Saturday, 28 February 2015

Guest blog: Conserving Camellias

My immense thanks to plantsman Jim Stephens for writing this piece; be sure to check out Jim's website to see a huge and diverse range of Camellia flowers (link at the bottom of the page).

Last year I 'retired' from my job at one of Cornwall's more highly regarded nurseries. Over a considerable number of years we had built up a range of Camellias that was at least the equal of any of the rather small number of nurseries that carry this plant group as a specialism. It is highly unlikely that the Camellia range will survive my departure.
Camellia 'Dewatairin'
One of the things I have done since is to sign up to Plant Heritage, fueled by the conviction that its mission of "Conservation through Cultivation" is a worthy one. I would go further. The number of threats to our garden plants has increased steadily over the 40 odd years that I have followed horticulture as a career. There has been a steady trickle of pests and diseases added to the existing roll call; some very serious, some quite trivial. But the important point is that they are additions, not replacements. None of the old threats have gone away. There is no horticultural equivalent of smallpox, eradicated from the world.

While the predatory list has lengthened, the list of weapons to tackle it has shrunk almost to vanishing point. Whatever one’s view on chemicals may be, it seems likely that within a decade or so there will be no chemical armoury available to gardeners.

In parallel with this, the climate is going to hell in a handcart. The incidence of weather that is stressful to plants seems to me to be increasing alarmingly, be it high temperatures, storms, high rainfall or whatever. Stressed plants are plants that are more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Going back to Camellias, I was reading an article on the International Camellia Society’s website about Camellia flower blight and the prospects of tackling it either with fungicides or with biological agents. The conclusion was that in a garden situation, those prospects are bleak. The best hope for disease free camellias lies with resistant species and varieties.
Camellia 'Goshozakura', a gorgeous old cultivar!
I am not a scientist, but I think I see an important distinction between the majority of garden plants and both the wild flora of a country and the vast majority of its food crops. That difference is that most garden plants are clones whereas very few food crops and almost no wild plants are. So the potential for a new pest or disease, or perhaps a climatically rejuvenated old one, playing havoc, is greater with garden plants than with the others. Thus Chalara in Ash may wipe out 90% plus of Ash trees, but there is likely to be a surviving rump with genetic resistance to the disease. On the other hand, if my Camellia ‘Debbie’ were to be crippled by a newly introduced pest, all plants of it are likely to be equally susceptible. It then becomes very important that we grow in gardens the widest possible range of Camellias, raised from as diverse a background of species and varieties as can be found, to ensure that a good proportion survive.

A cultivated plant doesn’t have to be killed by a pathogen for us to stop growing it. Black spot susceptible Roses and Scab prone apples will get a nursery a bad name and will soon disappear from the catalogues. Some gardeners will persevere with them, but  if a variety is not being propagated and disseminated, its days are surely numbered.

So back to Camellias again. What is the situation? There are many tens of thousands of varieties in existence in the world, some grown very widely, some much more locally. As far as the UK is concerned, there are a few National Collections and a handful of specialist nurseries.  Unless National Collections are held by nurseries their role in making varieties widely available is limited. When you search on “Camellia” in the Plant Finder section of the RHS website you get 1641 results. It  would not surprise me if there were as many again that are grown but do not appear in the list.
Camellia 'Charlotte Petherick' has disappeared!
It takes years for a nursery to build up stock of a wide range of Camellias. It may take five or more years from getting a cutting of a new variety to being able to propagate from the resultant plant. It will then take two to four years to get that first batch of plants out for sale. By contrast it takes only a few seconds to decide that you won’t carry on with a specialism, probably for commercial reasons.
It all seems so tenuous. The National Collection holders struggle to maintain their collections, let alone to add to them. The nurseries struggle to justify maintaining a wide range when the 80:20 rule* is screaming, via the accountants, to drop all but the most popular. Do that and the one time specialist nursery finds itself competing with every garden centre chain up and down the country.

In private gardens, how many plants more than five years old can be identified with any degree of certainty? When a house and garden changes hands, what chance is there of the new owner being told the names of the plants, even supposing they are interested. In many cases they will rip them out and start afresh. Unlike herbaceous plants, or Fuchsias, for example, you can’t easily take a cutting of a camellia from your friend or neighbour and grow it on.
A mystery Camellia sent for identification- good luck!
I suspect the situation is similar with other groups of plants. We don’t seem to have a firm grip on the potential for losing a large proportion of our garden plants. Plant Heritage and the National Collections were an important step but I think much more is needed. In particular there is a need to get more people involved.

Jim Stephens is a Camellia expert based in Cornwall, UK. In addition to Camellias he has a great deal of knowledge of, and experience with, a wide range of other plants. You can visit Jim's excellent  website at, and you can follow him on Twitter, @JamesLStephens.
*The '80:20 rule' is the theory that 80% of a retail business' income comes from 20% of its range. I'm not convinced that it's necessarily a hard and fast rule for horticultural businesses, but there are enough accountants that disagree! 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Another silly snowdrop!

It's happened again; one bulb of Galanthus plicatus 'Golden Fleece' has sold for £1,390, breaking the previous record for the most expensive snowdrop on Ebay by a considerable amount!

Here's the proof:

While the horticultural world (myself included) scoffs at the madness of someone paying so much money for one bulb, maybe we're missing a bigger point?

We all know what you could spend £1,390 on. You could buy a 'runaround' secondhand car for that in many areas, or book a week away. You could buy a specimen shrub, or even a fairly big greenhouse if you bought it from a DIY store.
You could buy a fairly basic Cartier wristwatch for around the same amount. You could buy a medium sized Givency handbag for only a few pounds less, and be in the same region as a pair of leather shoes from Gucci... this list could go on!

Although the final price of this snowdrop (which is very nice and distinctive) has raised eyebrows, it's not really the amount of money that has caught people out; no, it's the fact that someone has spent that much money on a mere snowdrop.

Like collectors of anything, hardcore galanthophiles will make their own judgement on what they feel is a reasonable amount of money to spend on something for their collection. Also as with collectors of other things, such as silverware for example, the majority of collectors will have to collect within their price range while some people are lucky enough to be able to spend much more on their hobby.

Maybe we're all a bit jealous? Maybe secretly we'd quite like to be the one making that much money from selling spares from our gardens and plant collections? I know I would!

We should change our outlook and stop focusing on the £1,390 spent on a single bulb, and instead be glad that there are people out there who love gardening so much that they will spend this much money on their plants!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Quiet Crisis

The question of how to encourage people to get gardening has been around for decades. There was a time when maintaining a garden (even if it was just a lawn with an island bed, or a lawn surrounded by thin borders) was just another part of life. Nowadays gardening is just another thing that competes for people's time, with competition from shopping (including the modern phenomenon of 'recreational shopping'), watching sport on TV, socialising and many other things that people do with their time. Pottering about in the garden has become something only dedicated hobbyist gardeners do in their spare time, not a national pastime. Furthermore, with people trying to cram more and more into their own time, gardening has become for many a chore that needs doing before they can go and do something they want to do.

As it became clear that homeowners were increasingly seeing gardening as a chore, the horticultural industry invented a new concept; the garden makeover. The most iconic gardening makeover programme was Ground Force. Each week Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh would be invited into someone's garden while a family member was away, would 'do' the garden and then hide behind a door or gate and watch while the owner of the new garden was surprised. Each garden would comprise of a wooden decked area, a water feature, usually a black bamboo... it now looks terribly quaint, but back then it was cutting edge. There were tears, cheers and usually glasses of something raised, and a tidy new garden.

The success of Ground Force was clear; the idea that gardens could be made quickly and, so the TV told us, easily sent people flocking to garden centres and nurseries. Black bamboos (usually Phyllostachys nigra) went from being niche plants to mainstream hits overnight, and often demand far exceeded supply. The Ground Force show ran from 1997 to 2005 and for much of that time it created a boom in gardening sales. The problem was that Ground Force taught 'instant gratification gardening', where mature plants were put in and everything was completed quickly. Consumers started to realise how much this actually cost, and that it was out of the reach of many of the Ground Force viewers. Also people realised that while the garden could be built in a few days (or half an hour on TV!), there was an ongoing maintenance issue; gardens just don't stand still. Weed suppressing fabric was great, but weeds started to grow in whatever was on top, water features needed maintenance, ponds went green, plants that were bought big then got bigger, and the instant gratification of a made-over garden became a burden. The hoards of gardeners at garden centres and nurseries started to disappear, and many of those businesses that had invested off the back of the gardening revolution suddenly found themselves on hard times.
Definitely NOT a makeover garden! (Killerton NT)
Gardening has continued to be popular, but has really returned to the pre-makeover days. People are still buying plants and creating wonderful gardens, but the horticultural industry has shrunk back to a lower (but hopefully more sustainable) level.

The 'Grow Your Own' revolution has taken the UK by storm. Although I don't doubt that part of the revolution was born from scaremongering about food, there is now a healthy community of people who are growing much of their food themselves. The 'GYO' revolution has brought organic techniques and sustainability to the top of people's agendas, even having an effect on the mass production of food for supermarkets. Never before has growing your own food been more accessible, with allotments enjoying a resurgence of interest and community gardening becoming increasingly popular.

There is however a quiet crisis coming. You'd be hard pushed to notice given how popular growing your own food has become, but gardening isn't actually solely about putting food on your plate. While fresh produce is the hot new thing, ornamental plants are suffering as they are ignored. In nurseries and garden centres you will find a wealth of beautiful flowers and foliage, but apart from the new 'buzz plants' that are released most plants just don't seem to get people's attention any more- there just isn't a thirst to grow ornamental plants. There will be many reasons for this, but I would point my finger at the success of 'GYO', increased media coverage about the threats to pollinators and native plants (even though a garden with a diverse range of flowers will attract pollinators anyway), and the lack of inspiration from the media.
GYO will always be popular
I don't begrudge the GYO movement its success, far from it. I am, however, mindful that it won't appeal to everyone, and that the people who aren't excited by the idea of lifting a crop of fresh potatoes from the ground might actually be interested in planting an ornamental garden that reflects their personality. The media (TV, radio and printed) will follow whatever will get them the most viewers, listeners or readers. The media game is not a fair one; balance plays second fiddle to numbers, so popular content about growing food or growing wildflowers will usually take priority over ornamental plants. Wherever consumers go, the media will follow.

This causes a bit of a problem for those producing ornamental plants. The plants are there and ready to go, but the customers are becoming harder and harder to find. Some companies do well by creating their own niche, thinking for example of Thomson and Morgan for their range of seeds, plugs and new plants. Many nurseries and garden centres are finding it more and more difficult to cope as time goes on, and are at a loss to find ways to bring people in.
Fuchsia 'Beacon'
New facilities, such as cafes, are seen as a must-have accessory by business advisors. We all love a nice cup of tea and something to eat when we go out, but the costs of building a cafe are often more than smaller businesses can afford. Without the cafe they supposedly can't attract new customers, and without the new customers they can't afford the cafe! Whatever ideas businesses come up with to encourage customers to visit and buy more, these are often temporary solutions. Sooner or later the novelty of 'club offers', late night opening, advisory sessions etc. just wears off. Yet while retailers have sleepless nights wondering how to boost business there is a sector of the market that is largely untapped!

As I said earlier in this article, there has been an excellent push to get kids gardening in schools. Whilst I am dubious over whether or not pond dipping and growing runner beans will have any meaningful long-term effect on the image of gardening as a hobby and profession, at least something is being done; exposing children to the fact that gardens exist and that gardening isn't just about hard work cannot be a bad thing. At the other end of the scale are the older generation gardeners* who are already growing plants but on the whole aren't making new gardens, so tend to buy one or two plants to fill gaps (or just because they feel like it!).

In between you have two groups, the 18-30 group and the 30-45 group. The 18-30 group are a difficult lot to cater for; although they might already have an interest in gardening (hopefully at least partly thanks to gardening at school), university and the process of finding work means that they will likely end up in rented accommodation. There is no reason to believe that this group wouldn't appreciate a nice garden, but they are unlikely to own a house of their own and won't want to spend large amounts of money on a garden that they will one day leave behind. The 30-45 group will statistically be more likely to have their own house and will be more interested in putting their identity on the house and garden.
This corner at The Veddw could inspire anyone, regardless of age
Appealing to the 30-45 group is crucial if nurseries and garden centres are to survive. Don't get me wrong, focus on the 30-45 group at the expense of your existing customers and a business will collapse anyway, but enthusing the 30-45 year olds to take up gardening will open up a new niche. So what can we do? I think my potted history of Ground Force shows that I don't think a return to makeover gardening will have anything more than a fleeting benefit. Similarly a focus on one particular element of gardening might put off people who aren't interested in that subject from gardening as a whole. Diversity is key; people between the ages of 30 and 45 will be as diverse in their tastes, aspirations and ideas as any other group. They will likely be fairly well informed about the world around them, and be perfectly able to see when they're being patronised. These are the people who have been raised with access to information freely online, so to try to simplify gardening down to easy chunks could cause a negative effect if the new consumers discover, as they do their own research, that they're being patronised. No, I think that the horticultural industry will win these consumers over with respect. If I was involved in any campaign to encourage this age group to get gardening I would push hard for the following:
  • inspiration- show your market what they can achieve.
  • knowledge- present information that is easy to follow but isn't over simplified and patronising.
  • presentation- tastes will differ in this group, and tastes in presentation techniques as much as plants and gardens! It's absurd to assume any taste will be universal in this group as much as any other group- people in their 20s don't automatically like thumping dance music, people in their 60s don't all like classical music!
  • diversity- this group, like all other age groups, is made up of people who have different tastes, viewpoints and ideas. To assume that this age group will be attracted to one particular gardening style is just ridiculous.

Gardeners already know why they garden, what they get out of it. We all have our interests and niches, and the key to success with a new market is to help them find theirs rather than force our ideas onto them.
New ideas could will boost interest in bedding plants
I fear that the challenge of encouraging new gardeners falls on those of us already involved, professionally or not, in horticulture. The media has no interest in changing the status quo of the gardening world, as can be seen with gardening shows like Gardener's World. Gardener's World won't ever get back to its glory days; it's a show that exists for its own purpose rather than that of any greater good. People will still watch it, but will continue to do so for its “lovely” presenters and its gentle pace, rather than because it challenges its audience, inspires or brings in new ideas.

The momentum for change will come from us.

*I know, being over 45 doesn't make you old in any way!

Monday, 2 February 2015

Questions answered

I occasionally get asked why I have so many online aliases, so here's a brief explanation.

When I worked for a nursery in Cornwall I was employed to grow a huge range of trees, shrubs, perennials and indoor plants. Nonetheless this range wasn't enough for me; I was driven by my love of plants to find out about an enormous number of other plants too, and this is where 'Ben's Botanics' was born. Ben's Botanics became the place where I could share my love of plants that weren't necessarily grown by my employer, and has brought me in touch with other plant lovers across the globe. Ben's Botanics can now be found on Twitter (@BensBotanics), Facebook and Pinterest too.
I realised that I had ideas for articles and features to write, but many of these didn't seem appropriate for Ben's Botanics. I decided to start this blog, and named it 'Pots and Polytunnels' because at that time I was getting my ideas from my work for my former employer. Each day I was surrounded by plants in pots and often worked in polytunnels... somehow the name seemed to work!
After being made redundant by my previous employer I decided to start my business, known as 'Pen And Trowel'. Why the name? As well as offering practical gardening I also offer a consultancy/advisory service. Pen and Trowel can be found on Twitter (@PenAndTrowel), but I tend to use Ben's Botanics pages as well, hence the crossover. I also still use Pots and Polytunnels for Pen And Trowel writing so that my content is in one place- another blog may appear in due course though!
I hope this explains why I have so many different aliases. I might have been better bringing everything 'under one roof', but my redundancy and change of professional direction came as a surprise. Whatever the name of the blog, website or social media account you come across, I really hope you enjoy what you read.