens over the next few months.  They will be running monthly from May – July, check the website for further details, but be prepared to get messy!

Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

Although it has been very cold and snowy outside, many people turned up at the annual RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch at the Horniman on January 24 to see what birdlife could be found in our Gardens.

David Darrel-Lambert, our bird expert, was on hand to take guided walks around the garden. So armed with binoculars and cameras, our visitors went twitching.

The count this year was really impressive – over 60 birds were spotted around the gardens! Amongst the more common wood pigeons, magpies and robins, we spotted, goldfinches, woodpeckers, a mistlethrush, nut hatch and even this beautiful kestrel.

As well as spotting birds, we made over 100 pine cone bird feeders to keep the Forest Hill wildlife fed though the cold winter months.

These are really easy to make and are a great nutritious snack for our feathery friends. To make one of our bird feeders, we use pine cones as the base – a great natural treasure!


We used lard which is nice and fatty which helps keep birds warm and energised. Peanut butter is a good alternative.

Cover the pine cones in the lard or peanut butter and then dip in bird seed.  The bird seed provides the nutrients.  You can get lots of different bird seed mixes depending on the birds you have in your garden, or you can just use a mixed one suitable for most birds.

Tie a piece of string to the end of the pine cone and you’re ready to hang it up!

We hope you managed to take part in the Big Garden bird Watch too, and if not, then come along next year to take part in 2016!

Full bird count list below:

  • Wood Pigeon 14
  • Magpie 21
  • Song Thrush 1
  • Blue Tit 3
  • Great Tit 6
  • Robin 3
  • Blackbird 1
  • Dunnock 3
  • Chaffinch 1
  • Herring Gull 6
  • Carrion Crow 6
  • Parakeet 5
  • Feral Pigeon 6
  • Coal Tit 1
  • Long-tailed Tit 1
  • Goldfinch -1
  • Wren 1
  • Woodpecker 1
  • Kestrel 1
  • Mistlethrush 1
  • Field Fare 2
  • Nuthatch 2
  • Gold Crest 1



Preparing for Winter in the Gardens

Gardens Apprentice Ian has spent the last few months working to help get the Horniman's 16.5 acres of Gardens ready for the winter months.

Hello, my name is Ian and I am a new gardens apprentice. I started in October and am experiencing the hard way just what it's like to be a Gardener in the winter.

The different times of the year bring new jobs for gardens. In October we dug out the dahlias in the dahlia bed because the dahlia is a tender plant which cannot take the cold of the winter and needs protecting.

As you can see in the picture here the dahlia bed is empty now.

What we have done to protect our tender plants is to dig them out carefully as not to damage their root tubers, cut down the plant's stem and store them in our poly tunnel upside down for a week (upside down to dry them out so they don’t root). After a few weeks we lined the crates with newspaper then spaced out the dahlias and covered them with soil. This picture of a cultivar of the Dahlia plant “Show and Tell” should give a idea as to how it should look.

We did that for all the Dahlias and then moved them to our greenhouse. It reaches heights of up to 15⁰c on even the coldest days in there so it was a good place to store them.

When it comes to the winter this isn’t the only way we protect our plants. If you go to our display garden you may see some plants wrapped in a clear bag. Those are our banana plants: these plants are more sensitive to the rain and damp rather than the temperature. I haven't included a picture of our wrapped up banana plants because you can come and see it for yourselves, and we also blogged about the process of proecting them last year!

I hope you have enjoyed this and learnt something in my first blog. I plan to write more of these so keep an eye on the blog for more gardens news!

Ian's apprenticeship is funded by The Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

Hot Stuff at the Horniman

Wes, our Head of Horticulture, shows us how the Gardens team got on when they tried growing some of the hottest chillies around.

Growing chillies is cool. It’s easy, and loads of fun, especially if they’re the proper hot ones!

Earlier in the year the Gardens team at the Horniman ordered a selection of seeds to grow our own plants, including the notorious ‘Trinidad Scorpion’ and the evil ‘Carolina Reaper’, currently the hottest varieties in the world. Gardens Keeper Alex and I are particularly fond of a hot chilli so it was all for a bit of fun rather than producing a bespoke display for the Gardens.

Seeds were sown in March in a heated greenhouse, germination rates were good and they were then potted on into 3.5in pots, they grew well over the summer: chilli plants love heat, lots of sun and regular feeding, and as a result we grew some magnificent plants that produced a lot of fruit.

It was about this time we learnt about Spitalfields City Farm’s Annual Festival of Heat from Amy in our Learning team. Amy arranged for us to have a stall on the day and display some of our plants including the world’s hottest, the Carolina Reaper. The idea was to showcase our plants and advise visitors how to grow and care for theim. We also wanted to know if there were any brave volunteers to try some fruit....there weren’t, apart from Gardens Keeper Alex who took one for the team - literally!

It was a great day and really well organised event by the guys at Spitalfields.

In October we harvested all our remaining fruit and Horniman Café Chef Jason is producing our very own chilli chutney which will be available to buy in the Café and at our Farmers’ Market held every Saturday on the Bandstand Terrace.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Dazzling Dawson's Heights

Local author John Grindrod reflects a little on the East Dulwich estate which dominates the view from the Horniman's Bandstand Terrace.

If you enjoy the view from Horniman Museum Gardens you may have been wondering about those blocks of flats. You know, the staggered brick ones with Wembley on one side, and St Paul’s Cathedral on the other.

This East Dulwich estate of almost 300 flats is called Dawson’s Heights. It was designed by young Scottish architect Kate Macintosh, and built between 1964 and 1972.

Its futuristic ‘streets in the sky’ design and stepped ‘ziggurat’ shape is unique. Kate Macinosh wanted both to echo the shape of the hill rather than build a typical square block here, and to create a landmark, rather like a castle.

Cutbacks at the time meant that all the flats weren’t allowed balconies, but Kate was determined to give each of them some outside space. And so as well as their communal garden she made sure each flat has a fire escape – which, for some, sneakily doubles as a balcony too.

Some people might begrudge Dawson’s Heights’ place on the horizon, but I love it. Not only is it a monument to space-age sixties cool, it’s a reminder of a time before London became such an expensive city to live in, and when the council were still trying to build affordable, imaginative and good quality homes for everyone.

To find out more about Dawson’s Heights I’d recommend tracking down the film Utopia London. You can find out more about Dawson's Heights on the Utopia London website.

John Grindrod is a Forest Hill local and author of the book Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain.

Soundmaps and Spectograms in the Horniman Gardens

Last week, the Horniman's Youth Panel took to the Gardens to create a sound map inspired by Bernie Krause's recordings of animal orchestras from around the world.

We started off the session with a sneak preview of the Great Animal Orchestra exhibition, which opened at the Horniman on Sunday.

Then we headed outside, tasked with discovering the quietest spot in the Horniman Gardens. The challenge? To see if we could find anywhere where you could hear only natural sounds, and nothing manmade.

Using their knowledge of the Gardens, the Youth panel picked the spots where we might have the best chance, sticking to the Northern side of the Gardens in order to keep away from the noise of London's busy South Circular road.

The first stop was next to the Animal Walk, where the Horniman's Pygmy Goats certainly created a lot of noise, but since these are domesticated animals, was this natural? In any case, there was quite a bit of manmade noise here, from planes flying over to people picnicking.

Many of the Youth Panel chose to record the sounds by drawing a visual representation, taking inspiration from Great Animal Orchestra, where the pitches of different animal noises are displayed in a colourful 'spectogram'.

How would you record the pitch and volume of a bleating goat?

We moved on to the South Downs, creating a 'sound circle' (there was a collective groan) and sitting in silence for 3 minutes to carefully listen and record for any sounds around us.

Beth, our Youth Coordinator, may have been distracted by an overly-friendly moth.

Lots of natural sounds on the South Downs, but they were still overpowered by the noise of traffic an particularly sirens in the distance.

Next stop was the Meadow Field, the quietest place so far.

Another discussion struck up - was the noise of a ring-necked parakeet natural? The consensus was no, since it was an introduced species.

Our last stop was in the far north corner of the Gardens, tucked away by the end of the Nature Trail. The unanimous decision was that this was the quietest place to be found in the Gardens, provided you didn't catch a particularly rowdy game of football in the old boating pond.

By the end of the evening we had quite a collection of hand drawn spectograms, each representing 3 minutes of sound.

Youth can see the full collection of spectograms in the Youth Panel's Flickr album.

Some people may have got a bit carried away with spectogramming.

Some members decided to record the sounds we heard in each spot. Here are Nick's recordings:

Thanks to the Youth Panel for helping us create our own Horniman Sound Map and spectograms.

Stag Beetle Rescue

It's not every day you get to handle rare wildlife, but a few of our staff members got to do just that as they helped an impressive male stag beetle out of a sticky situation.

Our troubled insect was first spotted crawling between the cacti in our new Extremes Garden display.

Stag beetles spend most of their life as larvae, hidden in dead wood while they mature for up to 7 years. We already know they live in our Gardens, as larvae and adult beetles have been spotted down on the Nature Trail although it is rare to see them out in the open.

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the beetle is trailing a piece of matted hair or cotton. Although we didn't notice at first, the material was tangled around the beetle's legs.

It wasn't long before he found himself attached to one of the spikey specimens planted in the gravel, leaving him vulnerable to any passing predators. Animal Assistant Rhianna jumped in with some scissors to cut him free.

The material was firmly attached to the beetle's joints with dried mud, tying its legs together and making it impossible to walk. Rhianna carefully picked it off piece by piece to avoid damaging the delicate legs underneath.

Having the beetle in our hands meant an excellent opportunity for some passing visitors to get a close look at this rare animal, and talk a little about the species.

After making sure he was now able to walk freely (and after everyone managed to get their photographs) we planned to leave beetle in a safer spot with a little more cover.

However, he had other ideas, and quickly took himself off in the air.

Hopefully to stay away from sticky mud and dangerous human rubbish.

If you think you've spotted a stag beetle in our Gardens, or anywhere else in London, be sure to fill in London Wildlife Trust's Stag Beetle Survey. The trust provides lots of information about how to recognise these beetles, their importance to wild habitat in Britain and what's being done to protect them.

Building the Extremes Garden

Wes, our  Head of Horticulture, lets us know what went in to creating our new outdoor showcasing exploring plants with some amazing adaptations to extremely arid environments.

The big challenge to build our Extremes Garden was to find suitable plants to display, as they are not the type that can be picked up in your local garden centre, and we needed something especially striking as a centre piece.

Fortunately my old mate David Cooke, manager of Kew Gardens' Temperate House helped us out, and loaned a Giant African Cycad, Encephalartos altenstenii.

Cycads are amazing plants that survived when the dinosaurs inhabited the planet; they actually predate the evolution of flowering plants and produce cones rather than flowers as reproductive structures.

Glasshouse manager Kate Pritchard from Oxford Botanic Gardens also kindly loaned us two lovely Organ Pipe Cactus that have also made a big visual impact on the garden.

Other plants came from Southfields specialist cacti nursery; gold medal winners at Chelsea this year. The amazing Architectural Plants Nursery in Horsham also provided us with a nice selection.

We paid a visit to a private nursery/collection owned by Cacti expert John Pilbeam (Connoisseurs' Cacti) to source the remaining smaller specimens.

After a lot of deliberation we positioned the plants. They were planted in their pots because they are only going to be on display until September (when they will need to be moved inside for the Winter) so it saved disturbing their root balls which cacti in particular don’t appreciate.

We then laid a weed-suppressing membrane around the plants and over the surface of the bed, creating a patchwork between the plants.

We then mulched with 5 bulk bags of decorative stone, to give the display its arid/desert look.

The display only really took the highly skilled Gardens team 2 days to install, and we are very pleased with the results.

Desert inspiration for an Extreme Garden

If you've visited our Gardens this week, you may have noticed a new display near the Animal WalkExtremes Garden showcases the amazing adaptations plants have made to survive some of the most extreme conditions on earth, with cacti and succulents from exceptionally hot environments.

Wes, Head of Horticulture at the Horniman, has shared some of his American inspiration for creating this new display.

In April this year I travelled to the Mexican peninsular of Baja California with a friend and self-confessed cacti freak. This would be Part 2 of an expedition begun in June 2013 when we travelled through the Sonoran Desert in the South Western States of the USA looking at species of cacti and succulent plants growing in their natural habitat.

The Sonoran Desert also covers areas of Northern Mexico, and is home to an even broader range of desert plants that we had yet to see, so we felt we had unfinished business and headed back earlier this year.

The plan was to travel the length of the peninsular as far as the town of Loreto, looking at various locations that my travelling companion Andrew Gdaniec, Curator of the Alameda Botanic Garden in Gibraltar had researched and found locations for.

The first highlight was to find the closely guarded location of the hedgehog cactus Echinocereus lindsayi. Andrew had acquired GPS coordinates of this very rare plant, and we had to travel off-road to the foot of rocky outcrop where we spotted flowers from our jeep. In the end we only found 12 or so of these plants so were very lucky.

Desert landscapes can be quite varied. While most people think of rolling sand dunes, the North American deserts are quite different.

We also saw some truly monster plants. One that dominated much of the landscape was the Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, which is only found in Baja. It is the world’s biggest cactus, growing up to 20m in height and weighing 20-25 tonnes. These are very long lived species and some of the large ones we saw were probably 500 + years old.

Succulents are plants that sometimes look like cacti, and they have similar water saving adaptations, but because of botanical differences (cacti have structures called areoles, which succulents do not) they are not classed as cacti. But they are no less impressive!

Along with amazing plants, there is also a lot of animal life to look out for in the desert. Highlights we came across include rattle snakes, big scary looking spiders, lizards, scorpions, vultures and coyotes. Grey whales also overwinter in the lagoons off of the coast.

This trip and our earlier one proved to be inspiration for the new display that the Gardens team have just finished installing. It is designed to complement the temporary Extremes exhibition in the Museum, and is designed  to show visitors how plants can survive in extreme habitats through some amazing adaptations. We hope you like it!


Sprucing up the Wildlife Garden

Our Learning team have let us know how they've been getting the Wildlife Garden ready for the new season.

Spring is in the air and summer is just around the corner so it was that time again for the Learning team to spruce up the Wildlife Garden for the upcoming term.

We run very popular minibeast safari workshops with children who visit the Wildlife Garden to hunt for bugs and find out about the sustainable ways we can help the environment.

First things first: we had to clean out our pond. It’s made from a recycled bath: using old containers like this is an easy way to make a pond in a small space and it doesn’t stop it being filled with wildlife. After removing all the weed, which can take up too much oxygen for other animals and plants, we found a family of newts hiding in the bottom!

We kept these amphibians out of the way while we worked and when we'd finished made sure they were put safely back into their home.

Our wildflower meadow was quite overgrown with goose grass, so we pulled this up and re-planted with a variety of colourful wildflower plugs specially chosen to attract bees and butterflies in the summer, including wild marjoram, oxeye daisies and yarrow.

The Minibeast hotel was already a riot of colour with Aubreia and snap-dragons, but we added more colour across the garden with primroses and pansies to provide nectar for bugs and bees. These were planted up in the minibeast mansion, old boots and buckets - the garden is now looking bright and ready for summer!

School and community groups can book to use the wildlife garden by contacting us, and keep an eye out through the summer for special event days when the Wildlife Garden is open to all to come and explore.

For further information contact the Gardens Learning and Interpretation Officer, Amy Wedderburn at awedderburn@horniman.ac.uk.

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