Kevin Martin is the Tree Manager at RBG, Kew. A quietly spoken but thoughtful character, he is responsible for managing a collection of some 14,000 trees, many dating from the days before the Gardens were a botanical oasis. His work is varied and diverse. I caught up with him to find out about his role, and how his journey began.
It was perhaps inevitable that Kevin would work with trees; both his father and grandfather worked with trees, as foresters. He was climbing almost before he learnt to walk, and studied for his National Diploma in Arboriculture on leaving school. He then spent a decade as an arborist, climbing trees to prune, working in a demanding commercial environment. It was then that his wife, Laura, saw a job advertisement for a lead arborist at RBG, Kew. The Curator of the Grounds was keen to get someone in to lead the team and bring focus to operations. Kevin recalls being surprised to be called to interview, and even more to be offered the job.
Less than six months later, after an accident involving one of the Cedar trees, the need to have someone to focus on managing the tree resource was recognised. Kevin was offered the role. He has not looked back. He was soon surveying the collection of trees, identifying those needing more urgent work and exploring the condition of some of the older trees. He has developed an encyclopeadic knowledge of the site, such that when someone claimed their car windscreen had been broken by a falling branch, he questioned where the incident had happened. He soon established that there were no trees in the vicinity and it was a bogus claim!
The formation of botanical gardens is often linked to the adventures of plant hunters, and for Kevin, it wasn’t long before he was invited to join a tour, to Japan. He travelled as the climber and was soon climbing trees to locate seeds hidden away in the upper branches. Later on, he was invited to lead a team visiting the British Virgin Islands to help with recovery following damage from hurricane. He arrived to find fallen trees across the island, roads closed and unsafe trees by homes. A very busy few days followed as the team worked to clear roads and Kevin juggled this with safety assessments.
Managing the trees at Kew presents Kevin with some challenges. Many trees are of historic, botanical or scientific value, and retaining these trees is important, whether they are in good vigour or not. One of the issues Kevin faces is loss of vigour due to compaction. He shares an example of this with the ……. This tree, one of the founding trees at the collection, had been showing signs of stress for some years. This was thought to be due to the age of the tree. It was in a border with gravel, and attracted many visitors.
Kevin decided to explore. One day, he and colleagues got wheel barrows and shovels together and cleared the gravel. There were nearly two tonnes of the material. Under this was a mulch mat and below that, the soil was dry and lifeless. Kevin observed at the time that he could almost hear the soil breathing as the weight was lifted from it. The ground was forked over and a level of composted mulch applied. The results were almost palpable. The tree was soon producing new leaves and in good vigour. This has become a case study to be used for other stressed trees within the Gardens.
Kevin has identified numerous trees across the site suffering from compaction, and he has been able to apply the technique of aeration to encourage new growth. To encourage visitors to explore away from these trees, benches are more to more suitable positions and grass is left growing longer. This seems to be working. Not only can he monitor the response of trees to such management techniques, he can also assess how newly planted trees become established, being in a position to record growth and vigour. There is opportunity to explore the use of different growing media, and the response of a range of species.
One of the exciting aspects of Kevin’s work is that he gets to explore and experiment. In 2019, two projects were launched at the Gardens, both involving construction, and both involving activities close to trees. Kevin found himself in the unique position of being both consultant and client. He was able to design the schemes and supervise construction works. He designed a training programme to explain to contractors why the trees matter and how to work with them. It is an experience he can look back on fondly, but there were challenging moments, especially with one of the teams that regularly brought in new contractors, who needed careful supervision!
Christmas is, for many of us, a busy time of preparation. Spare a thought for Kevin, whose team spends two weeks installing a network of lights throughout two prominent Cedars. These are lit up for visitors to a Christmas extravaganza in the run-up to Christmas. For Kevin, it is just one of the challenges he faces.
2020 brought fresh challenges for the team at Kew. Lockdown meant the regular flow of visitors stopped. This reduced the pressures of compaction from visitors, with some trees already showing the benefits. It also resulted in members of his team being furloughed and Kevin’s already busy schedule getting busier.
2020 and lockdown gave many people time to pause and reflect, and new ideas are emerging from this. One, for Kevin, is a research collaboration measuring the movement of trees in windy conditions. Having access to 14,000 trees and the kit to measurement their movement, Kevin is well-placed to explore this topic in more detail.
One thing is for sure: Kevin flows with ideas and RBG Kew provides him with the idea platform to explore. Each month, Kevin will be sharing with us more on Life At Kew.
ONLY £3 every month (for less than the price of a coffee!)
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