Seabrook's notebook

Peter Seabrook wonders at the cost of sidelining disease-hit busy lizzies next season.

Mark Reeve, plant area manager at Cooling's Garden Centre in Knockholt, Kent, says in its winter newsletter: "We will not be stocking the plugs and plants (of busy lizzies) next year because of downy mildew and I would advise not buying them from any nursery or garden centre."

There's one man who has made his company's position clear and, at the time of writing, B&Q, Homebase, Tesco and other multiples have dropped busy lizzies for the 2012 season. At the HDC's Impatiens Downy Mildew Seminar at Stoneleigh last month, I counted five nurserymen who will not grow busy lizzies next spring, and more than 20 who will.

This year, busy lizzies accounted for 20 per cent of six-pack bedding, and ten per cent of bedding overall, to make a market worth £40m. It appears sensible to give this popular and value-for-money summer bedding plant a rest for a year or two, but at what cost?

We have New Guinea hybrids and sunpatiens that are not so far affected by this devastating disease. The only problem here is that these alternatives need warm soil and are better not planted out until late May.Demand will still occur for ordinary impatiens next spring, and there are good reasons for cuttings-raised cultivars (the source of the new downy mildew strain) to be dropped. Seed-raised cultivars propagated in clean conditions will be disease-free, but should be sold with a health warning.

Such plants, grown-on under carports and in porches where the leaves are kept dry, are expected to avoid attack. There is some hope that seedlings raised in compost containing slow-release fungicide (Everiss) will be protected for up to five months. If this gets clearance, it could be a life-saver and good reason to raise six-packs to a viable retail price.

A hot, dry summer in 2012 could result in no sign of the disease.

Equally, infected leaves on a Danish trolley from across the Channel could lead to another busy lizzie wipe-out.

Shut out

Travelling to the Lincolnshire winter brassica trials, I dropped off at Van Hage Garden Centre, Peterborough for a coffee. At 9.50am I was confronted by a queue! Apparently it didn't open until 10am.

Can we afford to open for fewer hours in these competitive times? The service at high-street stores is improving - Debenhams staff are handing out personalised slips asking customers to comment online when receiving "exceptional service" for the chance to win £1,000.

As a result, Debenhams attracts traffic to its website and has the opportunity to reward good staff.

Times are certainly changing.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster.

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