If you’ve ever brought a specific plant-related question to staff or volunteers at the Garden, it’s likely that you’ve been directed to start or continue your search at UBC Botanical Garden Forums.
This hub for plant experts and enthusiasts celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer, and founder Daniel Mosquin (Garden Research Manager), discusses the history and importance of this digital resource for plant-lovers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
What is UBC Botanical Garden Forums?
Founded in 2001, UBC Botanical Garden Forums is a free online space for science-based plant and gardening enthusiasts from anywhere in the world to connect and ask questions about plants. Over 20 years, the Forums has become a living repository of plant knowledge, with topics varying from plant identification to all types of gardening to celebrating biodiversity.
Currently, the Garden Forums hold over 72,000 discussions containing over 380,000 posts. In its most popular years, some months saw around 200 posts per day. With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering people inside with more time to pursue gardening, interest has resurged in the Forums. This year is likely to become one of the most popular in the Forums’ history.
Why was the UBC Botanical Garden Forums created?
I spoke with Daniel, the creator of the Garden Forums, over Zoom. Daniel is a quiet but generous person, with a keen eye and a wry sense of humour. We caught up on our respective pandemic situations, shared how we slogged through the recent heatwave, and reflected upon how UBC’s recent return-to-work order will likely upset his cat’s routines. Having worked remotely for the past year and a half, it was nice to catch up with someone I would normally see in the office.
In a way, the Garden Forums grew out of a similar need to connect and continue conversations online.
When people emailed or brought in questions, Garden staff faced time challenges in answering repetitive queries.
“The Forums began as a place where we could store answers,” Daniel says. With the Forums, users can easily post a question, and other users and Forum volunteers can respond in moments. This interaction then becomes searchable in the Forums and on search engines, so folks with similar inquiries can look them up. The discussions can also grow into long conversations between strangers interested in similar topics.
Forums are a familiar sight these days, but the Garden Forums had a predecessor even prior to the Internet. When Daniel arrived at the Garden in 2000, he remembers one of the first computers in the Garden being used by Jim McPhail (the Alpine Garden curator at that time) to host a Gardening Bulletin Board System, or BBS. Through this BBS, people could post messages from their own computers through dial-up connections.
BBS was popular for exchanging messages and playing turn-based games in the early to mid 1990s, until the rise of the Internet. In the new millennium, the Garden’s digital chat room found its new home in the World Wide Web. You can find the oldest surviving post, on “small potatos”, from July 25, 2001 on the Forums website.
Volunteers from all around the world have become part of the Forums — for five years, a volunteer from Ecuador provided their expertise on more tropical plants. Currently, there are many Forums volunteers from the United Kingdom and Washington state in the United States—places with ecosystems and climates similar to Vancouver’s.
Daniel estimates that the current Forum demographics consist of around 60% Western North American and 40% the rest of the world. “It’s a good mix,” he says. Local users learn more about plants and gardening from across the world, and nonlocal plant enthusiasts can learn more about the abundant biodiversity and gardening styles of the Pacific Northwest and similar areas.
Have the Forum discussions changed over the years?
While many are interested in learning about specific plants, ecosystems and biodiversity, gardening is a key active topic in the Forums. Indoor plants first became a big thing in the 1970s, and Daniel notes that this topic turned trendy again in the past couple years. Fittingly, “Indoor Plants” is the second most visited Forum section on the website.
In recent years, the Forums have seen emerging interest in regional and native plant gardening. Daniel credits the increase of community awareness about local biodiversity and wildlife and the value of growing native plants in gardens.
And even prior to the pandemic, inquiries about balcony, small space, and food plant gardening poured in from denizens of Vancouver and other dense cities. This is likely due to the escalating cost of housing — it’s no great revelation that people currently are facing house insecurity and challenges when buying homes with space for traditional gardens.
How have the Forum discussions changed in the pandemic?
During quarantine, interest in gardening has skyrocketed. Following suit, the Forums have seen a resurgence of engagement since 2020 and will likely have one of its best years in 2021. When you can’t get garden advice from experts in-person, gardening groups and forums can become crucial.
The Forums have also become a place for connection during quarantining and self-isolation. Take, for example, the popular discussion called “Take a walk on the wild side…..”. Ongoing from May 2020, this discussion boasts 18 pages of users sharing photos of interesting flora they’ve come across during walks as a way to provide new scenery for the community during quarantine.
What is driving the popularity of the Garden Forums?
From social media to AI-driven plant identification apps, there are many ways to get answers for planet-related questions. I ask Daniel how the Forums are holding its own against the myriad of informational resources out there, and why the Forums in particular are important.
Daniel answers with two seemingly disparate concepts: scientific knowledge and human connection.
Across the years, the constant throughout Garden Forum discussions is the interest in and promotion of scientific literacy. Alongside the wealth of knowledge provided by Garden staff and volunteers, the Forum also provides a platform to connect people to reputable resources from universities and organizations. People come to UBC Botanical Garden Forums to understand not just what to do, but to learn about the “how” of plants, nature and gardening.
Paired with that is a sense of community. “The Forums are moderated,” Daniel says. “Focus and safety are maintained. People feel welcome, and the moderators do an excellent job at keeping things focused. We are equipped to talk about plants and so we talk about plants.”
But plants can also connect us to our values and things we cherish in life.
For example, this past June, one user was looking for a rose that grew in Belgium that they knew was named after their relative. Their relative had been the last Canadian and Allied soldier to pass away during World War I, and so finding the rose was important to their family.
“It can be as much about the science as you want,” Daniel says, “but it still becomes a human story when you’re helping people.”
Who are the key people who make the Forums a success?
While Daniel is the mastermind behind the Forums, Garden staff members Douglas Justice (Associate Director, Horticulture & Collections) and Eric La Fountaine (Accessions Technician), have been instrumental in managing the Forums. Also key to moderating the Forums are Friends of UBC Botanical Garden (FOGs) alongside a core group of volunteers — Daniel calls them “super-helpers” — who provide a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge to keep conversations going.
“Without them, it wouldn’t be possible to run the Forums,” he says. ““I’m grateful to them.”
What will the Forums look like in the next 10 years?
If the Forums can persist the way they are, Daniel sees them continuing to be a voice of scientific literacy and gardening advocacy. Even with accurate plant identification apps on the rise, he is confident that the Forums can always provide something more.
“Computers and algorithms don’t do nuance well,” he says. The Garden Forums can provide that human touch, of going back and forth in deep conversation.
Forums will always be there for specialist cases, for those who want the nitty-gritty. As the culture of deep Internet conversation continues — across a variety of topics, from TV shows to global issues to gardening — there will always be those who want the details, the how’s, the when’s and the why’s. Because of our need for knowledge and connection, UBC Garden Forums seems to have a bright future ahead.
To commemorate the anniversary, Daniel took the time to share with the Garden staff and volunteers a detailed email full of the neat statistics, bits of history and ruminations on the value of the Forums today included in this feature. It is clear that the Garden staff and its community are dedicated to the Forums and the valuable conversations it holds and nurtures.
So, perhaps in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Garden Forums, we are also celebrating people’s unending interest in the world around them.
Submitted by: Shalini Nanayakkara, Marketing & Communications Assistant