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SEMINAR REVIEW: “Urban horticulture – a German perspective”

27 April 2016

Contributed by Dr Jennifer Hiscox (Organisms and Environment (OnE), RSG representative)

Seminar review: Urban horticulture – a German perspective by Prof Dr Dr Christian Ulrichs (Humboldt University Berlin)

Gardening, and especially growing your own fruit and veg, is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, with demand for allotments sky-rocketing. As a keen (although dreadful) gardener myself, I was intrigued by the title of Prof Ulrichs’ talk (OnE seminar series, 21/04/16).

nature-flowers-white-plantsProf Ulrichs’ research focuses on the utility of plants in different settings, from food production to air filtration. He began by comparing the attitudes towards gardens between different countries, and despite a resurgence in interest in grow-your-own in the UK and western Europe, the majority of us still view gardens as predominantly recreational spaces for growing flowers etc. This is contrast to eastern European countries where the kitchen garden dominates. This pattern was reflected in the difference in garden usage in west vs. east Berlin post-WWII. Modern day Berlin is a very ‘green’ city, with lots of eco entrenpeneurs, public enthusiasm for maintaining green spaces, and Prof Ulrichs showed lots of examples of urban gardening initiatives. However, crop production in cities is challenging in many ways, and one of the major concerns is the effects of heightened air pollution. Prof Ulrichs’ lab recently compared levels of several pollutants in plants grown near busy roads in central Berlin. Those closest to the road showed increased concentrations of lead, especially in fruits. Further, they showed that exposure to even low concentrations of pollutants in a lab setting decreased plant growth, and hence productivity. This was especially concerning for one audience member, who told me afterwards that he has an allotment next to Western Avenue which sees some of the heaviest traffic in Cardiff. However, other types (or regions) of plants didn’t accumulate significantly higher pollutants in their experiments, so tubers may be a safer bet than soft fruit if your garden is close to a road.

pexels-photo-68761Another interest of Prof Ulrichs’ is the use of plants to improve air quality. Volatile organic compounds emitted by printers and photocopiers, as well as building materials themselves, puts anyone who spends a lot of time in the office in danger of ‘sick building syndrome’. Plants can filter these compounds out of the air (I can’t remember the stat Prof Ulrichs showed sorry) but a single Spathyphyllum plant is capable of rapidly clearing the air of certain pollutants. Their lab is currently testing the ability of several types of plants to improve air quality in their Maths department offices – but as this work is currently ongoing I can’t give you a list of plants he recommends sorry! After the talk I did have a quick google and came across the NASA clean air study ( and went and bought myself a couple of Spathyphyllums on the way home. So we’ll be breathing cleaner air in the office from now on… if I can keep them alive, that is…

If you would like to connect with Prof Ulrichs work and outputs a good point of call is his ResearchGate profile –

About the contributor:

Jen Hiscox is a NERC funded Research Associate working in the Organisms and Environment division. Her current research focuses on fungal community dynamics and decomposition in woodland ecosystems. In particular, she is interested in the processes governing succession in wood decay fungi and the effects on decay and carbon cycling.

More about her career and work can be found at:

Jen’s BIOSI staff page

ResearchGate –