If plants could talk...: At the Oxford Botanic Garden, Emma Townshend learns that behind every Fair Trade crop lies an inspiring human story

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The Independent Online

Oxford Botanic Garden is one of the most exquisite botanic gardens in the world. It's also one of the oldest; medicinal herbs have been grown here since 1621. To reach it, you cross an ancient bridge, then pass under a high, carved gateway - preferably on foot, because you can't park a car anywhere nearby. The garden itself, set away from the busy shopping streets of the town, has a palpable sense of order and quiet retreat. And that goes for the plants and animals, as well as the human visitors; I saw a goldcrest, a coal tit and a treecreeper, all perched in a single tree, enjoying the winter sunshine.

Oxford may be a city of sleepy academe, but it's also the city where both Oxfam and Radiohead were born, so we shouldn't be too surprised that during Fair Trade Fortnight (26 February to 11 March), Oxford Botanic Garden will be donning its most right-on hat and mounting displays in its hothouses.

This is down to Emma Williams, the garden's education officer, who has worked hard to bring town and garden together. She has collaborated on outreach projects, taking plants and crops grown in the garden out into the community, working with school-age patients at the John Radcliffe hospital, and with residents of the notoriously newsworthy Blackbird Leys estate. 'For Black History Month,' she explains, 'we had people picking up the sugar cane, saying how they remembered when they were children, using cane for a toothbrush. It was amazing how many memories it touched. People really connected with the tropical plants they remembered from childhood.'

For Fair Trade Fortnight, each productive plant in the hothouses is signposted with the life story of a single Fair Trade grower. Now, when I say 'the hothouses', don't imagine anything too enormous - the tropical house is not much bigger than a suburban double garage. But what it lacks in space, it makes up for in oomph; it is thickly planted, with hardly a square inch of soil to be seen, and has a wonderfully jungly feel.

Coffee, cocoa, oranges, bananas - for each, Williams has picked a grower whose photo appears beside their crop. Thus, Fair Trade bananas are suddenly personified by the smiling face of Ana from Ecuador. Ana gets up at 4am every harvest day to make breakfast, before heading out to her small banana fields. She and her husband belong to a cooperative of about 100 growers, currently the only one in Ecuador; more Fair Trade customers in the UK would mean a bigger market for their crops, enabling Ana and her husband to set aside more money for their children's education. Fair Trade isn't just about paying farmers more, though. The organisation also demands that growers recycle more, that organic waste is composted, and that many fewer chemicals are used on the crop.

Back in Oxford, I am taking a whistlestop tour of global agriculture. 'It's the world's smallest paddy field!' announces Williams proudly, as she shows me a line of individual rice plants at the edge of the waterlily pond. Grown in pots, with their rice grains still in their husks, delicately ranged along the stems, the plants are beautiful. It's easy to be amazed at the thought of food production, and all that we take for granted, when you are presented with the actual plant. And the faces of individuals remind us that it is simply luck that we live in a country where thinking about food is an after-work ponder, rather than a daily necessity.

But, as Williams reminds me, it's not just about food. 'You can even get Fair Trade pants from M&S,' she laughs. 'And socks. The cotton is grown by farmers who are guaranteed to be paid more fairly for their work.' Look carefully, and there are Oxford's cotton plants, nestling in a corner of the glasshouse, waiting to tell their story. For Williams, it's key to learn to look at what's there. In her work with children, she encourages them to draw them so they look harder at the plants, or sets a quiz where they have to find many different shapes of leaf. The quiet attention to detail allows you to really marvel at what you see. This is what Fair Trade Fortnight wants us to understand: that someone, somewhere, has spent their day labouring so that we can eat.

The glasshouses are being redesigned and planted, one by one, by their curator, Kate Pritchard. Pritchard clearly has a real eye for how things look, as well as ridiculously green fingers. Every detail of the hothouses has been considered, with unusual materials used to make flooring and construct containers. The insectivorous plants sit in beds constructed from a fallen oak belonging to the garden; in the fern house, a stone floor traces out the shape of an unfurling frond. It's a perfect environment to consider the serious message of the fortnight - put best by Manuel, a cocoa farmer from the Dominican Republic: 'We work hard at the cocoa,' is Manuel's message to consumers. 'My prayer is you consider the work we've putinto it!'

Oxford Botanic Garden is open 9am to 4.30pm daily, tel: 01865 286 690. For more information on Fair Trade Fortnight, see www.fairtrade.org.uk

If you do one thing... chit your potatoes

if you are tempted by the seed potatoes in the shops, remember that even though they don't need planting straight away, they will start sprouting in storage. So get them out of the bag and 'chit' them - leave them in a cool, but frost-free place, like a porch, or just inside a back door, to begin sending out shoots. Arrange them so that the end with most eyes is pointing upwards, to give them a head start. Then just wait for the little dark shoots to head towards the light.

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