How to re-sow the seeds of excellence
SINCE last summer, the term ‘horticulture’ has been appearing in the news with unwonted frequency. ‘What,’ ask politicians, pundits and business owners, ‘will become of this vital UK industry without a supply of cheap labour from EU member nations?’ Their concern, however, is for the commercial production of crops, not for the ornamental plants that, for millions of Britons, the term ‘horticulture’ rightly brings to mind.
The word’s unhappy semantic shift, from meaning gardening in its broadest sense to the specific role of market gardening, is symptomatic of a problem that was grave long before any talk of Brexit. For the past few decades, our ornamental plant nurseries have been embattled and diminishing, but their decline seems counterintuitive. More of the population is gardening and with a wider range of varieties than at any previous time in our history. Demand for plants is immense and soaring.
The reasons for the demise of our nurseries are easy to understand. Land has become unfeasibly expensive, as have heating, essential materials, training and retaining workers, taxes and loans. They also struggle with unwieldy regulation and, in consequence, British nurseries have not been able to compete in price with the imported plants that now dominate at garden centres. These are plants shipped from EU states in which land and labour are cheaper and governments grow their garden industries through apprenticeships, grants, tax concessions and favourable fees for utilities.
Successive UK governments have not countenanced that kind of essential support. As a result, many of our nurseries have closed and others have needed to relocate plant production to more economically advantageous sites on the Continent.
To return to the narrow definition newly imposed on ‘horticulture’, some might say that it properly reflects priorities; that cabbages trump roses in these just-aboutmanaging days. But this would be to miss out on major business and employment opportunities, not to mention the goodwill of vast numbers of voters. Until recently, Britain led the world in ornamental horticulture. Plants arrived here from all over the planet to be studied, cultivated, propagated, developed and bred. They gave us gardens of infinite variety and we exported them, in turn becoming gardening’s global generator and clearing house.
There is no basis for saying that this glory, like that of some heavy industries, must now be behind us. British plant explorers and connoisseurs continue to introduce desirable species. British breeders still produce cultivars of peerless excellence ( page 56). The proportion of Britons who garden is higher than that of any other nation. We have the largest and most flourishing gardening organisation in the RHS. And, despite all, we still have some outstanding old nurseries and exciting new concerns.
This is our passion, expertise and industry. It deserves help, not only to supplant EU imports, but to become a world leader again. Now is the moment for our leaders to learn the true meaning and value of horticulture.
Pinehurst II, Pinehurst Road, Farnborough Business Park, Farnborough, Hampshire GU14 7BF Telephone 01252 555072 www.countrylife.co.uk