Horticulture has a growing problem

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Britain’s world-famous gardens are not self-generating. They are the children of British nurseries, parents that grow an amazing range of plants. This year’s RHS Plant Finder lists about 69,000 types of plant on sale in Britain. They are part of a wider horticultural industry, the growing of fruit and vegetables. However, all manner of challenges, changes and difficulties confront them.

It is excellent that we have a swift report on them from a committee of the House of Lords, appointed on February 1. Chaired by Lord Redesdale it has just been published, “Sowing the Seeds: A Blooming English Horticultural Sector”. The word “English” narrows it, but the result is important reading. The participants deserve a bouquet. 

Here are some of the figures they present about the “sector”. About 50,000 people are estimated to work in England’s commercial growing of fruit and vegetables. About 674,200 are considered to work in the wider “ornamental and landscaping sector”. In June 2023, “horticultural crops” were calculated to cover 116,540 hectares. About 5 per cent of land use in England has been categorised as private residential gardens. Welcome to you, occupiers of 5 per cent of this sceptred isle.

The number given for commercial fruit and vegetable growers is alarmingly small. The area occupied by horticultural crops is no brighter, having fallen by a quarter since a calculation was made in 2002. Yet, local produce is flavour of the year: supply chains are under reassessment; imports of food are as much at risk to political and military disruption as any others. Hence the concern about our horticultural industry. It has had a hellish time. Costs of heating and fertiliser have soared since 2021. Exports have been blighted by Brexit. Many small nurseries have given up exporting to Europe because of the paperwork and its cost. In turn it is expensive and complex to import plants or even seeds from Europe, home of excellent suppliers.

The traditional model underpinning bigger garden centres and landscapers has been one of imports, especially from specialised growers in Belgium and the Netherlands, businesses that have been subsidised by their governments. Imported plants are then repotted if necessary in light, far from peat-free compost and sold on to customers with a mark-up of at least 300 per cent.

harvesting carrots
England still grows most of its root vegetables © Rosemary Roberts/Alamy

The “Englishwoman’s garden” of the 1980s and the English “garden destinations” publicised for tourists in the 1990s were dependent on this chain from abroad. When the Duchess of Northumberland commissioned her stunningly expensive Alnwick Garden, she did not exactly grow all of it locally. The Horticultural Trades Association tells the committee that 96 per cent of its members import plant products in order to survive. In 2022, their imports were valued at £1.5bn, 22 per cent more than in 2021. The English garden is not insular. This importing has brought in foreign pests and diseases, a topic the report well addresses. Why cannot we ourselves grow what we need?

Fruit and vegetables tell a similar story. England is said now to be self-sufficient in cabbages and root vegetables but almost anything else comes in from abroad, too, especially if it needs heat and copious water. Of the vegetables eaten in the UK in 2022, 47 per cent were imported. The value of these imports was £2.7bn, 15 per cent up on 2021.

Fruit is even more of an import. In early Christians’ visions the trees in Paradise seemed to be blossoming and bearing fruit eternally, a tree for each month, all bearing fruit at once. Supermarkets’ fruit counters anticipate Paradise. Shoppers have forgotten seasonality and want everything here and now: in November I am still buying fresh raspberries for less than I would spend protecting canes of a September variety outdoors. They come from Morocco.   

Terms of the fruit trade are ruthless. One contributor to the report states that a grower is paid about 3p for a bag of six apples, which a supermarket then sells for £2.20. Between 2021 and 2022, the price of apples to consumers rose by 17 per cent but returns to growers rose only 0.8 per cent. Dr Lydia Medland of Bristol University finds that a farmworker in the UK would earn about £70.70 for a seven-hour day but a worker in Morocco would receive a day rate of about £5.50. No wonder fruit is cheaper from abroad. If foreign workers come in on visas, some of them are charged outrageous fees by facilitators at home. Sometimes they are packed into caravans that are a disgrace.    

The Lords report does not land in a void. It teems with acronyms for existing projects, from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) to OMFs (Organo-mineral fertilisers) to IPM (Integrated Pest Management, which has yet to be applied to Rishi Sunak’s backbenchers). It urges the government to publish the “world-leading horticultural strategy” promised in June 2022. What can be done while we wait? It recommends that horticulture should be taken away from the minister for food, farming and fisheries and given to a new minister with specific horticultural responsibilities. There is no shortage of ex-ministers who have been sent on “gardening leave” but will this move sort out the mess?

A little boy watering plants with a watering can
The report concludes that horticulture should be taught in schools at all key stages © Kathy deWitt/Alamy

To improve the balance between retailers and suppliers, the report urges that “the GSCOP must be refreshed to embed the 7 Golden Rules identified by the GCA”. Best of luck: it will not be encouraged if it puts up prices and sabotages the public priority, which is bringing inflation down. Supermarkets are not irrational monsters. Tomatoes from Red Wall constituencies are bound to cost far more than tomatoes from Spain.

Admirably, the report addresses the transmission of horticultural skills to the young. It does not assess the RHS’s good initiative to partner with schools all over the country, the way forward that I favour. Instead, it concludes that horticulture should be put on the national curriculum at all key stages. Hurrah, but who will actually teach it? I recall my attempts to introduce a school to growing bedding plants in a summer term. My proposal of the easiest hardy annual from seed, the beautiful Echium vulgare Blue Bedder, was vetoed by the staff committee because it had a Latin name and was elitist. When I wrote to say its common name was Viper’s Bugloss, it was still vetoed because it was misunderstood as Bug-loss, hostile to insects.

The report addresses questions on which one-sided generalisations are widespread, especially among outsiders: native or non-native plants, pesticides and their uses, sustainability, watering and so forth. It is rightly wary of sweeping conclusions. Will less informed schoolteachers be equally balanced? When teaching a new subject teachers like to think they are being progressive. Growers and gardeners will be busy growing and gardening: they will not teach in classrooms.

Small nurseries and specialised growers have raised prices far beyond inflation since 2020. They remain my heroes but the report has taken less notice of them. As for mental health, indeed gardening can help, but it is best in supervised projects, successes to which more space could have been given. It is one thing to garden on and off or to go, when mentally distressed, to a garden for a day out. It is quite another to garden year after year, in pouring winter rain or immoderate summer heat. It is belting with rain as I write: no report will persuade me that being out there planting tulips would be good for my mental wellness.

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