Thriving on changes and challenges

Fifty years on from his first article in these pages, Geoff Dixon surveys the evolution of British horticulture since World War Two

Wild flower meadows: backdrop for the 2012 Olympics
Wild flower meadows: backdrop for the 2012 Olympics

Horticulture’s mission is the intensive culture of plants. That responsibility has three interwoven facets —providing nutritious, health-enhancing food; developing and conserving micro- and macro-landscapes; and as a platform for individual and community development working with plants and their role in the arts, literature and humanities. Science and technology underpins horticulture’s evolution while society, economics and politics shape its context.

Great Britain’s wartime food shortages shaped horticulture in the 1940s and early 1950s. The dominating "drive for food" was achieved largely with tools and techniques from previous eras. Change came as new publicly funded research and advisory services opened, older centres were revitalised and expanding universities and colleges welcomed students from widening social backgrounds.

Into the 1960s business confidence, scientific discoveries and a more educated workforce fuelled horticultural expansion. Better understanding of plant growth, nutrition and reproduction encouraged new industries. Growing affluence in the population increased demand for fruit, vegetables, cut flowers and potted plants in greater variety. Glasshouse production rose with day-length manipulation of flowering in chrysanthemum, carbon dioxide enrichment of carnations and "blueprint systems" for tomatoes and cucumbers.

Fruit growers introduced more intensive orchards and hormonal regulation of setting.

New F1 hybrid field vegetable cultivars brought uniformity, reliability, better quality and enhanced disease resistance. Machine harvesting and post-harvest hydro-cooling, controlled atmosphere storage and better packaging appeared. A stream of novel pesticides aided intensification.

Socially, extensive housebuilding brought a new generation of gardeners encouraged by television programmes. Instant highly floriferous gardens were demanded. The nursery industry responded by introducing pot-grown trees and shrubs made possible by using peat and sand composts. Year-round sales of new cultivars and introduced species encouraged garden centre shopping. National parks, sites of special scientific interest and planned landscaping began developing. Concerns over pollution started emerging, especially following the publication of Silent Spring. Extensive social, economic and political changes emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Decimalisation, rampant inflation and accession into the Common Market (EU) affected the structure of British horticulture. Glasshouse growers mostly used oil for heating and were adversely affected by the "oil crisis". Dutch competition intensified in the tariff-free market, with their growers using cheaper gas and more modern glasshouses.

Apple growers faced intense competition from French Golden Delicious from co-operatives, well-packed and of uniform, reliable quality. Some British producers started moving into southern Europe, parts of Africa and South America by forming international collaborations.

Supermarket shopping made consumers’ lives easier, more convenient and offered an ever-expanding range of fresh produce. Growers moved away from the local authority-run wholesale markets into contracts with the supermarkets. Garden centres continued their successful rise in popularity and several large chains emerged offering dry goods and plant sales.

Legislation affecting all aspects of crop production and the environment was harmonised across the EU. Pesticide use and registration were increasingly restricted and the numbers of permissible products reduced. Organic forms of husbandry — led by the mantra of "feeding the soil not the plant" — gained public support and political credibility. Rising alongside this were campaigns for rural and urban environmental protection and conservation encouraged by some far-sighted horticulturists.

Even bigger changes emerged in the mid 1980s and into the 1990s driven by social and political imperatives. Application of the "user-pays" concept stripped horticulture of many publicly supported advisory services, research and education providers. Further education colleges were released from local authority control and compulsory competitive tendering encouraged bidding from private landscaping companies for the care of local parks and gardens.

A system of statutory levies paid by producer companies increasingly supported research and development, steadily replacing a tax-funded system. Public funding was retained for blue-skies and basic studies with the result that Great Britain became a world leader in plant molecular biology and genetics.
Through the 1990s and 2000s the fresh-produce industry consolidated with many smaller companies going out of business, leaving fewer highly efficient large businesses. They supplied increasingly high-quality, high-value fresh produce all year round. This responded to consumers’ demands for younger, fresher and more interesting vegetables and salads as the "health and exercise generation" emerged.

Soft- and increasingly top-fruit cropping under cover dominated production, raising quality and reliability and allowing British growers an increasing share of that market.

The rate of change and the need for flexibility and efficiency increase each year as retail prices regulate the suppliers. Major strides in automation and robotics emerging in the 2010s mean that human muscle power has disappeared from most field operations. Early in the current decade GPS field guidance emerged and is now universally used, providing previously unimaginably accurate crop husbandry.

Electronics and photonics are now commonplace with, for example, irrigation controlled remotely via Wi-Fi, fertiliser applications respond automatically to variations in crop colour and high-speed post-harvest imaging sorts and grades produce. Automated molecular tests are performed in the field using a "lab-in-the-box" that issues instructions for pest and pathogen control.

Great Britain leads in environmental and social horticulture. Wild flower meadows formed the backdrop for the 2012 Olympics. Our heritage of historic and scientifically significant landscapes receives public support not least through lottery grants. Recognition of the relationship between fruit, vegetables and flowers with health and well-being has achieved social and political acceptance. Campaigns aimed at increasing public awareness of how food is produced are becoming widespread. This is crucial as predominately urbanised populations are increasingly divorced from the realities of the natural environment.

Future decades will see accelerating changes. Already the spectrum of crops is changing, Britain’s vineyards are producing world-class wines, warm temperate fruits such as apricots are appearing and the speed with which fresh salads mature is increasing. Science contributes to these changes. The environment is being altered by climatic change. This is evident in all gardens where leafing, bud break and flowering have accelerated over past decades.

Regrettably, novel pests and pathogens are invading and affecting the integrity of British landscapes. Here understanding the molecular communications between plant roots and beneficial microbes holds huge opportunities. Developing stress-tolerant plants with greater efficiency in "harvesting the sun" will benefit all forms of horticulture. Society will determine how and when these benefits are achieved.

? Professor Geoff Dixon is owner of GreenGene International and research fellow and visiting professor in the School of Policy, Agriculture & Development at the University of Reading. He first wrote for The Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1966 — on Central and South American plants.

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