Horticulture And Global Warming In Britain
Horticulture and global warming in Britain are rarely considered together. Horticulture is a dirty word these days, as are all jobs that utilise the land. However, it has a long history in Britain, principally because we have some of the best soils in the world. Today, it could also be a saviour for Britain in the wake of Covid-19 and Brexit. In addition, as the work is outside and healthy, it can benefit mental and physical wellbeing.
However, horticulture desperately needs a new intellectual interpretation. We need to grow plants in harmony with the environment whilst also reducing global warming. The universities need to promote horticulture to the young. Consequently, the young need a new kind of gap year; no need to go to Thailand or Outer Mongolia. That can teach them little, cost a fortune and spread infections. The new frontier could be the creation of a new kind of horticultural experience. We need British food that is seasonal and local and which increases employment in the rural economy. The young also need to understand Britain and how to maintain our good soils whilst responding to the global crisis.
I trained as a gardener in Shrewsbury in the 1960’s. Horticulture and global warming in Britain was not an issue in those days. At my evening classes in horticulture, I met the old breed of land workers, a rarity today. Their dream was to operate a smallholding producing and selling plants and vegetables. I knew one of these men and I would see him slogging away on his plot of land. Often, he was struggling to turn the soil using a massive muscle wrenching rotavator. Within a few years, his smallholding closed down and I never saw him again. He had picked the wrong time because garden centres had just appeared. Horticulture was about to have a makeover, and it could not sell hard labour and dirty hands; they were into retail.
The Garden Centre
I featured garden centres in my latest book. My tribe of affluent pensioners in Christchurch shop and eat at them but few go there related to horticulture. It was not that way in the past. The earliest garden centres grew British plants locally, in clay pots. There was no cafe, gifts or any of the plastic paraphernalia we take for granted today. None of the products sold were imported. The garden centre obtained what it could not grow itself from other garden centres. They also trained local people in horticulture, not in retail. Modern Garden Centres have abandoned that approach to focus on imported plants, plastic tat and cafe culture.
What is Horticulture?
Horticulture should be about the cultivation, processing and sale of fruits, nuts, vegetables, ornamental plants and flowers. It is not the large scale production which we now call farming. Our horticulture, essentially manual work, came directly out of prehistory. As our hunter gatherer forebears settled and began growing plants, from 4000 BC, they became our first horticulturalists. They also built stone circles like Stonehenge to honour their horticultural gods. It took perhaps three thousand years for these people to specialise and become farmers in the Bronze Age. These Bronze Age farmers, with their metal axes, could fell the wildwood with impunity. The trees were doomed. Today, 3,000 years later, Britain is the least forested country in Europe; blame the farmers.
The last horticulturalists
Praise be to the allotment holder, the last of the horticulturalists. In my youth, people grew vegetables in their garden but that is rarely the case now. Our Neolithic veneration of soil is only found in today’s allotment holders, a breed that is itself changing. The new allotment holder is more likely to be a woman. Allotment holders’ are also the only food producers who understand the benefit of worms. In farming, the soil worm count is at its lowest ever because of the use of artificial fertilisers and ploughing. Farmers grow the majority of our food but are only interested in yield, not flavour or nutrient.
However, the horticulture in our gardens has a massive impact on Britain’s environment. This is because they are our biggest refuge for wildlife. Much of this benefit arises through default. The bigger gardens tend to be owned by older people. As they do less physical gardening, the environment benefits. They rarely dig, so release less carbon and leave corners to nature. Consequently, their trees and shrubs tend to grow tall and woody, and tie up carbon. By default, the diversity of nature is increased. Whether we count birds, hedgehogs, butterflies or insects, our gardens are often the last refuge for British wildlife. Farming has moved in the opposite direction.
The final heroes
The RHS and National Trust are the two remaining stars of horticulture. They understand soil health and diversity. However, they train only a few young people and therefore, have little impact. In the past, local councils trained young people in horticulture. Now, only a few, such as at Shrewsbury or Harrogate, do this and exhibit the old skills. This, admittedly, is in bedding displays as part of competing in the Britain in Bloom competition. That competition, now rightly, includes how it impacts on the local environment.
Changes in eating habits
Currently, British farming is out of kilter with modern trends. With the massive increase in vegans and vegetarians, we import vast quantities of food unsuited to growing in Britain. However, the growers of this food use artificial fertilisers and massive quantities of water. The food, because it is to be transported huge distances, is often picked unripe. It therefore reaches Britain in a tasteless state and with a very low nutrient value. The challenge is for the young to develop home produce for this new market. This needs to remove all or much of the sheer slog that was necessary in the past. They can now utilise solar heating, polytunnels, non-dig growing and composting techniques. Labouring and farming the land as we now know it must be a thing of the past. We can no longer remain ignorant about horticulture and global warming in Britain; the answer lies right beneath our feet.