Defra minister and former grower George Eustice has come out in favour of Brexit, but a straw poll of dozens of growers at the British Plant Fair at Stoneleigh by Horticulture Week found that half are in favour of staying in Europe and one-third are undecided.
Just 20 per cent said they want to leave. The result suggests politicians and trade bodies have more work to do to explain the issue to voters in the sector. The reasons nurseries gave for staying are "safety" following 70 years of peace in Europe, easier trade with Europe and uncertainty about leaving.
Many growers said they had received too little information and what they had heard was conflicting.
Those for Brexit at the referendum in June said immigration and the belief that Britain can manage on its own as it did before 1973 were among reasons for leaving.
Garden writer Peter Seabrook said: "I was sitting on the fence, but if it took three days working through the night to decide on very modest variations with David Cameron to the agreement, how can they ever agree to bigger things? The European government has become too big and expensive to run.
"I can't think it will mean much change for UK horticulture. We don't export much and I can't think Europeans will stop selling to us. If they want to, they will have to let us sell to them."
Environmental charities including The Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are openly campaigning to stay in, as they believe the EU has a positive impact on the UK's natural habitat.
But Will Kay, managing director of weed control specialist LanGuard, said some EU regulations such as the Sustainable Use Directive were actually weaker than the UK's previous environmental protections which they had replaced. Leaving would also give the amenity sector more freedom in how it interprets chemical regulations, he added. He said the amenity sector gains little from staying in the EU, and many businesses he speaks with would prefer to leave.
Ground Control's training director Neil Huck said the UK should stay in the EU as it will benefit the industry. Huck - who is vice-president of the European Landscape Contractors Association - said the UK is affected by the EU whether or not it is a part of it; leaving would merely take away its voice at the table.
"There are a lot of restrictions and legislation that we wouldn't have a say on if we were not in the EU parliament, but we would still be affected by."
And he reiterated concerns about environmental protection. "Some of the environmental legislation that comes out of Europe is very good - and unfortunately the lack of environmental protection in the UK parliament is very obvious. Biosecurity is a classic one. Transportation of plants and material across Europe, without controls, is leading to a lot of issues developing such as emerald ash borer."
The industry is currently suffering from the skills and labour shortage, and that will also be exacerbated if the labour flow from the EU dries up, he added. "Particularly in arboriculture there's a real shortage of skilled labour, we need to get people trained up."
In March, a joint letter signed by prominent figures from UK farming and horticulture called Brexit a "nightmare scenario", while in February DJT Plants managing director Patrick Bastow also warned that UK horticulture "could be badly hit" by Brexit, with many companies likely to struggle without access to Eastern European labour. British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward echoed Bastow's views, saying leaving the EU would leave things "equally difficult for growers".
The Farmer-Scientist Network for the Yorkshire Agricultural Society also pointed out that the UK's Chemicals Regulation Directorate would still have to be guided by EU approvals of active ingredients, and suppliers would be "reluctant" to develop products purely for the UK market.
- Correction: In 18 March issue of Horticulture Week, we published the wrong picture for the winner of Garden Designer of the Year in the Garden Retail and Garden Industry Awards special feature. The picture printed was Wellington College Princes' Quad designed by Viridian Landscape Studio which took a high commendation at the awards, and not by winner Janine Pattison Studios. The picture used for sales team of the year, won by Glendoick Garden Centre, was also incorrect. Apologies for any confusion caused.