Hartley Magazine

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New year revolutions

If reason and persuasion don’t work, we need to start hitting the less ethical elements of the gardening industry where it hurts: below the profit margin.

Yes, you read that right: it’s time for us to start revolting. Unless you subscribe to the against-the-clock, TV makeover, artificial, fashion-fickle version of gardening, you’ll know that it’s about so much more. It’s about fresh, untainted food and flowers that only travel footsteps. It’s about getting into sync with the wild, natural world that’s an interwoven, vital part of quiet, thoughtful gardening. It’s sometimes about huff and puff and a sweaty brow; it’s also about being still and losing yourself in a wondrous moment. It’s about creating, about nurturing, about harvesting, about savouring. It’s about laughing, crying, fuming and rejoicing. It’s about life and rhythm, about decay and return; about renewal, about new beginnings. It’s about all of these, and it’s about so much more.

But glance across the ‘trade’ magazines and publications which serve the UK’s gardening industry, or look at the line-up of conferences and ‘contact’ events it has planned, and it’s clear that gardening, in our ‘must-grow-the-economy’-fixated times, is only about one thing: making shedloads of money. Not content with trading in the stuff that turns the wheels of gardening – plants – the recently-formed Garden Industry Marketing Board (the name says it all) is exercising its collective grey matter about how to flog ‘leisure products and outdoor lifestyle ideas’ to those in their 30s and 40s. Presumably there’s good money to be raked from plant-devoid plots; getting a ‘focus group’ to confirm that gardening’s too much like ‘hard work’ for younger folk erases any doubt. Gardening is all about life in its broadest, richest sense; it doesn’t need ‘styling’. Perhaps the GIMB should go the whole hog and rebrand itself as the Lifestyle Industry Marketing Partnership – LIMP.

Getting into sync with the wild, natural world is a vital part of quiet, thoughtful gardening.
Getting into sync with the wild, natural world is a vital part of quiet, thoughtful gardening.

This is just one example of how relentless, rapacious consumerism is widening the chasm between the businesses which serve gardeners and what gardening’s all about. It was only a matter of time before some dim marketing spark dreamt up the idea of gardenless gardening. Worryingly, the recent spate of sell-outs by independent garden centres to ever more bloated chain stores is further widening the chasm (recent announcements by ailing supermarkets might squeeze it a little). None of this is much comfort for anyone who’s discovered what gardening’s really about – but it might help you rumble the next slick campaign peddling you a lifestyle.

Gardening’s capture by business interests might be vexing for us, but imagine how it’s playing out for the wild living world. The greedy muscles of consumerism are adept at elbowing out concern and appeasing selfishness (think peat-based composts), focusing on fiction, not fact (think tabloidesque gardening columns), and keeping stum whenever needed (think neonicotinoid bug killers and glyphosate weedkiller). The gardening media, in thrall to business interests through advertising and sponsorship, remains similarly neutered. When did you last read an in-depth article in a mainstream gardening magazine investigating the widespread use of neonicotinoids – the polluting ‘neonic’ insecticides proven to harm bees and other insects – in producing the seeds, plants and bulbs destined for our gardens? I won’t hold my breath.

The one thing our gardening industry fears is our gardening media talking about the damage it does, in our name, to the natural world, because the last thing it wants is us thinking about it. If we do that, we might start asking questions and become more discerning. We might even stop buying or reading some things, or dare to ask or dream for others. And that’s why it’s time for us gardeners to get bolshie.

I’m not quite sure how this revolution is going to pan out, but it’ll be played out on unlikely ground, and it needs to get rolling. This uprising won’t be fought with facts and figures, or with sobering reports, however accurate, of trashed peat bogs, or of insects, earthworms and birds unwittingly poisoned by everyday garden ‘bug killers’. None of that has worked: sales of peat-based compost and pesticides increased in 2014. When I ask staff in garden centres why they’re still selling neonics, or if they’re aware of the damaging effects of glyphosate weedkiller, they look over my shoulder for the flying saucer. This peaceful but powerful rebellion needs to be played out at the checkouts, real and virtual, where we buy our gardening stuff. Militant types might consider more direct action, but what I have in mind will strike at the beating hearts of gardening businesses: their pockets.

Empty shopping trolleys will quickly encourage gardening businesses to sit up and put on their ‘listening ears’.
Empty shopping trolleys will quickly encourage gardening businesses to sit up and put on their ‘listening ears’.

This is going to be a bad year for peat bogs. There’s renewed zeal for airbrushing away concern for the destruction of our peatlands, with the excuse that ‘our customers have demanded’ reliable ‘professional’ composts made from peat. Using the smokescreen of ‘customers have told us’ is an old trick, but it’s one big companies such as Thompson & Morgan seem determined to cynically exploit, as they get ready to roll out a new (and pricey) compost made almost solely of peat (others are planning similar moves). They say they are doing this in your name, because you must have the best. The fact that top-quality peat-free composts have been around for several years, and that gardeners can now buy the same ones that professional growers pot in, is quietly ignored. Hope that the conscience of any gardening business might be pricked by a new report explaining how we are ‘eating away at our own life support systems’ appears slim.

But what if loyal customers rebel, and say – directly or, better still, on social media such as Twitter – that they’ll not be buying anything from a company (or TV gardening shopping channel) that wittingly destroys, pollutes or otherwise harms our natural world in the name of gardening? And how about we carry the same rebellious streak to our local garden centre or DIY store? Explaining to the top brass that you’ll not be shopping there again until they start stocking some quality peat-free composts will soon grab attention (they’ll quickly stop searching for flying saucers). You might even hear the tills trembling as you make your empty-handed way out.

And why stop there? The widespread use of neonics by horticultural growers who supply our shops and garden centres with seeds, plants and bulbs raises barely a murmur of attention (gardeners in the USA are much more stroppy). The worst-offending products have been banned, but other products from the same suppliers are still on sale. What if we insist on knowing exactly what pesticides and fungicides plants on sale have been treated with, so we don’t take home a polluted, bee-poisoning plant, no matter how well-grown and irresistible? When we buy organically-grown plants, we have the assurance of knowing what’s not in them; it’s high time we were told what is in the others – and ask for it to be kept out. The ‘listening ears’ will soon perk up; empty, silent shopping trolleys are powerful drivers of change.

These are just two areas where change will only come from the bottom up – and that means us. Most businesses have failed to even switch on their ethical radar, and our gardening media dares not see, hear or speak anything that might rock the boat.

The question is, how revolutionary are you prepared to be?

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener

  • charles Warner

    Hi John. This piece hits the nail squarely on the head. I am a wholesale producer of herbs and alpines. My main customers are garden centres. I started doing this as Quinky young plants in 2009. I knew that I would be competing with large producers from across the Uk but I have a whole working lifetime of experience in this field and a willingness to work hard to get what I want. This coupled with the fact that I am lucky enough to live in this beautiful part of Wales and have little need for wealth as such I figured that I could find enough garden centres in Wales to sustain me. To offer something different I marketed the fact the plants were “grown in Wales” and from the start I produced point of sale material and a website to that effect. One of my bugbears about the industry as a whole has been the tremendous wasteage . Working for one large producer in the midlands it had seemed at times as though peat bogs in Ireland were being dug up to go into land fill in England. Once I found a good product there was no need to hesitate to go entirely peat free and I did so from the start. We also promote this as much as possible. It has not been an easy ride. The smaller garden centres often have no idea about plant retailing or the nursery industry. They have no idea about where their plants were grown.UK nurseries that used to produce their own plants now are set up to be vast buyers and sellers of plants from the continent. Some of it is of high quality but when I visited a garden centre on a Greek Island it had the exact same chemically growth regulated thymes and Rosemary as the garden centre here in Aberporth. These things must be churned out in industrial quantities to be sold to every high street florist and garage forecourt in Europe without the retailer or their customer ever knowing where they were from. The larger independent garden centres are well served by just a few vast growers in the Midlands, Sussex and Lancashire. The industry that I cut my teeth on at Pershore in the early eighties has changed significantly. To get as big as they have requires turnover for as much of the year as possible. They operate like a vast conveyor of plants with cuttings coming in from all over the world at one end to the garden centres and their customers at the other. Currently farplants have lovely looking displays of potted spring bulbs in their centres. There are no customers in the centres at this time of year and I know from experience that once the short lived flowers have passed they are disgarded in their millions. The bulbs typically split up in the year after flowering and don’t flower again the next year. Beautiful though the flowers are I can’t bring myself to sell such a poor product. The reason that they do it is to get an early foot in the door. When I start sending out lists of my good quality, hardy, peat free plants in mid Feb I have already missed the boat. The big guys are taking up the space. Last year I got involved with “horticulture Wales” and although the original idea of growers working together didn’t come to fruition. It did give me a platform to try to promote the idea of a Welsh horticultural industry. It was fun and horticulture Wales were kind enough to present me with an environmental excellence award which was nice. It could be my swan song though. It took longer than it should have but I have finally got a product that I am proud of. It’s a bit old fashioned in that we grow the plants from scratch and we try at least to grow a whole range (within herbs and alpines) and we deliver them ourselves and negotiate and chat with our customers and try our best to get them what they need. It cuts no ice though. The huge lists that are emailed weekly to every garden centre are very enticing. Tick a box and the plants arrive by carrier and are usually pretty good. It doesn’t seem to matter that every garden centre and DIY shed and supermarket are selling exactly the same plants from the same places. The independent garden centres could really differentiate themselves from the chains by promoting our plants and putting up our bi-lingual welsh bed cards or just by talking to their customers. But last year I had to retrieve my bed labels (£45 each) from beneath a load of Farplants herbs after I had given the centre 6 weeks to put them up but they hadn’t bothered. Even the botanic gardens of Wales after agreeing to stock my plants failed to return my calls and emails until I finally went up there to see that our space had been taken by a West midlands company that are more expensive, not Welsh and not peat free. It’s exhausting and I don’t have the energy that I once had. I’m going to give it my best shot this year. We are better prepared than ever and quality wise I would proudly put my plants beside anything that is grown in the Uk but I’m not really making a living and that can’t really continue. It’s a shame. For the want of a little creativity amongst the retailers and a few pence on the price of a plant to the consumer we could probably have a nice sustainable little industry in Wales and it would probably be slightly more friendly to the environment and keep some of the skills alive and provide a bit of employment. My fingers are crossed

  • Jon ‘Jim’ll’ Knight

    Good article John. Unfortunately many garden centres are now too far down the road of taking the “garden” out of “garden centre”. There’s a few house plants by the tills, a couple of shelves of hand tools & mowers and an windswept area of plant tables, sheds and composts outside. The rest of the space is for clothes, footwear, cafes, bookshops, furniture, toys, pets, “seasonal” displays (Xmas trees, lights, BBQs, garden furniture, etc), butchers, bakers and no doubt the odd candle stick maker.

    Some (including one of my local ones) are turning into “shopping experiences” with a little collection of shop units next to the garden centre selling all sorts of non-garden related stuff. I can only conclude that there are a lot more people who don’t care about gardening who they want to visit to extract money from than those of us that do want to focus on growing.

    With that sort of diversified product base, a few people refusing to buy peat based products doesn’t seem to be worrying them. I’ve been there, done that several times over the last few years and we’re voices in the wind. Its sometimes even difficult to use positive reinforcement by buying their peat free, greener products if those products don’t even make it onto the limited gardening related shelf space.