Saturday 8 December 2018

We are gardeners - not commercial growers

A bird on his head and a bee in his bonnet

The emphasis is the word ‘commercial’; some of the best growers I know are actually amateur gardeners.
My theme today is that we are gardeners in one of its myriad of forms. Don’t let us pretend that we are anything else.
Yet we all garden in individual ways.

A rum bunch
There are many sectors of horticulture and it has long been my belief that we can all learn from each other. Knowledge of plants and how they grow is transferable. The groundsman can learn from the vegetable grower and vice versa. 
Horticulture is huge and varied. It includes such as growing under glass and plastic in many different guises with diversity magnified by the variation between individual ‘specialist’ crops - carnations to tomatoes, or perhaps orchids to lettuce or herbs? 

Still high standards at Harrogate Parks Dept
At the other extreme we might have landscape construction and landscape design, or management of parks and botanic gardens.

Raised and bred to look good on a Dutch tray
And that’s not to mention garden centres - I need to talk about them!

Let me go further. We can learn much from agriculture and as in all the above cases scientific research done in all sectors. Modern farmers can learn from ecologists and soil scientists and dare I say gardeners?
(I once knew a farmer who used modern efficient and effective fertilisers in his fields but used rubbish bonemeal in his garden. How’s that for being blind to transferable facts?)

Very dodgy character
Today I put these things to one side and to tell you that in your garden you should do your own thing (and alongside this to ignore most gardening gurus including myself) I write today of several areas where we need to be different

Growers' composts grow great plants - but...
Growers have a huge number of specialist composts honed to the precise requirement of their specialist crops and system of growing. Frequently their plants are grown ‘soft’ under very wet regimes with constant liquid feeding. Garden centre composts are things very different to actual soil, Sadly there are very few good composts for gardeners, most is really quite rubbish. In the past we connected with growers because we both used genuine John Innes composts. Not any more.

I have been playing with my soil/char compost again
My personal feeling is that gardeners should consider a move back to soil based composts where possible using their best garden soil. Readers will know I make up my own compost using my silty sand soil and these days almost always include up to half homemade charcoal. (You can find numerous articles about my methods by searching this blog)

Growers strive for uniformity. They wish to automate and want to treat huge batches of plants in precisely the same way. They often want to harvest these batches all at the same time. So very different to what we gardeners need at home.

Gardeners can enjoy grower quality and prices at Mole seeds
Take seed. F1 hybrids with their extreme uniformity enables growers to sell the produce from a field or a greenhouse all on the same day. With our own produce we want to stagger production. 
Don’t get me wrong, it is sometimes appropriate for amateurs to enjoy the disease resistance and vigour bred into F1 hybrids. I would not dream of sowing old open pollinated tomatoes!

F1 Shirley is an old growers' variety excellent for the amateur

This machine can pot more than a thousand identical pots in an hour
It follows from uniformity that professionals can automate their systems. Such as water, ventilate, plant, feed and heat - each at the same time.
My plants in my own greenhouse are extremely variable. Over the year hundreds of plants all different in variety and size. It would be culturally decadent to water them all at the same time. Maybe in really hot weather they all need watering on single occasion and I get out my hosepipe. In other conditions I squirt differentially and in Winter rely on my can. If I had the wealth of Croesus it would just be the same. For some gardeners fancy systems might have a place.

We used to teach our students extreme horticultural hygiene and the amateur gardening press says the same thing. If you are tidy minded or obsessively always cleaning and squirting all manner of concoctions at home you will be horrified at my own lack of gardening ‘cleanliness’. 
I will leave on one side my previous offerings of the merit of leaving decaying organic matter lying around in the garden!

It is necessary for commercial growers to sustain extreme control of pest and diseases. In large monocultures if pest and disease get out of hand it is fatal. Growers use all manner of chemicals to prevent it. Sometimes fungal disease might be latent and are suppressed by regular fungicide application - woe betide the gardener who innocently buys such plants and they later go under.

Hygiene is all very well as long as you maintain it and we preach for example all that rigmarole of cleanly precautions against damping off on our seedlings. Unfortunately what happens is that if one element of your control inevitably breaks down such diseases thrive where there is no natural fungal or bacterial competition. Grow your seed in good light, desist from excessive Winter artificial heating, ventilate freely, water correctly and avoid excessive humidity with glass and plastic and you will almost never encounter this scourge. I have not suffered damping off for many years now (or perhaps I have just not noticed)

I do practice one kind of hygiene. That is refusing to introduce into my garden new plants with brown scale, mealy bug, vine weevil, red spider mite and whitefly. If I fail I ruthlessly dump them. We do have a minor problem of scale insect on the orchids but otherwise none of these pests. (I was caught out with some primulas a friend gave me in a peat compost but eventually spotted the vine weevil larvae and crushed them. Fortunately vine weevils do not like my soil based compost)
To be fair to garden centres although I am often critical of soft plants' survival, when it comes to absence of pests they have a good record.

I do not necessarily recommend it but I routinely do all these dreadful things
1. Fail to clean used pots and containers
2. Recycle almost all my old soil/char compost where  necessary freshening it up with more fertiliser and for certain plants dolomitic lime dust (dolodust).
3.When repotting scrape any pearlwort, liverwort or algae  into the bottom of any new pot.  NOT the oxalis!


You will have to wait to find out what I am up to here
Economies of scale allow growers to buy large bags of fertiliser to the exact type and analysis they need.
Influenced by snake oilers amateurs tend to do the same buying a huge range of small bags. ‘Special’ amateur fertilisers rarely do what they claim on the packet, many are rubbish and in small bags are hugely expensive. I perhaps go to the extreme of using just ONE fertiliser for all my gardening needs (save iron sulphate for my lawn but can claim that as a moss killer). Conditions apply.

You might sensibly prefer to liquid feed rather than top dress
A 25kg bag of Yaramila compound fertiliser lasts me a long time

Out of season production
Ever admired the beautiful winter turf at Arsenal or the winter greens on the golf course?  Should our lawns be treated the same?

Commercial growers strive to fill any market for such things as plants, flowers and (inevitably) tasteless tomatoes. They have automated greenhouses with much better and precise heating, superior light transmission and ventilation.
I cringe when amateurs start up their plants far too early. No wonder they succumb to all that pest and disease.

I do draw out my tomato season but for commercial sale by December my scruffy (and still delicious) tomatoes would  not pass muster. This is another difference to growers. Much of our produce would never sell but it is nutritious and tasty. 

You will never find delicious sprout sprouts in the shop
and if you propagate your plants for yourself or to give to friends they do actually grow….


More details on my suggestion that a single compound fertiliser will satisfy most of your requirements

More about dirty pots and damping off

I wonder how long you need to keep a purchased plant before you feel you have grown it?


  1. We don’t clean pots and trays either. We just brush them out with a dry brush before reusing. Washing loads of pots etc isn’t my idea of fun! Our veg wouldn’t win any beauty competitions either. I do laugh at what supermarkets dub to be wonky veg. We would call them perfect specimens.

    1. Yes it is still awful what is wasted.
      Your veg look pretty good to me Sue!

  2. I leave my clay pots empty upside down for the rain to give them a good wash....then a bit of sun too. If a plant isn't doing too well...I think it is time to take it out of its pot and do a little investigation of the roots. If in doubt take cuttings and start again!

    1. I like your relaxed approach Stasher. And green fingered too

  3. I was interested in your statement that most kinds of bagged compost sold to gardeners is rubbish. What about mushroom compost? Or is that something gardeners use in the UK?

    1. I exaggerated just a little Jason
      I think we might have a language difficulty here - in the UK we have seed and potting composts and also compost heap type compost. I was referring to potting compost although come to think of it my comment probably applies to either!
      As to spent mushroom compost we can sometimes get it as an additive to soil for its manurial properties - it is as you know a product from mushroom production


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