Saturday, 26 October 2013

A Twit without Twitter...

Gardening is a combination of three things: materials, technique and information. The materials are the structures we build and the plants we use to make a garden, while technique is how ideas and materials are brought together to create a garden. Information in gardening is both inspiration and science, brought together to guide the hand of the gardener.

Take someone who knows nothing at all about gardening; deliver a whole truckload of plants and they might have a stab at 'doing something' with them. Give them information and technique and they are able to create a garden. Communication is key to transferring knowledge from one gardener to another. Working on a nursery I have to communicate a lot with customers, some of whom are experts needing a little specific information while others are novice gardeners who seek the knowledge and confidence to achieve what they want, whether it be the conquering of a trouble spot in their garden or wanting to know how to grow a plant that's caught their eye. Without communication everybody is left floundering.

How communication is achieved can vary; information is everywhere, in books, in magazines, on the internet (including the blog that you're reading!), on the radio and on the TV. To be entirely honest I think we're almost at the point of being overloaded with information, some of it good, some of it... dubious. Several times now I've had customers ring and ask about things because their books disagree on a topic, or they've spent an hour wading through website after website looking for advice relevant to their problem but to no avail; in the end they'd like to speak to someone and get a hopefully definitive and specific answer to their question. This is why BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time is still going strong despite the strong presence of the internet and freely available information- people don't want to know if a plant is hardy, they want to know if it's hardy in their area, for example. An opportunity to ask an expert is an opportunity not to be missed.

Nice plant, but how do I grow it?
Technology plays a key part in gardening, as it always has done. Today's technology allows free and ready transfer of information from one person to another, and this means that today's gardeners can ask their question easily and know that someone, somewhere, knows the answer- the trick is just to find that someone. Twitter can seem daunting to anyone over the age of 12 (the average age of a Justin Bieber fan, and believe me there's enough of them on Twitter) but is actually a digital platform for an enormous number of gardeners from around the world. In Monty Don's article in Gardener's World Magazine he says (so I'm told, I've heard about his article but I'm not rushing out to buy a copy of the magazine just to read it) that there aren't any gardeners on Twitter because gardeners are over 50 and don't really understand technology.

Let's tackle ages first- I'm not over 50 and I've been gardening for many years, and I am (I believe) fairly good at it. The horticulture industry employs plenty of people under 50, many of whom are experts in their field. Many of my customers at work are under 50, and many of them are accomplished gardeners. There is also an ever increasing number of people in their late 20s and early 30s who are gardening for the first time, often when they move into their first house.

One of the great appeals about gardening is that it is not exclusive; you can be a gardener in a window box or a huge estate, you can be rich or poor, upper class or working class, male or female, young or old.

Technology is a simple matter... if you engage someone with a technology they will learn to use it. Before the invention of hormone rooting powders nurseries used all sorts of ways to propagate plants, and when the powder arrived it brought new techniques that needed to be embraced. These new techniques are fairly ordinary now, and in fact it is the old techniques of grafting and layering that is a mystery to many gardeners! Likewise technology doesn't differentiate between age groups; if you are nine or 90 you might need to be shown the basics of a technology, and once you've got the basics you are on your way. Likewise if you're a gardener tempted by Twitter sign up, go to the 'search' box and search for whatever topics interest you, find the people you share interests in common with and before you know it you've joined a community of gardeners.

It's as easy as sowing seeds.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Opinion: The rise of the Tomtato

Unless you've been on Mars for the last week or so you must have heard about the latest development from UK nursery/seedsmen Thompson and Morgan, the 'Tomtato'. It's even on the BBC you know?!

The pictures show T&M's New Product Development Manager, Michael Perry, holding a plant that looks like a prop from a science fiction film, a tomato plant on top and a clump of large potatoes underneath. There's no sticky tape here, this is no cheap prop for a corny film, this is a new development for the 21st century vegetable grower!

I say new but the idea behind this new product is nothing new; tomatoes and potatoes are incredibly closely related and can be grafted together, but the Tomtato is the result of 15 years of development and research... my guess is that much of this time has been spent finding tomato and potato varieties that grow well together, grow at a compatible pace, and don't 'pollute' each other's flavours (a problem with early attempts- apparently the tomatoes were vile!). This is a triumph of horticulture.

My horticultural sensibilities were outraged! Here a respectable company has taken a fairly run-of-the-mill (albeit fiddly) process, the art of grafting, and the science of how plants are related to each other and turned it into what... a gimmick? Certainly the young starter plants don't come cheap, and despite T&M pointing out that this is a great space saving plant, suitable for a pot on the patio or in the ground, you can get heavy crops from three seed potatoes in a potato bag (about the size of a dustbin) and delicious and reliable crops of tomatoes from the grafted tomato plants coming onto the market- more expensive than a packet of seeds but the rootstock gives improved performance and disease resistance, and just how many tomato plants do you really need?!

The problem is that I'm missing the point; I'm getting bogged down in gardener's wisdom and not seeing this new plant for what it is, a new and exciting product that has brought a lot of publicity not only to T&M as developers but also to the science of horticulture. Here's something new, different, accessible to the home gardener and the result of good solid horticultural research. The Tomtato won't solve the world's hunger but, along with the development of grafted tomatoes, does draw attention to possibilities for the future of food production both commercially and at home; great work T&M!

Gardeners are already familiar and comfortable with grafted fruit trees on different rootstocks (chosen to alter how the tree behaves) and it does beg the question of what else can be grafted to great use? While plant breeders dabble with their paint brushes to create better yields and disease resistance, will the science of rootstocks spread from the orchards and into other areas of the edibles market?

In the words of the character Fallowfield (played by Kenneth Williams) from the classic 1960s radio comedy Beyond Our Ken, “I think the answer lies in the soil!”

You can follow Michael Perry on Twitter: