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The Year of Plant Health

Ben Raskin, Soil Association’s head of horticulture, shares tips on how to grow healthy plants
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
The Year of Plant Health

This article first appeared in our Health Revolution issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 24 July 2020. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

As a horticulturalist I am always pleased to see plants getting some limelight. It’s five years since the Year of Soils, and that focus did indeed help to invigorate discussions about soil.

In the UK, at least, it helped to reframe the debate around how we support farmers to protect our environment while producing food. 2020, the UN’s Year of Plant Health, could do the same for plants.

Breeding for diversity

If I wanted to grow a healthy plant I’d want to start with the right genetics; there’s no point trying to grow a weak plant or one unsuited to our climate.

Finding a good variety that can withstand the most common diseases – such as scab in apples or black spot in roses – is vital.
As our climate becomes less predictable it becomes harder to breed for specific beneficial traits, so for vegetables we should be focusing on breeding for diversity.

Open-pollinated varieties have a wider range of traits than F1 hybrids (the first filial generation of offspring of distinctly different parental types) or GM varieties, and can offer a better chance of plants surviving a range of different challenges.

Assuming you have the right variety, you’ll also want to make sure it’s not infected with something that you will never get rid of.

Introducing infections

A big part of the UN’s plant health campaign is around maintaining phytosanitary standards when selling and buying plants. The devastation we are now seeing in our ash trees is testament to what can happen when we get things wrong.

While we are promoting tree planting to help climate change, particularly in agroforestry systems, we do need to make sure that we are not introducing infected trees from around the world.

I got quite excited by a conversation I had at the Oxford Real Farming Conference about sowing tree seeds in a woodchip mulch. This means we can harvest locally sourced seeds, and potentially reduce the plastic from all the tree guards.

Healthy plants and environments

Having a clean, healthy plant is no good however if you put it in the wrong environment or in poor soil. So the next crucial bit is how you care for your plants.

Keeping a plant healthy does not need to mean eliminating pests and diseases, or trying to create a sterile weed-free environment. It should be about giving a plant the vitality and strength it needs to withstand disease.

I have often seen one weak plant in a field covered with a pest or ravaged with disease while those stronger plants around it appear untouched.

Keeping our soils healthy and our biodiversity intact are the most powerful tools for anyone who wants to ensure healthy plants.

Where to buy plants

Where you buy your plants from is important. It is easy to get tempted by discounts and attractive offers at major retailers, but these plants are not always the best option.

A plant that has been stressed – usually by underwatering, but sometimes by extremes of temperature – may not thrive once planted.

If you can, buy your plants from reputable plant raisers. If you don’t have one locally, look online – there are loads of great nurseries selling organic plants and unusual varieties. Many plants travel fine provided they are unpacked quickly on arrival. This is also a great way to support independent businesses.

For imported plants, check that the plant and nursery have gone through the right health checks – this is particularly important for trees.

Keeping your plants healthy

I don’t always manage to plant my new purchases promptly; if you are the same, make sure you look after them – and especially keep them watered – until you can get them in the ground.

If you are not quite ready to pop them into their final position, then you can pot them on in a slightly bigger pot to keep them happy temporarily.

If you are buying seeds then look out for open-pollinated varieties; there are suppliers in the UK and beyond, many of which are also organically certified. Tamar Organic, Biodynamic Seed Cooperative and Real Seeds are three great options.

If you want to take it to the next level, you can start saving your own seed for a locally adapted strain of flower or vegetable.

And of course, as always, feeding the soil to keep it healthy is key – compost, or well-composted manure or woodchip, are great ways to build your soil’s organic matter and health.

Investing in horticulture

The final piece in the jigsaw is the protection of plants, yet for too long there has been underinvestment
in horticulture.

Despite its impressive economic record – bringing in 25% of the revenue from land-based industries despite only taking up 4% of the land – horticulture still can’t shake off its image of being for people who have failed at school.

Though I have worked with many talented growers who found their niche after being failed by our education system, horticulture also attracts ‘second careerers’ like myself.

Without proper investment in attracting and training the best individuals, it will not be possible to achieve ‘plant health’.

Despite the current government’s apparent lack of interest in farming, we need to grow more of our own food and we need lots of new growers to make this happen.

Let’s hope the Year of Plant Health can help to change the conversation.

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