How to re-sow the seeds of ex­cel­lence

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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