Brexit. Is there any other word that provokes such a potent mix of anxiety, ennui, fury and despair? As gardeners it's made us realise how much we've taken for granted the close horticultural relationship with our nearest neighbours and the relative ease with which we can order online hard-to-get varieties not readily available in this country.
How, when returning from a trip to a British garden, show or specialist nursery, we can tuck those impulse plant purchases into our luggage or car boot, safe in the knowledge that there will be no problems as regards customs or border controls. Similarly there was that same ease of mind when it came to the country's garden groups enticing expert UK-based speakers or specialist nurseries to come to Ireland. Ditto as regards specialist tours of the UK's many beautiful gardens and garden shows.
So what can we expect if the worst comes to pass? I asked some of the country’s best-known gardeners how it will affect what they do.
As the owner of Altamont Plants, the wonderful garden centre/nursery in the walled garden of Altamont, Co Carlow, Robert Miller is well known as a discerning plants man with a passion for hard-to-get but garden-worthy varieties.
He's also one of the organisers of the annual snowdrop gala that typically takes place each February at nearby Ballykealey Manor with a host of specialist speakers including many from the United Kingdom.
In a normal year, the event would also include several sell-out pop-up stalls in Altamont's walled gardens by some of the UK's best-regarded specialist growers including Avon Bulbs (known for their outstanding selection of snowdrops ) and Ashwood Nurseries and Harvington Hellebores, both known for their exquisite hellebores. But Miller says it's been a nightmare trying to anticipate what will happen as regards the 2020 gala.
"For example, we've a large group coming to the gala by ferry from Europe via Belfast who had planned on stocking up on plants before heading on to France, The problem is that that they can only get to France via the UK (there are no direct ferries from Ireland at that time of year), so if Brexit goes ahead they're then faced with the predicament of trying to get all their new plant purchases safely through UK custom controls."
Miller suggests that the only silver lining to the Brexit cloud is the possibility that it encourages the establishment of new specialist nurseries here in Ireland.
“A lot of the plants that we source from small UK nurseries are relatively expensive and hard to get because they’re difficult to propagate quickly and in large numbers. Someone with the right skills set could use this as a business opportunity to fill the gap that Brexit leaves behind.”
For Chris Ireland-Jones, owner of well-known specialist UK nursery Avon Bulbs, the looming threat of Brexit spells potential disaster.
“It’s a real mess. We do a lot of business with gardeners throughout Europe but the extra costs and time involved in terms of applying for phytosanitary certification [legal documents required by the EU and issued by the non-EU country of origin certifying that the imported plants are free from harmful pests and diseases] would create such difficulties that it would no longer be cost effective.”
For the moment he still plans on getting his plants to Altamont for next spring’s Snowdrop Gala, even if this involves bringing them over to Ireland many months earlier to beat the Brexit deadline. “But sadly that’s not sustainable in the long term.”
Irish specialist nurseries
Those same concerns will be shared by smaller Irish specialist nurseries or horticultural suppliers that source plants, bulbs or tubers from the UK, making them more costly and time consuming to obtain. As for sourcing seeds, from UK suppliers, that's not yet clear; Chiltern Seeds say its been given no information yet as to how Brexit may affect their Irish customers. Similarly, Northern-Irish based members of the Irish Specialist Nursery Association will possibly face problems when it comes to taking part in the association's many shows here in the Republic after Brexit.
For Hester Forde, the well-known Cork gardener and owner of the small specialist nursery Coosheen Plants, Brexit will radically change her gardening habits. She regularly travels to the UK to attend many of its celebrated plant fairs and garden shows including those held annually at Great Dixter, Sussex Prairie Garden and Hampton Court, filling up her car with choice varieties that she can't source in Ireland. After Brexit she will be heading to mainland Europe instead.
"It's going to be a huge issue for many Irish gardeners, right down to the problem of attracting UK-based specialist garden speakers to Ireland to give talks. I help organise the monthly talks for the Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society and at present two-thirds of our speakers come from the UK. Many would bring plants to sell, a great way for them to make their trip profitable and for our members to source unusual plants. That won't be possible after Brexit."
Paul Martin, the gold-medal winning Irish garden designer, says Brexit will also have consequences for Irish designers in terms of easily accessing plants for events such as the Chelsea Flower Show as well as for private UK-based clients'.
“Yes, we’re concerned as to what will happen. That said, the UK authorities are already clamping down on plant imports in recent months, citing the risk of pests and diseases. Any plants being used in an RHS Chelsea show garden already need to be quarantined in the UK six to seven months in advance with very significant consequences for designers and sponsors in terms of costs and availability. It just makes it all much more difficult.”
Wexford-based Frances MacDonald of Bay Gardens, the Travel Department’s Garden Tours Manager who regularly bring groups on tours of the UK’s gardens and garden shows, sounds a more cheerful note.
“I’ve been in the business for 25 years and we’ve always had to adapt to change so I’m not too concerned. The Travel Department has assured its customers that that its garden tours to the UK will go ahead no matter what.
“Yes, there will be issues with insurance [after Brexit the EU health insurance card will no longer cover visitors to the UK] but these are easily solved. Yes, it makes it difficult to bring plants home but we have such great garden centres and nurseries here in Ireland that it really isn’t something to worry about. As I like to remind people, we’re gardeners, not Syrian refugees. We should count ourselves lucky.”
THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN
Order sweet-pea seed for sowing next month. Transplanted into their permanent growing positions next March, these autumn-sown plants will give you ultra-strong, vigorous, early-flowering floriferous plants next summer. It's also possible to grow very early-flowering varieties (known as Early Multiflora and Gawler) under cover of a glasshouse/polytunnel to give you sweetly scented blooms as early as April. Specialist online suppliers of fresh, high-quality sweet pea seed include Roger Parsons (rpsweetpeas.com) and Somerset Sweet Pea.
Dahlia tubers are notorious for getting mixed up leading to some truly nasty colour clashes in the garden as well as some unwanted varieties. So it’s a good idea to label your dahlias before the first of autumn’s harsh frosts blackens their foliage and flowers. If you don’t know the species/varietal name, then include a brief description of flower colour and height. Any varieties that you don’t want to keep can be given away. Alternatively, consider eating the tasty fleshy tubers of this Central and South American plant, which was once greatly prized by the Aztecs as a food crop.
The annual Sculpture In Context show at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin is one of the biggest group shows in the country with work by more than 120 Irish and international artists on display throughout the gardens as well as in the Bots’ Palm House and Curvilinear Range until October 18th.
For further details of the event and the artists exhibiting, see sculptureincontext.com
The Irish Seed Savers Association's Big Workshop Weekend on Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th of September includes a host of excellent one-day hands-on workshops/courses on foraging for wild food, making your own herbal medicine, identifying birdsong and making the most of your polytunnel.
Participants can choose to do just one workshop or book in for two. See irishseedsavers.ie to book online or call 061-921866 or 921856. Each course/workshop costs €70 with 10 per cent discount for Irish Seed Savers supporters.
Dates For Your Diary
Tuesday September 24th, Foxrock Parish Pastoral Centre on behalf of Foxrock & District Garden Club and then again on Thursday September 26th (8pm) at Northridge House, Mahon, Cork, on behalf of Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society, Wollerton Old Hall; The Garden, a talk by Phil Smith, head gardener of Wollerton Old Hall Garden in the UK, see foxrockgardenclub.com and facebook.com/CorkAlpineHardyPlantSociety/ for details; Saturday September 28th, Featherfield Farm, Lullymore West, Rathangan, Co Kildare, Growing Your Own Cut Flowers, a one-day workshop with Fionnuala Fallon on how to propagate and grow cut flowers seasonally and sustainably, €80 (includes lunch), see featherfieldfarm.ie; October 3rd-October 5th, Kilkenny castle, Kilkenny, In Celebration of the Rose; Its Evolving Role in Garden Design, Art & Floristry, the 27th Northern Ireland Heritage Garden Trust annual conference with a host of expert guest speakers including the well-known UK-based florist and author Shane Connolly, Assumpta Broomfield, Neil Porteous, Brent Elliott and others. Tickets £80-£230, see nihgc.org for details.