At the end of last year I attended the annual reception of the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group at the Houses of Parliament. Despite the historic setting, the wine and the canapés, there was a rather sombre mood among the gathered industry figures, gardening media, civil servants and politicians.
Last year was an awful year for UK horticulture. The industry employs more than 200,000 people and is worth more than £9bn, but with consumer spending already suppressed, the early spring served up a drought, with hosepipe restrictions coming into force just in time for the heavens to open – at the time when the sector banks the bulk of its cash.
For three months the rain hardly stopped, only lifting when the gardening season was coming to an end. Year-on-year losses seemed to average about 20 per cent for most businesses. Nobody was spared: garden visiting and tourism were hit, along with sales of magazines, books, barbecues and garden furniture. Size was no protector either. B&Q’s parent company’s profits fell £25m.
So when the various speakers stood up to address the group, we listened. Resilience and optimism go hand in hand with gardening – if you can’t take a knock, don’t pick up a trowel. We will rally next year, was the general theme. One speaker, the chief executive of a $3bn international corporation, had a message that really hit home. The future for horticulture, he said, was online.
In any other industry that statement would raise no more than a shrug. But gardening business has been comparatively slow to come to the internet. For small, specialist nurseries that have traditionally relied on mail-order trade, the switch to online retailing is more natural, providing that the supplier has the will to embrace the medium. The same can be said of seed companies, who produce a lightweight, easily shipped product that cannot die in transit. Larger items, and in particular large living items, throw up all sorts of logistical problems.
The challenge of delivering a dozen mature bay trees from London to Manchester over a bank holiday weekend is one that the business I manage decided not to take on. In the US, the challenge is to do with cultivation as much as logistics. The scope to supply plants nationally from a single geographical point is almost impossible because of the country’s wildly differing climatic zones; there isn’t much point in a grower in Massachusetts offering a service to gardeners in Arizona. And national boundaries create physical barriers for domestic plant sales – phytosanitary certificates and plant passports are required to ship plants from country to country.
The garden sundries market is an easier proposition online. Pots can be shipped worldwide, as can raised beds, fruit cages and tools.
UK-based Niwaki is an example of how the internet has opened up opportunities for suppliers of niche sundries. As the sole UK importer of handmade Japanese pruning tools, the company’s business model would have been almost impossible without the internet.
There is also something about knowledge acquisition and gardening that seems at a variance to the lightning speed of the internet.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, there are at least 100,000 different plants (species and cultivars) available on sale in the UK alone today; just being able to identify those would take most of us a lifetime.
There is a lingering sense that gardening knowledge is something that must be slowly accumulated, absorbed through osmosis rather than crassly cribbed. And knowledge comes too from the passage of seasons, each one a succession of failures and triumphs – the failures almost always teaching us more than the triumphs.
The holders of the greatest gardening knowledge should, therefore, ideally be as ancient and gnarly as an old olive tree, and information should come via a slow trickle, not a superhighway.
But as the internet has brought access to instant expertise to every other area of life, so it has to gardening. I have a 350-volume gardening library, much of it inherited, as all the best gardening libraries should be. It may be littered with venerable tomes that impress from the shelves but the books cannot tell me in two clicks that the top ranked gardening blog is the US-based Garden Rant, according to data compiled by BlogRank, or that Crocus is the largest online plant retailer in the UK (4,000-plus different plants). Nor can it help me find a decent-sized multi-stemmed specimen of Amelanchier lamarckii at a keen price for delivery to my door first thing Monday morning.
For the established gardening media, the challenge is the same as all other print media; how to monetise content that is “pay for” on paper but can easily be copied and viewed free online. The biggest-selling UK gardening magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World, has been ramping up its online content since the title (together with numerous other BBC-branded magazines) was bought by Immediate Media. Its online content sits alongside the printed magazine and takes the form of blogs from contributors, practical advice and discussion forums.
Horticulture magazines in the US take a similar approach, with downloadable content and video clips alongside forums and blogs. They, and the other big players such as the RHS Gardening magazine, have to tread a fine line between providing free content from extensive archives while not undermining the reason to subscribe to the printed magazine. The absence of a printed format removes the dilemma and enables a radically different approach.
Shoot Gardening is a website that combines forums, online shopping and practical advice with a membership offer. At the basic free level, membership gives you access to design tips and advice for some of the plants in your garden. Pay a subscription and you can pretty much plug your whole garden in and get tailored advice in return.
At the glossier end of the market is Into Gardens, the first gardening magazine designed for the iPad and iPhone – with an Android OS version on the way. What Into Gardens demonstrates beautifully is the difference between an app designed for – and therefore optimised for – the interactive touchscreen world, as opposed to a printed magazine reformatted for online viewing.
Luscious, picture-led features are dotted with “hot spots” enabling instant touchscreen gratification should you see something you want to know more about or buy on the spot. The design enables interactive features such as sharing and adding to notebooks.
Embedded video clips, practical tips and quirky commentary add to the lively content, while the photographs on retina devices have a depth and clarity that is almost impossible in printed formats.
In the iPhone format, the portability of the device means that you really could take the clips of expert practical advice into the garden and follow them dig for dig, snip for snip.
While retail gardening is still finding its way, the area that has really thrived in the online environment is blogging. Garden Rant was set up in 2006 by a group of gardeners across the US. It works in part as an information exchange, part polemic, the “rant” often eliciting the most entertaining responses from readers. Much of the appeal comes from the geographic spread of the founding contributors, which ensures there are plenty of “I wish I could grow that” comparisons.
Part of what makes gardening blogs work is the natural generosity of gardeners when it comes to sharing knowledge. Follow the train of comments from a blog post and there will often be a whole raft of varying experience and layers of advice, sometimes conflicting but often building from one comment to the next. However, caveats apply. Fail to pick up on geographical nuances and you might end up planting something highly inappropriate in your garden.
And there is as much misinformation as there is information, with some poorly qualified bloggers posing as experts.
But among the flash and trash there is plenty of quality, including gnarly old olive trees such as the writer and broadcaster Nigel Colborn with his Silvertreedaze blog, the pithy and long established This Garden is Illegal and the environmentally pointed Habitat Aid blog.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries