Harry Watkins, Chair of the Landscape Institute Biosecurity Working Group, shares findings from the recent UN International Year of Plant Health launch event at Kew Gardens

“The scariest thing for me is the unknown” Adam Frost

Adam Frost is designing the Healthy Plants garden for the Plant Health Alliance at RHS Chelsea this year, and his feelings about biosecurity probably mirror many LI members’. Plant health is a specialist discipline that is fast-moving and highly technical, but nevertheless has a profound impact on the way that we work and the landscapes we make.

The UN-led International Year of Plant Health (IYPH) could not be timelier. We see the devastating impacts of pests and pathogens in our public spaces as ash trees are removed and restrictions placed on the buying and selling of oaks, while Covid 19 illustrates the struggles of societies to adapt to novel threats. The launch of the IYPH at Kew in February brought together a range of policy makers, researchers, plant growers and the landscape sectors to discuss how we can all adapt to these changing threats.

Throughout the day there was cause for hope and concern, often in the same sentence. From scientists, we learned how research into the Ash genome is revealing opportunities to breed Chalara-tolerant Ash – but where will this leave us if Emerald Ash Borer arrives?

Professor Richard Buggs also told us about the new capabilities of reducing the generation time of Ash trees from 10 years to one year, making it much faster to breed and select Chalara-tolerant Ash – but what physiological trade-offs will these genotypes have to make in order to reproduce at such a young age? And will these be appropriate for a changing climate?

We heard from tree growers who feared they will struggle to supply all the trees that we need to meet the promises of politician, but – as Professor Nicola Spence pointed out – never have trees been more popular. And what better opportunity is there to engage younger generations in the mission of conservation and a celebration of plant life?

Alongside the messages of hope and concern there was also much for us to think about in terms of developing guidance and a design-led response to plant health risks. For example, a concern among UK nurseries is that they do not have enough stock to meet the demand for new trees. However, this is due to the existing models of nursery production and design, with the expectation that designers and their clients want big and interesting trees.

As a result of this perception, much of the UK nursery industry is based around importing young trees and growing them on for short period before selling them in the UK for planting. Addressing this challenge therefore requires collaboration between nurseries and designers – if designers can encourage clients to accept smaller, younger trees, nurseries will be able to meet the demand for all these trees more quickly, with an increasing quantity of more bio-secure trees that are grown in Britain.

Throughout the day, the message of closer collaboration between sectors came through. However, if we are to collaborate meaningfully, we first need to examine our own practices. There were a number of calls for government to take more action and provide more funding, and while this would be welcome, it’s not the only response we should think about.

Responsibility for specifying and planting biosecure plants lies with us and there is lots of guidance available to us as LI members to help us do this. Similarly, the role of institutions is key. In 2012, Confor introduced a new requirement for all forestry nurseries to provide provenance data on every tree they produce – not because of member demand, but in spite of it.

While I’m not calling for the LI to impose requirements on members, this intervention has had a major positive impact on the industry and is a good example of how proactive, imaginative action by institutions and individuals can be transformational.

Access the LI’s biosecurity toolkit for landscape practitioners here

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