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Coronavirus has put us on gardening leave – so let’s garden

The lockdown could precipitate a horticultural revolution, one that could make life post-virus more sustainable

Donnachadh McCarthy
Sunday 26 April 2020 13:00
Prof Stephen Powis stresses importance of social distancing after UK passes 20,000 coronavirus deaths

As the Covid-19 crisis envelopes our care homes and hospitals, little green shoots of a new, more life-protecting, post-coronavirus world are springing up in homes across Britain.

When the lockdown began, garden centres were inundated with orders for fruit and vegetable plants and seeds. Garden Organic, the charity promoting organic gardening, had to suspend online orders at one stage, in order to clear a backlog.

Garden centres were not included in the list of essential businesses and so were closed to shoppers. March to June is their busiest period of the year, when nearly 70 per cent of plant sales are made. Millions of annual flowering plants are likely to have to be composted.

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) has said there are fears that nearly a third of growers could go bust.

However, some closed garden centres are developing new online sales and local delivery systems. Walworth Garden Farm, a local charity promoting inner-city food-growing near where I live, has started an online service to deliver food-crop seedlings, organic compost and fruit bushes in the local area, to help the charity survive the closure.

The HTA has set up a website where people enter their postcode to find their nearest garden centre that has an online delivery service.

But it is crucial that coronavirus’s warning from nature to humanity is heard. It is not just a call to radically reduce driving, flying and consumerism, but also to radically reduce the destructiveness of the food we eat and how we grow it.

All of us have to change. Food consumers, gardeners, farmers and, yes, the horticulture industry.

Our current food systems emit enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. In the UK, food consumption accounts for about two tons of CO2 per person annually. Seventy-five per cent of UK agricultural land is devoured by the meat and dairy industries, and about 50 per cent of all UK food is imported.

The meat industry is bulldozing through our remaining rainforests.

Industrial farming is squandering the soil on which future generations depend.

But the boom in fruit and vegetable seed sales provoked by the Covid-19 crisis gives hope that just maybe a green horticultural revolution may be about to sweep Britain. A revolution that will change the way we garden for generations to come.

The horticultural industry has for too long been part of the war on nature. It produces 500 million plant pots in the UK every year, according to the HTA. Meanwhile, garden centres are full of bottled toxic pesticides and “weed” killers. For too long, their flowering plants were treated with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which devastated bee and insect populations.

The industry also profits from the destruction of carbon-rich peatland habitats.

And for too long, the industry focused on “ornamental” trees, shrubs and flowers and pristine lawns

I have never understood why people planted ornamental cherry blossom trees in their gardens and not actual cherry or other fruit trees. My little garden in Peckham, having planted dwarf-rooted fruit trees over the years, has been a blaze of beautiful blossoms during the Covid-19 pause, which not only gives me joy but will provide a summer of delicious, fresh, free fruit. I have trained them into a fruiting hedge along both sides of the garden – a “fredge” as editor of Permaculture magazine Maggie Harland told me it was called, when she came to visit my retro-eco home.

Until now, due to the small size of my garden, I concentrated on planting perennial fruit, salad and herbs, as I love the idea of planting once and then harvesting for years to come. But the lockdown has led me to scour the web for ideas on how to maximise food-growing in my small garden. I have built new raised beds on the concreted patio; built frames to allow vertical growing of courgettes, tomatoes and squashes; and am reclaiming for food production even more of the small grassed area that I had left. My spare bedroom has been converted into a seedling nursery around its sunny window! Facebook friends have proudly posted pictures showing how they were converting large sections of their useless lawns to vegetable growing.

A recent study by the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield reported that using just 10 per cent of a city’s gardens and other urban green spaces could provide 15 per cent of most UK city populations with their five-a-day fruit and vegetable requirements.

More social housing estate tenants should be allowed to turn the grass deserts surrounding their tower blocks into community orchards and allotments, to enable people on low incomes access to free, healthy, organic food.

Councils should require all new housing developments outside of city centres, to include communal orchards and space for growing food.

Covid-19 has given millions of us unprecedented simultaneous gardening leave. As our NHS and care workers battle on the front lines, let us all pledge to support a horticultural revolution, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pause, that helps protect the lives of our younger generations from the ravages of the climate and ecological emergencies now engulfing us.

Let us dig for climate and ecological victory!

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