What's in store for professional gardening in 2017?

Increasing visitor numbers, more self-employment, training developments and disease risk.

Trentham Gardens: attraction has been open all year round since 2004 reopening
Trentham Gardens: attraction has been open all year round since 2004 reopening

An uncertain world is good news for garden attractions, according to National Trust head of gardens Mike Calnan, who says changing times make people cherish their heritage more.

"Period dramas are part of this trend as are National Trust visitor and membership numbers, now a staggering 4.6 million, with many of these attracted by our gardens, which are more popular than ever." He expects to see the rise in visitors attracted to National Trust gardens by last year's Capability Brown festival to be sustained this year.

A more recent example of garden heritage at Standen is due to reopen in February, on the completion of a five-year £500,000 project to restore the original arts and crafts-inspired garden. Work will also start on the fifth RHS garden in Bridgewater, and the first RHS flower show will take place at Chatsworth.

The last quarter of 2016 was boom time for many gardens and arboreta, with many recording their best autumn colour and best visitor numbers to date, with the Brexit effect being seen as a factor, particularly for foreign visitors. Michael Walker, head of garden and estate at Trentham Gardens, expects more people to holiday in the UK this year as a result.

"Maybe gardens will be increasingly recognised for the value they offer to developing the economy of the UK's tourism. We should be well prepared to see visitor numbers grow further as it seems the public have an increasing interest in visiting the UK's gardens.

"I sense an increasing interest in finding new ways to make the garden offer more relevant and interesting to their target audiences. Trentham has opened the garden all year around since it reopened in 2004. However, we are now seeing many other gardens experiencing that visitors continue to enjoy their annual ticket arrangements all year around - particularly when this is supported with a wider offer."

Professional gardening itself will become more professional in 2017, with an increasing move towards self-employment, according to senior consultant Alan Sargent. Gardeners may work for one property or several but are less likely to clock up multi-year tenures. "When people are retiring they aren't being replaced in the way they were before," he said.

Dovetailing with this trend, The Professional Gardeners' Guild 2017 revamp will present the organisation in a more corporate way. Chairman Tony Arnold hopes this will help the guild appeal to a wider audience, especially younger gardeners.

There will be a continued drive towards training and encouraging new people to professionalise their interest in gardening. The National Trust's heritage gardening programme gets into full swing this year with a formal structure to provide better training and career development opportunities.

Volunteers can also train with the connected Heritage Skills Passport scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This gives the opportunity to acquire a wide range of horticultural skills by tracking the user's development and linking to available training courses.

Walker says: "The value of skills and experience continues to underpin the way forward for our profession and the business it supports. It is important that training schemes continue to be delivered to ensure that our gardens are able to grasp the opportunities ahead of us all."

There will be an increasing trend for more on-site training by visiting consultants, according to Sargent, especially in an environment where senior staff may have retired and the experience is no longer in the garden to pass on.

PESTS AND DISEASES

Gardeners and consultants alike will continue to be vigilant with regard to pests and diseases in 2017. National Trust plant conservation specialist Simon Toomer says Xylella fastidiosa, plane wilt disease (Ceratocystis platani), emerald ash borer and sweet chestnut blight have not yet reached the UK but there is a danger that they will in 2017.

He expects to see more incidents of sirococcus blight of cedar, oak processionary moth, ash dieback, box blight, box tree caterpillar, agapanthus gall midge, aquilegia downy mildew, narcissus leaf scorch and Oriental chestnut gall wasp. The trust had further raised biosecurity standards in its gardens, he adds.

The reality of disease risk means that gardens and arboreta must carefully consider their choice of species where the original planting in a historical landscape is now highly susceptible to disease. Toomer says: "We don't want to lose the heritage of these landscapes but we need to adapt them for a more risky world of plant diseases, which is not without its challenges."


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