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A Winning Design for Education

Number 8 - October 1993

J. Vos

At Utrecht University Botanic Gardens our primary aim is to grow plants for scientific education, research and conservation. We also aim, however, to use the plants for general education and recreation. The 'theme-garden' project, presented here, is an example of how a garden can be designed for education yet still have its roots in science.

The Start of the Project

Over the last few years there has been a shift in emphasis in our education work, from working solely with scientific groups to working more and more with the general public. As both groups have very different needs we decided to to cater for this by designing a new garden at Fort Hoofddijk (see illustration 1).

We began by forming a working-group which consisted of representatives from the;

  • Faculty of Biology (Plant systematics, Botanical Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Didactics)
  • Pharmacology Department
  • Veterinary Department and
  • Biology department of the 'Hogeschool Midden Nederland' (vocational training for teachers).

We then drew up a list which included the groups' desires for the garden and the requirements of the general public. The list was then divided into themes and terms:


  • Adaptation: to illustrate the importance of biodiversity
  • Medicinal plants: to illustrate that a large proportion of plants are used in the production of medicine
  • Useful plants: to also includes wild ancestors of modern agricultural varieties.
  • Wild species of the temperate region: to be shown preferably in an 'ecological' setting.


  • The design must fit a predetermined area of approximately 8000 mý
  • Changing a theme must be easy, without causing any disturbance to the original design
  • The entire garden must be easy to maintain
  • The entire garden must be accessible for people with a functional disability.

No terms were set for the budget as we believed that any good idea would eventually be affordable through sponsorship. This list of themes and terms was used as the guide-lines for the garden design contest.

The Garden Design Contest

The contest was advertised in several magazines with the aim of attracting as a wide range of entries as possible. We were interested mainly in obtaining good ideas rather than elaborate drawings.

In total 24 designs were submitted to the jury. The objective was for the jury to judge the competition with reference to the guide-lines laid down. The jury was also asked to note any excessive costs in the designs.

The jury consisted of 13 people and was divided into 4 groups of three with a chairperson. Each group was asked to concentrate on one aspect of the design:

  • themes
  • realisation and maintenance
  • artistic quality
  • accessibility (for groups and disabled)

Each design was given a certain number of points per aspect. Following the first round, the five designs with most points were put through a second round to decide the winners.

There were three prizes:
3rd prize (Dfl 1000,-) donated by the Biology Faculty of Utrecht University
2nd prize (Dfl 2500,-) donated by Grontmij
1st prize (Dfl 5000,-) donated by Rabo-bank Utrecht

The first prize also included the realisation of the design.

The Winning Design

The winning garden design was called 'Windgong', named after one of the adaptations used in the garden for disabled people - the Wind-chime. The garden presents the themes in four separate areas (see illustration 2). Although the themes are not rigidly restricted and can be interwoven into several areas.

  • The first area (1) is dedicated to useful plants. Raised beds are used to show plants which are planted in larger areas behind these raised beds.
  • The second area (2) shows how vegetation changes in gradient from a wet to dry habitat. The area is built on a slope starting at 0.5 m below water level and running to 3.00 m above water level.
  • The third area (3) is reserved for pharmaceutical plants.
  • The fourth area (4) contains wild plants, occurring in different Dutch landscapes.

Adaptations for disabled visitors play an important part in the design. Raised beds bring plants into the reach of the visitors. With the correct choice of plants, visitors are able to touch them. The design also includes large-scale models of flowers and stems accompanied by short texts, in braille and large script. Although primarily for partially sighted people, such models and texts are very instructive for everybody. A pilot test is in progress to try out several of these adaptations.

Educational Goals of the Theme-garden.

  • For visitors to have contact with plants. We want to allow and encourage them to touch and smell plants.
  • To serve as an educational tool for science. Students in Biology, Pharmacy and Veterinary Science have to be able to use the garden.
  • To show different aspects of plants, often in a way which is not normally shown. We do not have to restrain ourselves to small numbers of plants to illustrate a theme.
  • To use special adaptations for disabled visitors, particularly for blind and partially sighted visitors. These adaptations will also serve as 'eye-openers' for fully sighted people. The models and bas-reliefs will draw attention to details which many visitors normally overlook.

Realisation of the Theme-garden.

The cost of the project is estimated at DFl 500.000 - the greater part of which has come from sponsors. Fortunately the unique character of the project has interested various sponsors, including several commercial institutions and a major sponsor in the field of disabled people. Their contributions together with the funding from Utrecht University has made this project possible.

We began the lay-out of the garden in March 1993. We plan to complete it in 1994 at which stage we will carry out tests to see whether we need to change the choice of plants or the adaptations for disabled people. In 1994 we will also test and develop various education programmes. The official opening of the garden will be in the spring of 1995.