We are in the midst of RHS exam week here in Manea. February may seem an unusual time for exams – but in the world of horticulture this is a relatively quiet time, so ideal for testing the science behind the practice!
Sometimes we do get asked how important it is to actually know about the structure of plants or the composition of soil, the life cycle of pests or why we propagate plants in a particular way.
True, many Head Gardeners in the past may not have had any formal training, but they would have been working with the plants and the soil for many hours a day from a young age to learn their trade.
Many of our students are ‘career changers’ and our role is to speed them on their way in this modern world. Some things can only be learnt by practical training, but a background of knowing how plants and the soil work certainly helps when out ‘in the field’.
Horticulture and gardening has changed enormously in the last few years. Health and safety, sustainability, and environmental awareness certainly did not feature highly on my training back in the late 1970’s. I remember only too vividly having to learn about insecticides, fungicides, herbicides in crop production lessons.
Considering that I had entered into the field of horticulture because it enabled me to work ‘outside’, this did not sit well with my love of nature. My questioning of ‘why?’ we had to spray all the time did not go down well!
Times have changed. Farmers, growers and gardeners are now, in the main, far more aware of the need to look after our environment. Many of the more harmful sprays have, of course, been banned, making us look for more sustainable methods of dealing with ‘problems’.
Plant breeding has done much to help, with the introduction of pest and disease resistant cultivars of fruit and vegetables. Carrot ‘Resistafly’ helps with carrot root fly, whilst Potato ‘Sarpo Mira’ is resistant against potato blight, virus, slugs and drought.
Knowing the life cycles of pests means we can watch our plants at vulnerable times and either prevent the pest taking hold, or deal with it in an early stage.
Knowing about soil types, including texture and pH, can help us select plants appropriate to our ground, so they will grow more healthily and be less prone to problems. As will knowledge of the plants’ natural habitat – sun or shade, dry or moist. A happy plant is a healthy plant!
Understanding the nutrition required by plants can ensure we do not use fertilisers unnecessarily. Having just covered this on the course, many students realise how much they have been ‘overdosing’ their land. A soil that has been cared for, with the addition of natural organic matter, such as garden compost or manure, usually needs very little in the way of added nutrients in such a concentrated form.
Plants are very good at extracting what they need from the soil and adding fertilisers should be done with due care; sappy growth is prone to pest and disease attack, nutrients can leach through the soil and pollute water courses, and some nutrients can ‘tie up’ others, making them unavailable.
Next week I will look at ways in which we can feed our plants more naturally, and for free!
- Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre)