What is our garden staff doing in lab coats?

Every day, the garden team at Utrecht University Botanic Gardens works in dark clothing. Usually a dark green shirt under a jacket, always fitted to the weather conditions. What are they suddenly doing indoors , in a white lab coat?

Gijs Steur is one of the Botanic Gardens' collection managers and a Biology lecturer. He teaches about the evolution and diversity of the plant kingdom, part of the first-year Bachelor's course Evolution and Biodiversity in Biology. Gijs enjoys talking about it: "This part of the subject is very interesting for my colleagues in the garden team. Now six colleagues joined the lectures and practicals. In one week, they receive a lecture, an E-learning module and two practicals. I teach the practicals together with my fellow collection managers Martin Smit and Anastasia Stefanaki. A 'field visit' to the Gardens is also included. This is when the garden team shares its own practical knowledge with the students.
Joris van Velthoven, head of the Evolution garden, says: "Indeed, you won't often find us in a laboratory, so this is special." Joris is at home like no other in the new evolution garden, which will be officially opened in 2025."

Connecting theory and practice

In addition to being a gardener, Joris is also a landscape designer. He helped design the upcoming evolution garden. "From the first day I worked here, I spent three years learning extensively from my predecessor Ton Weerenstein. He worked here for 50 years by the time he retired! For me, serving as a link between theory and practice is an important aspect of my work. In the Gardens, visitors see the results of that. Especially in the Evolution garden where we demonstrate our knowledge of plant theory in practice."

Because we follow the practicals together with students, we can better match our story to their knowledge

Joris van Velthoven
Head Evolution garden

Added value of educational cooperation

On the added value of joint education, Joris says: "The Evolution garden is very interesting for biology students, because here they see in practice what Gijs lectures about. Because we follow the practicals together with students, we can better match our story to their knowledge. By following the theory, we know better how to tailor the soil of the Evolution garden for certain plant groups, and we can make suggestions about the use of our plants in the practicals. For example, we have made certain fern plantings extra large, because they are used for practical material  every year."


Gijs elaborates on the content of the subject Evolution and Biodiversity: "I share the latest scientific knowledge on how plants came to exist. How did plants get from the sea, via freshwater, to land over millions of years of evolution? How did plants adapt continuously to live life on land? We address 11 key adaptations to life on land and how, we can use that knowledge to classify all current plants, some 500,000 species, into just five main groups. An example of new scientific insights is that Lycopophytes (a.k.a. lycopods)  and ferns are separate groups. Previously, they were recognised as one group based on external characteristics."

Joris reacts: "For the garden team, this in-depth knowledge is very relevant. For instance, how the  roots, leaves and vascular systems of plants have changed. We now know better what a particular plant needs. For example that mosses get all their nutrients from the air, and that in the Lycopophytes - evolutionarily the next step - a vascular system has developed, allowing exchange between soil and leaf."

Creating new Evolution garden

Joris is very happy with the new knowledge: "By taking this education, my teammates also know more about plant evolution and how that led to the five main groups. The latest insights will be tangible in the near future, as they contain information about general preferences in growing conditions, which we can also apply when constructing the new Evolution Garden. With the additional knowledge, we can answer many general questions from our visitors. In short: with this knowledge, we can do our work in the garden even better."