According to Dixon...Social change is next for horticulture

Imagine the world before lightweight composts, plastic pots and garden centres. Plants were sold bare-rooted or in heavy clay pots filled with loam compost. Trading was slow, reliant on post, railways or collection.

All this was changed by the peat and sand composts formulated in the 1950s. These resulted in easy movement of container-grown and containerised plants in their billions. Garden centres sprouted, becoming leisure centres where retail customers buy decorations for outdoor rooms (gardens).

In parallel came module propagation of vegetable transplants, firing off an international fresh-produce industry replacing local market gardens. Compost formulation is now changing again in line with environmental and social demands.

Horticulture’s history brims with seemingly small innovations that have become the seed corn of massive industrial and social improvements. Recently GPS tractor and machinery guidance became commonplace. The result is a step change in the precision and efficiency of crop husbandry and less manual labour. It also permits easier management on nurseries and the auditing of plant collections in botanic gardens.

Developments in molecular biology will transform, for example, pest and disease management. Rothamsted Research’s "Lab-in-a-box" collects aerial pathogen spores, identifies them from their DNA and texts spray or no-spray alerts.

Social change is where 21st century horticulture can be most significant. William Bird, Reading NHS’s "well-being doctor", said: "Horticulture is more powerful than medicine in building healthy lives."

Only horticulturists can cultivate green, floriferous spaces suitable for relaxation and exercise by burgeoning urban populations. Only horticulturists can grow fruit and vegetables that repel lifestyle diseases. For this we need horticulturists with knowledge, vision and verve — modern-day equivalents of Le Notre and Capability Brown.

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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