Unlock our garden centres, says ALAN TITCHMARSH

Get Britain Blooming again: Unlock our garden centres – and feed the nation’s souls, says ALAN TITCHMARSH

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Like the majority of the population, I have been hunkered down at home for the past month, determined to do my bit to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Aside from the odd walk for exercise, I have been nowhere, but seldom have I felt more in tune with nature and ‘real life’ thanks to my garden.

Here, in glorious spring weather, among the daffodils and tulips, the cherry blossom and the fresh-mown grass, I can stay sane and reconnect with nature and the wider world, seemingly untouched by the troubles of humanity.

My garden has been my saviour, as it is for so many: a place to unwind and enjoy birdsong and flowers, to retain a sense of perspective and proportion, to grow vegetables and fruit which, we tell ourselves, taste so much better than those bought in the shops.

My garden has been my saviour, as it is for so many: a place to unwind and enjoy birdsong and flowers, writes Alan Titchmarsh, pictured in 2019 (file photo)

Gardening – often perceived as a suitable pastime for the old or those incapable of more intellectual pursuits – is rather more than that. It allows us to be interactive naturalists, rather than just spectators.

We sow, we plant, we take cuttings and we grow things – most often for our own delight but almost always with an eye to the wider benefits for birds, bees, butterflies and the secret world of insects upon whom our very survival depends.

In a garden, children have their first contact with nature – a journey of wonder that will lead to a greater understanding of their responsibility for the natural world. For gardeners not only beautify their own patch of earth, they contribute to the ecological value of the wider landscape – all these little patchwork squares, joining up to make an enormous and valuable tapestry.

But gardens need plants, and for the past month – thanks to the closure of garden centres and nurseries – all the plants that have been raised across the UK with a view to supplying a market whose peak activity is between March and May have been unable to leave their growers. They are sitting where they have been raised, going nowhere. We are told they have a value of about £200million and that laid side by side they would cover the City of Liverpool.

There will be those who scoff, claiming that bedding plants are of little significance in the greater scheme of things. They are wrong.

Bedding plants, with their brilliant flowers, raise our spirits as well as feeding butterflies and bees. They let Britain bloom from May to October – half our calendar year. They light up dreary towns and cities when planted on roundabouts and traffic islands, lifting our spirits and supporting a centuries-old tradition which is at the very core of the British psyche.

Mr Titchmarsh on BBC Breakfast, calling for Government support of plant nurseries and growers to prevent ‘irreparable damage’ to gardens and open spaces

Right now – with the country confined to its homes and gardens – we have never needed our summer flowers more. But it is not just the annuals, such as tobacco plants and petunias, French marigolds and busy lizzies, that are unavailable to us. We need the longer-lasting perennials, too, and the shrubs and trees that go towards making our gardens the best in the world.

We need seeds and compost, which, along with plants, we are unable to access except from over-stretched mail order companies – bless them – who are struggling to keep up with demand. There are economic implications, too. UK horticulture contributes almost £25billion to the national economy.

You could argue the case similarly for the economic values of the steel industry, for haulage and airlines, for bookshops and clothes shops all affected by lockdown.

But, when lockdown ends, all these industries will still hold their stock. The horticultural industry will not, for its goods are perishable, and in just a few weeks’ time they will have outgrown their containers, be past their sell-by date and have to be dumped.

Plants keep growing, regardless of man’s inconveniences, and by mid-June many growers will have faced such tremendous losses that they will be unable to survive.

Family businesses will fold. Folk who have grown plants for generations will have to find another way of earning a living – not that the basic horticultural wage has ever been a reason to grow plants.

We grow them because we have a feel for them; we enjoy greening up the planet; we regard plants and flowers as food for the soul as well as the body – part of life’s essentials. Gardening is a vocation, not just a job.

Government loans, which might save other industries, would place an unsustainable pressure on growers whose cash flow is such that they will be unable to pay off their debts. When they go out of business – as so many of them will – the plants they supplied will, in future years, have to be imported from Europe – so much for Brexit.

For all these reasons it is time the Government took the sensible step of allowing garden centres and nurseries to re-open and feed the nation’s souls as well as their stomachs. Protocols must be put in place – we have not come this far to throw it all away. But garden centre customers can be regulated in exactly the same way as those in Waitrose or Tesco or Asda or Sainsbury’s – rather easier, I would argue, since at this time of year the plant areas are outdoors, rather than under an air-conditioned roof which, surely, contributes its own hazards.

Plant areas in supermarkets have expanded – sales over the Easter weekend at Waitrose increased by 102 per cent. And yet those who make their entire living by growing or selling plants are not allowed to open their gates.

It is not only a grossly unjust state of affairs, it is a slap in the face for those whose lives are spent greening up Great Britain.

In seeking for a way to ease lock-down and provide an exit strategy, the reopening of garden centres and nurseries (never forget these smaller, family-run outlets) provides the perfect opportunity to lift the spirits of the nation and allow some kind of respite from domestic incarceration without compromising their health any more than a visit to a supermarket.

Social distancing can be maintained – we all know it is vital – but this need present no difficulty if sensible conditions are put in place.

In the quest to maintain the health of the nation, mental health must also be taken into account, and the ability to grow plants in our gardens – especially in the current circumstances – is a valuable engagement with nature that must not be overlooked.

It is high time that, as well as paying lip-service to the importance of mental health, those in power showed a practical commitment to it and recognised the value of gardens and open spaces as having a profound impact on the three areas considered the most vital concerns of society: health, law and order and education. Our gardens impinge on all three and it is high time that this was acknowledged.

If, in assessing the essentials of life, we can think no further than loo rolls and toothpaste then what was once a nation of gardeners will have entirely lost the plot.

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