Friday, 18 April 2014

Where is horticulture going today? Conclusion - A very magnum opus.

Well the better weather has arrived, for the first time this year I have been able to have an early morning stroll round the garden clutching my cup of tea without my body warmer and being cut in half by the icy winds. I have seen the first butterflies including a stunning peacock and felt the satisfying crunch from the first lily beetle being crushed between finger and thumb.
View from the back-door a few days ago.
I started a series of posts entitled "Where is horticulture going today?" and have been musing for some time on how to finish the series off without being totally negative. In today's world when there seems to be a lemming-like need to re-invent the wheel over and over again experience is so often seen to be negative, the fact that something has been done before and failed does not mean that it will work this time round, it actually means that it is more than likely going to fail again.
When my interest was first sparked in horticulture it was in the grey days of the 1950's and I have watched it go through many phases since then, my observations are very much my own and I do recognise that there are dedicated people out there who are working hard to promote more revolutionary developments in gardening but I fear they are fighting against a closing door.
In the red corner

Camellia japonica 'Mark Alan'
Going back to basics, why did you first become interested in gardening? To the majority of keen gardeners today I suppose the answer would be through one or both parents or, as in my case, mainly through the neighbours. Unfortunately the breakdown of the modern family and the fact that we seem to be becoming more insular as a nation would seem to make these less likely scenarios. To be more positive one can look to the schools where much work is being done to encourage children to take an interest in nature and growing things, although with too much of a "green" bias for my liking, it must be a good thing overall. There are successful neighbourhood projects and the fact that many youngsters are spending more time with their grandparents, who hopefully have more interest and time to pass these things on, could be a bonus.
There are many opportunities in further education available to pursue horticulture as a subject both through the Park's Departments and commercial enterprises and yet there still appears to be a stigma attached to taking this as an option which means that the majority of students already come from a horticultural background. In my case, other than one guy whose father worked for N.A.A.S (D.E.F.R.A.), I was the only student whose parents didn't have a smallholding or nursery and I don't think things have changed very much since, unless you had the "family business" to rely on it was very difficult then to become "landed" in the industry unless you had access to substantial funds, something I would have thought virtually impossible today.

Magnolia stellata
  Moving away from those who would wish to pursue a career in horticulture we need to look at the influences on a person who is new to gardening but nevertheless wants to have a decent garden or even an allotment. Let us not delude ourselves gardening costs money and the beginner is the prime target for the great horticultural marketing machine using all available media.
First we have the printed media, financed by its advertising and therefore already biased in what it preaches, it provides the same advice year on year because that is what it does best. One would think that the RHS magazine would be an ideal guide but it is now the mouthpiece of a money led political animal which, like many charities, is more interested in currying favour with which ever pressure group serves its financial interest. Society membership is now increasing again after a significant dip however this is linked to an upsurge of garden visits through the introduction of more favourable membership terms which leads one to think that free entry has more to do with the improvement rather than the magazine content.

Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messell' just coming into flower.

 Next is TV and although the number of programmes on terrestrial television appears to have dropped there are of course dedicated channels. It would appear to me that TV gardening is very much a spectator sport much in the same way as the cookery programmes are, plenty of people watch it but only a tiny minority put the knowledge to any practical use. This also applies to magazines, garden visits and to some extent garden centers where the cafe and gift shop are now more important than the plants.
The internet is a massive source of information and probably the most acceptable to today's young gardeners, the blogosphere, society sites and forums, commercial sales and a host of others make up a veritable cornucopia of information, available to all who know what to ask for.
Other areas of influence are the retail outlets, which are soulless centers of commercial exploitation who could just as well be selling clothes pegs as plants and private nurseries and specialist growers who are slowly being eroded by the former and should be be preserved as national treasures.

This unknown white Camellia is quite old but has never flowered well, this year, although it is pictured just coming into flower, it has over 50 buds on it.
Societies be it for alpines or allotments are an area, which, if they could find a way to attract the novice, could be the most influential. The drawback is that, particularly on the gardening side, they have a reputation for being comprised of a more senior demographic, too formal and rather cliquish, which may be true in some cases however on the whole they are a friendly bunch of people who are only too pleased to encourage the interested novice. Comprehensive seed lists offering economically priced seeds, newsletters and regular functions and visits: they can't be all bad! On the whole allotments seem to have the best record for attracting people and if anything are amongst the last examples of community spirit in action. They are incidentally, along with anyone who has a large vegetable garden, the last true growers of food crops, the professionals only grow what is best for their soil and climate.

Not flowering well this year - Camellia japonica 'Adolphe Audusson'
In conclusion, having skipped through what is a complex and diverse subject in a few words I think that we can safely say that gardening is going to carry on much in the same way as it has for the last 50 plus years I have experienced.  I somehow doubt that there is to be some revolutionary upheaval, it is not in the nature of the beast. There will always be a hard core of gardeners and allotment holders who will know the joys and tribulations of working with the natural world which often leads me to think that we are born not made, there is some primeval force or genetic code within us which enables us to put aside the vagaries of the climate and subsequent disappointments yet still look forward to the following year. For all those potential members of the growing community we need to find a point of contact and a way of instilling into them the very basic principles and beliefs so that they are able to discern what is right for their garden and not suffer the needless, unexplained disappointments which are all too often responsible for people turning their dejected back and hiring the "mow and blow" man to keep their sterile patch tidy. 



  1. Thanks Rick for yet a thoughtful post from you. Being an immigrant to Britain, I see a lot of these things from the outside, and other things I don’t really know anything about. One thing however, I would like to say, I have learned an amazing amount on what to do in my garden from watching Gardeners’ World for 15 years! I don’t think I could have done what I do in my garden today had it not been for that program, as I had no one to ask until I started garden blogging 3 years ago. And I also buy their magazine, the only horticultural magazine I buy. I use the Internet of course, every time I need an answer to anything, but 15 years ago that wasn’t as easy as it is today, there just wasn’t the same amount of information out there. And being from Norway trying to garden in London, well, I can tell you that was a bit of a culture shock, both in positive and negative ways. I never knew there were so many pests and diseases plants could get until I came here, in Norway a lot of them die during the winter! But it’s fun how much I can grow here too, and how much easier it is.

    As for your question about why I got interested in gardening, I don’t really know! None of my parents or immediate family are particularly interested and with a father who was an officer in the army, we moved so often and usually didn’t have a garden. Maybe I got it in my genes from my ancestors, my brother and sister is not particularly interested either, although both have gardens, but do as little as they can get away with. I think I have always been interested, ever since my late teens, and I have always dreamed about having a big (much bigger) garden.
    Loved your pictures, your ‘Mark Alan’ has some unusual flowers for a camellia, how large are those flowers?!

    1. Thanks for your comment Helene, my magazine was The Gardener's Chronicle which was absorbed into Horticulture Week, the trade journal which I subscribed to until a few years ago. I am not so much condemning magazines and TV but rather pointing out that they have changed and now most seem to have another agenda which superimposes itself on down to earth gardening. I still enjoy the Scottish programme Beechgrove Garden which is on BBC2 early morning Sundays. The 'Mark Alan' flowers are about 100mm across, it has done really well this year and I may be imagining it but the flowers seem bigger than previously!

  2. Interesting read Rick. Being a relative new comer to gardening I truly wish I had found gardening earlier in life and perhaps made a career of it. When I was leaving school, unless you were very academic, girls were encouraged to go into office work. I remember being laughed out the room by the careers advisor when I said I wanted to do a trade of some sort.
    If I had the financial security at this point in my life, I'd really like a change. Sadly, too, the hours I work does not allow for me to volunteer - I suspect volunteering would possibly be the only way I could gain worthwhile experience. Meanwhile, I continue my education the trial and error way!
    Re education - I have 2 young nieces that regularly do gardening in their school but being a small school of around 30 pupils, it's easy to fit this type of activity into the school day but on a larger scale, can it be practical?
    Loving your Camellias and Magnolias - lovely large specimens. I dream of the day mines are of similar size.
    Happy Easter :)

    1. Hi Angie, even though you may have missed out on horticulture as your true vocation your interest and enthusiasm shines through on your blog, and, considering the hours you work, you have a great collection of plants and seem to thrive on your hard landscaping projects. I do believe that gardening is one of those things that you never stop learning no matter how much tuition you have, once you understand the basics you are more than halfway there.
      I have no easy answer but whether from Education or local organisations any movement has to come from grass roots. (hate clichés!).
      Hope you have had a good Easter Sunday and the gales aren't as bad as they are here.

  3. A very interesting read Rick. We need the observations of the professionals such as yourself, and hey, I love the view from your back door.

    1. I don't really count myself as a true professional as I have only spent about half my working life earning a living from horticulture in various forms and I am now very much an amateur which I enjoy. I don't know what the weather is like with you but I was working alongside a large horse-chestnut this morning when the wind blew over my barrow, complete with a full mug of tea! I decided discretion was the better part of valour and moved to the safer side of the garden away from the tall trees.

  4. Hi Rick - it's good to meet you and you described your garden so well in my comment section so it's lovely now to see in pictures too and all those wonderful camellias and magnolia's. I'm from a family of gardeners with one great grandfather having once been the head gardener of an estate. My grandfather was a market gardener and I was brought up following him around his vegetable, fruit, rose and herbaceous gardens. I had my own plot from no age at all and I've gardened in different parts of the UK. Horticulture pays my bills and it's a joy to work with the general public everyday and chat about my favourite subject and help to design their gardens. This Perthshire garden of mine is the toughest one yet for me to succeed with as the soil is so wet and heavy in a frost pocket. I've limited funds and would love raised beds in the difficult areas and about 8 tonnes of decent top soil ... oh a girl can dream!

    1. Hi Rosie, thank you for introducing yourself. With your ancestry it is difficult to imagine that you would work anywhere else other than the field of horticulture, it must be firmly bedded in your genes! I am lucky that I have the kind of micro-climate and acidic soil that is a close match to many parts of Scotland and enables me to grow all the woodland plants, Primulas and particularly Meconopsis which I love and that do so well up there. I am not a great lover of raised beds myself but can certainly see the benefit if your soil is particularly bad. Best get saving up or put it on your Christmas list:)

  5. When I was younger I loved photography and was very lucky to get a job as a photographer. Seemed fantastic, but the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was to go into my own darkroom ! I fantasise about working within horticulture, but then wonder if it would take pleasure away from the blissful hours I spend planning and tending my own plot ! Thanks for an interesting read.

    1. Thanks Jane for your interesting comment. In the past when I was working in the trade my garden tended to be a case of "cobbler's children go worst shod" and it was only when I was doing other things that I was able to concentrate more. Now I have retired the garden has never looked better and I am getting round to all the tidying up jobs and bits of redesign that I never achieved before.