Is the UK Horticultural Industry Culpable of Damaging the UK Landscape Now and in the Future?

Several years ago, whilst working in a large estate and garden in Cornwall, we had an outbreak of Phytophothora ramorum. It had infected 3 Rhododendron shrubs, which were all special cultivars. All three were beside footpaths or a road and all three had evidence of someone taking cuttings from the shrubs. The estate was not alone in this and nearby outbreaks had similar circumstances. The evidence was not strong enough to suggest the primary vector was by way of ‘dirty secateurs’ from a keen amateur gardener, but as circumstantial evidence it was overwhelming.

Many of the recent outbreaks of severe threats to UK trees and woodlands can be traced back to the horticultural industry and amateur gardeners. And many more historic threats to our natural habitats have entered the UK by way of accidents from a desire to further advance horticulture in the UK. There is now at a play a paradox where some of these threats are actually revered by many, resulting in a battle between lobbyists and conservationists. For example in Cornwall, The Steeple Woods Nature Reserve carried out, by way of volunteers and grant money, the clearance of dense invasive Rhododendron. However there was opposition to this work by Rhododendron fans who actually put this work at jeopardy for a time. The grey squirrel has many fans and any publically announced policy to cull these animals would face considerable wrath. As these two threats and many others are so well established within the UK they form part of all management plans and to a large extent the interaction between interested parties can help further educate many about the countryside. Thus allowing for self regulation by all interested parties.

But self regulation is habitually heavily abused, particularly with regards more recent threats from pests, diseases and non native invasive plants. The latter threat is a serious drain on Local Authority, NGOs’ and other governmental agencies budgets, yet many plants on the schedule 9 lists are still readily available to buy at garden centres. There are no ‘warnings’ on the plant labels and little information available to inform garden owners of the risks these plants pose. It is a ludicrous situation that it is still common place within garden media aimed towards amateurs that plants on this list are still cited as good options for particular garden zones.

The sheer strength of the ‘large’ players in the horticultural industry weakens opposition voice and the costs to the many small localised nurseries who take care to heed all advice simply push production costs up so that some large national garden centres can actually benefit even further by ignoring precautions. Plants are brought into the UK in such quantities that they cannot be checked for pests and diseases and further ‘new’ plants are introduced with little attention on future risks. Leycesteria is one of many plants rapidly becoming a fixture in gardens, but is aggressive and with diminished management after a change of ownership it has the capability of becoming a pest. With the tiny budgets given to plant researchers and regulators they cannot keep up with the flow of imports let alone fully research new species for introduction. Garden design has a huge role to play in this with ‘trends’ suited around the latest plants and cultivars, but with many garden design courses are turning their backs on ‘plant knowledge’ almost completely the possible role of a designer to aid research is fast disappearing, yet they could be part of the solution whilst strengthening their professional status at the same time.

It is understandable that landscape and garden design cannot be confined to local native species, but there is surely a happy medium. And if incidences continue there is surely just cause to simply insist on direct funding from the horticultural industry to pay for regulation if self regulation continues to be abused, bearing in mind that of course at present there is not even published policy towards self regulation in this regard in the UK.

It is important to note that the vast majority of the horticultural and landscaping sector is made up of small, often sole trader, businesses who have been able to achieve much by way of controlling threats in the garden landscape and thus further controlling escape into the wider rural or urban landscape but have recieved absolutely no recognition for their efforts – in fairness the recognition is not sought after as for many it is simply part of the job and further ‘life style choice’. Yet there could be cost savings if this army of practitioners were to be more fully recognised and aided by direct bridging of knowledge from the researchers to practitioners. The web plays an increasingly significant role and as demonstrated by the LJN it can allow for immediate implementation of measures and good practice in the industry and there is certainly evidence of a failure to fully utilise this highly effective tool by the government agencies and others.

In the lead up to Christmas I was dismayed to see a number of amateur blog posts advocating ‘grow your own mistletoe’, whilst this pest is hardly as serious as others at large (or the very scary potential threats), it is still capable of damaging young tree plantations on the continent where it is still found in abundance. Mistletoe needs professional management and should not be introduced, albeit with the best of intentions, by the public without fully realising the consequences. However the large volume of amateur gardeners now blogging is welcome and is genuinely a great new asset to land based industry, but not at the risk of introducing pests, diseases and non native invasive plants. If advertised these bloggers, (including myself) can help to publicise the risks much more rapidly than the media itself is capable of and to be fair have done on numerous occasions and again there needs to be direct bridging of information from the researchers into the blogosphere. This will undoubtedly have an effect on entrenched media journalists & presenters, but the risks are too great to ignore.

Foreign plant salespeople have been selling door to door in the UK. This has to be stopped awaiting full proof that the public are sufficiently educated in potential threats from unregulated plant imports and disreputable UK growers.

There are of course other guilty parties: Timber imports, packaging and many other imported goods allow for rapid dispersal of pathogens and pests, but the UK horticultural industry, including gardens open to the public et al., should be able to self regulate and assist in the prevention of pathogen and non native invasive plant spread and thus alleviate pressure on the government agencies responsible for control and research to concentrate on non land industry vectors. Further it is in the interest of the horticultural industry to do so. It will empower the industry and prevent it from accusation and possible reprisals by the general public who are clearly becoming increasingly canny to such issues.

The Coalition government of the UK have made it clear that whether it is wanted or not the emphasis on new policy is to come from the bottom up, (minus the funding) and as such society has a role to play in ensuring that its actions do not destroy the landscape at large. We cannot afford any lessening of funding towards Forest Research or other agencies involved, but it is not enough to simply fight for the funding issue alone.

Following a recent forum thread on the UKTC, I have now changed my policy with regards importing trees and am currently researching local suppliers, many of which are cheaper and offer as much as foreign suppliers. In the US there are a number of new campaigns springing up which highlight the need to locally source and identify pests and diseases.  The UK charity Plantlife does much to publicise the issues but one cannot help but feel they have a mountain to climb through the mists of gardening journalism and the large corporate horticultural businesses before their voice is heard.

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