Tales from Titch­marsh

It’s tempt­ing to buy cheap plants on­line or bring back cut­tings from hol­i­days, but the con­se­quences could be dire,

Gardeners' World - - Contents - warns Alan

We come back from our hol­i­days with cut­tings of this and that in our sponge bags, un­aware that we may be bring­ing in a pest or dis­ease that could dev­as­tate our land­scape

Where do you buy your plants? For­give my im­per­ti­nence, but it’s rather more im­por­tant than you might think. Per­haps, like me, you buy lo­cally when you can or from spe­cial­ist nurs­eries that you know and trust, but then oc­ca­sion­ally suc­cumb to the temptations of the in­ter­net? With spe­cial­ist nurs­eries, the chances are they’ll have grown the plants them­selves with care and at­ten­tion. Larger, re­spectable lo­cal gar­den cen­tres tend to buy in their stock, but if they are re­spectable, they’ll make sure the plants are healthy and dis­ease-free. But over the in­ter­net? This is where things be­come a lit­tle more com­pli­cated. Many trust­wor­thy grow­ers sell via the in­ter­net and it has be­come the norm to buy plants in this way. But the in­ter­net is also crammed with ‘bed­room nurs­eries’, which aren’t nurs­eries at all. Any­one with a com­puter and an eye for a fast buck can set them­selves up as a nurs­ery. They can de­sign a web­site to show pic­tures of plants they’ve lifted, not from the ground but from other web­sites. They’ll quote a price (prob­a­bly a rea­son­able one, for they’ll have trawled the dark­est re­cesses of the in­ter­net to find cheap stock, re­gard­less of its ori­gin or health). You will be tempted and you will buy – we all have – but you may un­wit­tingly be lay­ing not only your own gar­den open to hith­erto un­known and dev­as­tat­ing pests and dis­eases, but also the en­tire coun­try. If you haven’t yet heard of Xylella fas­tid­iosa [see Nov 2017 is­sue], you soon will. It’s a bac­terium, and a vir­u­lent one at that. It at­tacks not just one type of plant but many, some of the prime hosts be­ing olives, cher­ries, laven­ders, rose­maries, hebes and figs. The dis­ease is al­ready present in parts of Spain and Italy, as well as in other pock­ets of Europe. It causes leaf scorch and ul­ti­mately kills the plant, and the threat it poses to our gar­dens and land­scape is im­mense. The horticultural industry – which in­cludes ar­bori­cul­ture, con­ser­va­tion bod­ies, forestry, land­scap­ing and re­spon­si­ble re­tail out­lets – is tak­ing ac­tion to con­tain the dis­ease. This in­cludes quar­an­tin­ing im­ported trees and re­fus­ing to im­port plants from coun­tries and ar­eas where the dis­ease al­ready has a foothold, in the hope of pre­vent­ing or at least de­lay­ing and re­duc­ing the likely im­pact of its ar­rival in the UK. But with ‘bed­room nurs­eries’ be­yond our con­trol, how can we hope to have ev­ery port of en­try cov­ered? In a world of open bor­ders, free travel and more in­ter­na­tional to-ing and fro-ing than at any time in his­tory, it’s fiendishly dif­fi­cult to pre­vent the en­try of pests and dis­eases that threaten the very ex­is­tence of the plants we rely on for food and to beau­tify our land­scape. Aus­tralia and New Zea­land have strin­gent mea­sures in place, such as pro­hibit­ing the im­por­ta­tion of plants whose roots are grow­ing in soil – they must be bare root or in a ster­ile medium. Ev­ery air­craft is dis­in­fected on land­ing. No plant ma­te­rial or food prod­ucts can be brought in by tourists, and hefty fines or im­pris­on­ment are the penalty for de­fy­ing the law. And what do we do? We come back from our hol­i­days with cut­tings of this and that in our sponge bags, un­aware that we may be bring­ing in a pest or dis­ease that could dev­as­tate our land­scape. The oak pro­ces­sion­ary moth is be­lieved to have come to Bri­tain as eggs on a sin­gle im­ported oak sapling that should never have slipped through the net. This pest de­fo­li­ates oak trees, and can cause sore throats and skin rashes in hu­mans. Ef­forts are un­der way to stamp it out, but that’s only the start. There are over 900 pests and dis­eases on the UK Chief Plant Health Of­fi­cer’s ‘threat’ list. So we must all be vig­i­lant, and we must en­cour­age and as­sist govern­ment bod­ies and all as­pects of the horticultural and forestry in­dus­tries in their en­deav­ours to min­imise the risk from im­port­ing plant ma­te­rial from in­fected lands. We need bet­ter im­port con­trols and a sys­tem of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion – like the lion logo on Bri­tish Lion eggs – that shows us we’re buy­ing plants whose life his­tory is known and whose health has been mon­i­tored. Right now, we must buy only from sources we be­lieve in. Ask a few ques­tions if you aren’t sure – and keep your sponge bag for your tooth­brush.

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