Friday, June 16, 2017

Can we have a sensible discussion about Roundup?

Roundup. Incredibly useful stuff. You've got to plant an area up, but how do you get rid of the existing vegetation, specifically all the persistent perennial weeds like couch, ryegrass, bindweed etc.? Or if you are trying to establish a native wildflower meadow mix on a site dominated by pasture grass? Or deal with Japanese knotweed? Or deal with a persistent weed problem which is threatening to overwhelm an existing, perhaps otherwise very successful planting? Or cope with a weed problem deeply rooted into paving or other hard surfaces? Roundup is usually the answer.

For years, since 1974 in fact, Roundup has been an essential part of the toolkit for the landscape and horticulture industries, and increasingly for nature conservation workers too. Now, in the European Union at least, it appears threatened. It needs to be re-registered by EU rules - a process required for all agrochemicals, and designed to ensure that all materials used are regularly reviewed for safety and environmental impact. Re-registration appears to be being constantly delayed. 

There is an incredible amount of hypocrisy round Roundup, and indeed many other agrochemicals. Well-known designers hoe their 'organic' plots in magazine articles and TV progammes but out of the limelight specify herbicide clearance for many of their clients' gardens. A lot of us love to eat in organic 'artisan' restaurants, buy organic food when it suits us, but carry on buying conventional produce the rest of the time. Conventional agriculture, for all its faults, does a remarkably good job of feeding us, on a steadily diminishing global stock of arable land. 

After a very long time in use, there have been countless studies showing Roundup to be, ok, not something you'd pour over your cornflakes, but pretty well harmless to humans. Then a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer came up which claimed a cancer link. The organic lobby, who having ignored the science on the active ingredient glyphosate for years, grabbed this with both hands and ran with it. Only the other day I read a Facebook posting from somebody describing how she accosted a neighbour and accused him of poisoning the neighbourhood. Now there is a story, see here, about how unpublished evidence of glyphosate's safety has been ignored. The cancer scare should perhaps have never seen the light of day, and a lot of unnecessary controversy and worry avoided.

For us in the garden and landscape industry there are two main questions here. One is the safety of this very widely used chemical, specifically of glyphosate, its active ingredient. The other is, given that its safety record has actually been remarkably good over 42 years on the market, why is re-registering so politically fraught?

It is always difficult for those of us outside a narrow scientific circle to really assess whether a chemical is safe or not. Scientific and medical research uses a jargon which can be impenetrable and rarely gives the clear answers we want. Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so. There is a further problem, which is a political muddying of the waters. Environmental campaign groups have long had it in for all agrochemicals, and their well-funded press departments are all too quick to fling out press releases on the latest research findings giving their own point of view. Journalists overwhelmingly react to these, rather than research on their own, they written in plain English, and inevitably take up no more than one side of A4.

Every now and again, I try to take a look at what the scientists are saying, and I have a chat with a colleague who is a plant sciences prof. and does work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What I see and hear is not, to be honest, hugely worrying. You can check it out for yourself on wikipedia – which gives a good dispassionate summary with lots of references. I personally use Roundup, mostly on nursery plots, for which I find it incredibly useful.

Roundup's being in the dock is largely political, an example of how the garden and landscape world is getting blow-back from other, bigger controversies. Many environmentalists hate Roundup because it was invented by Monsanto, an American multinational. It is very hard to have a sensible conversation about this company with many people, largely because of the genetically-modified crops issue. Has there been a single negative impact on human health because of GM crops? No. So, why the almost-hysterical opposition? The sheer irrationality of much of the debate has seeped into and poisoned sensible discussion of so much else. Of course need to discuss how and when we use agrochemicals in the managed landscape, and to continually review this. But we need to look at the evidence and take it from there.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Moving on?

“You should have seen the garden last week” is a comment often heard from the lips of gardeners. In fact it has become something of a joke, about nature's unwillingness to perform on cue, or the inevitable tendency of gardeners to express dissatisfaction with their creations. How much sadder however is “you should have seen the garden last year” or worse still, “... several years ago”.

I have, in my time, been to more than a few gardens which are past their best, and not in a good way. Certain gardens just seem to decay gracefully and still maintain their dignity. Others though decay badly, and sadly. I particularly notice this with gardens which are the result of their owners overextending themselves and being unable to keep up with the maintenance of their own creations. Or being unable to downsize and adjust to changing circumstances.

So, this is one reason, amongst many, that we are planning to move on from Montpelier Cottage. We have been there for twelve years and achieved a lot, and I have certainly learnt a lot. But it is time to move on. I have always seen my personal garden making as much as a process of learning and experimentation as anything else, and I now rather feel that the learning process is plateauing out. There is so much else to be gained from being somewhere else, with different potentials and challenges of soil and climate.

Herefordshire is pretty wet, has very fertile soils and an increasingly we are all having a longer growing season. Stuff grows furiously well, and it has been a great place to grow perennials and learn about their habits and cycles of growth. Unfortunately the weeds benefit too, and I now feel that I spend so much time weeding, or paying others to weed, that it is becoming rather counter-productive. Part of what I have done here however, has been to set up some trial plots looking at low-maintenance weed-resistant planting. They have been very successful and I can confidently say I can now design and recommend plant combinations that will do this. However I am also looking for people who might be able to take on some of the plot combinations for further evaluation. Any volunteers?

The proviso with the weed-resistant perennial combinations is that they are rather restricted in the number of species they use: so these combinations are great for clients such as landscape designers but unsatisfying for the gardener who wants to grow lots of different plants. A few ornamental perennials really do work together to suppress the incredibly effective unwanted plants we have to cope with: mostly pasture grasses, creeping buttercup, nettles etc. However, like many gardeners I want to grow stuff I can't at the moment, or cannot, without a great deal of (mostly weeding) effort.

Now, Jo's daughter and family are decamping/emigrating to Portugal. Total disgust with Brexit, fears for the future of our country, realising that the open society we all fondly thought we were in is in fact something else. A chance for the children to learn another language and get European passports. We think we might join them, and are provisionally thinking of renting a property somewhere most probably in central/northern Portugal next year, as a first step. Maybe a garden there? The sunnier climate is an attraction, but one without a severe water shortage. The country feels like a backwater which is beginning to go good places, whereas I fear Britain is at the top of a long slippery slope towards becoming a backwater. Interesting things are beginning to happen in garden and landscape design both there and in Spain. Some of the new landscaping one can see in Portuguese towns and cities is amazingly good and cutting edge.

I went through several months of feeling very sad about leaving where we are, but the frustrations of trying to keep the garden at an acceptable level with my limited (physical and financial) resources have driven me more and more towards thinking positive about leaving. One pull factor is the very rich flora of Iberia. Yes, I know I complain endlessly about eucalyptus in Portugal, but having just come back from two weeks travelling around (Picos de Europa down to Beixa Alta) I can only look forward to being somewhere much more botanically exciting than Britain: there are c. 7500 flowering plant species here, compared to Britain's 1500. There is a great deal of stuff there which could be good garden and landscape plants. I've always been attracted to the trialling of new plants for cultivation. Not the old-fashioned 'plant hunting' but something much more systematic – looking for species to fill particular functional or aesthetic niches, particularly those which might perform well in drought-stressed or dry summer climates.

For now, this year will be the last one to be able to see the garden. Let me know if you want to come and visit, remember we do B&B. Also, come the autumn there may be plants to dig up if you want to give them a new home. Or indeed a property to buy if anyone is interested!

I shall be very interested in hearing from people already garden making in Portugal or Spain.