The Royal Horticultural Society recently flagged up the demise of our older plant nurseries, which have been in decline as the current generation reach the point where they want to step down, but have no-one to take over. The numbers attending larger RHS shows, like Chelsea, has fallen noticeably in recent years and this has coincided with a general lack of interest in gardening.
The good news is that this decline is actually already being reversed as an increased awareness of the positive benefits of plants and the exercise that can be gained from even a short period spent outdoors means interest in gardening is gradually increasing. “Plant miles” now matter and it has become preferable to Buy Local, rather than have plants brought in by diesel-guzzling lorries. Local nurseries offer help and advice that cost-cutting large garden centres no longer provide, as well as a much wider range of plants. Some chain garden centres have become out-of-town department stores, ideal for lunch out and gift shopping, but not much use if you want a good choice of plants.
Career-changers and people who realise there is more to life than the pursuit of money are starting up as growers and, unlike the nurseries of even a few years ago, the new ones no longer need to travel to big garden shows to generate business. The industry used to rely on displaying “living catalogues” of plants at large shows to sell plants around the country, but growers progressed to printed colour brochures and now to the internet. With a few clicks, anyone, anywhere, can select a plant to be dispatched by mail order and delivered to their door. Indeed, many nurseries are now too busy with mail order to display at the big shows and no longer need the exposure they used to bring.
Local shows, where smaller nurseries sell their plants, are still massively popular. One such, at Stansted Park in Sussex, is so well attended on the opening morning that the traffic queues cause problems and the organisers have asked that anyone wishing to attend this year buys their ticket in advance to speed up entry and limit numbers. Shows like this offer keen gardeners the chance to snap up rare and unusual plants at good prices and also the opportunity to ask the grower how to keep the plant alive.
What we need next is the reinstatement of good horticultural training. Most of the colleges who taught horticulture and agriculture ripped up their facilities in favour of small animal and equine units. One has even built a zoo on their once-renowned arboretum. This needs to be reversed so that the good practice needed to produce top-quality plants can be taught again, because learning as you go will only take you so far. Britain was once the world leader in horticulture and we need to find our way back.
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