Environmental Horticulture

Dr Ross Cameron of the University of Sheffield outlines his latest book (Environmental Horticulture – Science and Management of Green Landscapes), co-authored with Prof. James Hitchmough and how writing the book can sometimes be easier than settling on a name that everyone approves of.

What’s in a Name? ‘Environmental Horticulture’ ….

  • Some sort of hippy gardening book then? Are there not a few of those around already – planting in line with the phase of the moon and all that?
  • Aren’t ‘Environmental’ and ‘Horticulture’ contradictory terms?
  • Is it about growing food? Growing food in a benign, ‘be nice to the planet sort’ of way? Why don’t you simply call it organic farming?
  • Do you really mean amenity horticulture?

Just a few of the queries pitched my way by colleagues and friends once they heard I was writing a book entitled ‘Environmental Horticulture’ (co-authored with James Hitchmough and recently published by CABI). I can’t remember the actual responses I gave (or at least I can’t publish them!) But I think I would counter now:

‘None of the above’ or at least, none of them entirely.

It does demonstrate, however:

a/ how careful one needs to be when selecting a name for one’s magnum opus

b/ the range of thoughts and emotions that are raised even when simple terms such as ‘environment’ and ‘horticulture’ are used.

Such terms mean slightly different things to people when viewed from their individual perspectives. They may be politically loaded too – the term ‘environmental’ now connoting in everyday language a concern for the natural world, as well as simply a scientific expression relating to the surroundings of an individual or an organism.

I thought ‘horticulture’ would be the more benign of the two, but even that raised hackles (surely few things can be as serene as landscape horticulture?), but even this term provoked questions about trashing the planet or at least about horticulture stepping over the mark – e.g. what’s horticulture got to do with biological diversity and conservation? I guess watching from the side-lines, all the current furore over the proposed ‘garden bridge’ across the Thames in London, I should not have been so naïve over the term ‘horticulture’ – volatile terminology indeed!

In my school of thought the term ‘environmental horticulture’ was sneakily selected as a bit of a triple entendre:

  • Firstly, to discuss the role of horticulture in our everyday surroundings – our ‘environment’, our immediate living spaces;
  • Secondly, to demonstrate more sustainable mechanisms to practice horticulture in the public realm; and
  • Thirdly, to illustrate horticulture’s contribution to wider environmental agendas or at least contribute to strengthened and more resilient ecosystems, particularly so in an urban sphere.

In light of this let me try and discuss briefly what the book  IS  about, before going on to try and clarify some of the ambiguities the title has thrown up.

So what is Environmental Horticulture? In ‘my book’, (both literally and figuratively speaking) the term is primarily used as a sustainable approach to managing greenspace, especially those areas where there is an element of human design involved – parks, gardens, streetscapes but also including interior landscapes and sports facilities. But it does touch on the other two points mentioned above too, i.e. our own living, working, playing environment and horticulture’s contribution to other wider environmental agendas. As the book alludes to, these ‘everyday green spaces’ are becoming ever more important in an array of political agendas. They have immediacy with respect to our contact with nature, a role in our health and well-being – both in terms of encouraging physical activity, but also offering opportunities to relax and provide respite from stressful events. Certain types of green space can break down social barriers and encourage social integration, with knock-on positive influences including reducing crime.

When managed well and given some attention to detail, parks and other green spaces have a significant contribution to make to the environmental performance of our cities. They help trap and slow storm water run-off, thus reducing the likelihood of flooding along urbanised watercourses, they provide an antidote to city warming (urban heat island effect) as well as create much needed habitat for wildlife. Indeed, certain gardens and other semi-naturalistic urban green areas when designed and managed appropriately can support more biodiversity than surrounding rural areas (see Jennifer Owen’s seminal work ‘The Ecology of a Garden [Cambridge University Press], 1991). Moreover, urban greenery has a role to play in adapting to climate change, by helping insulate our buildings in winter and reducing heating loads, whilst off-setting the energy required for air-conditioning in summer through direct shading of buildings and providing aerial cooling via evapo-transpiration. These aspects are all covered by ‘Environmental Horticulture’ – what’s more, this book specifically attempts to utilise an evidence-based approach throughout. 

So going back to the original points – what it is NOT about and how do I dispel some of the myths and mis-interpretations around the name?

  • It’s not a gardening book – there are range of excellent books covering the art, science and practice of gardening – mostly designed for the amateur gardener, but well-used by many professional gardeners too. It is certainly not a plantsman/woman’s book, although there are some up to date comprehensive plant community lists included. It takes a more holistic view to green space – it includes information relevant to gardeners, but also encompasses a wider range of public green space, not exclusively gardens (public, private or otherwise)! Moreover it is a review of the science partaking to green space management, something only really a handful of gardening books cater for, in an up to date manner. Ideally, it provides an informative overview for the professional landscape manager and the student of landscape / environmental horticulture.
  • Science fact – not science fiction. Both authors, although challenging conventional thinking in a number of places, have been careful to back their arguments with scientifically robust information. So unless a compelling number of primary papers are published demonstrating the value of lunar phases to plant development, the point is not included. In essence, the environmental components are carefully considered in light of the available peer-reviewed information.
  • Using this approach, hopefully the book illustrates that ‘horticulture’ and ‘environmental’ are not mutually exclusive concepts. Some horticultural practices do indeed have a negative impact on the sustainable use of resources (water, peat, energy) and can activate the release of potentially aggressive, non-native species, but this is only part of the story. Careful management can mitigate many of these issues, and more importantly, actually contribute to more holistic natural cycles – cleaning up contaminated water and soil, and trapping nutrients in the biosphere. Horticulture too, has probably only ‘dipped its toe in at the edge’ of what it could really do for urban biodiversity.
  • Food – Food is mentioned in the book but not in a commercial production sense, but rather more in relation to urban living and the social capital that can be gained by community food groups and allotment societies.
  • It is about ‘amenity’ horticulture, but as James Hitchmough outlines in Chapter 1, this is now a rather outdated term linking back to the days when landscape horticulture was the forte of civic authorities and providing amenity for the citizens. It is perhaps more encompassing than that these days, as we take a more universal, ‘eco-system service’ approach to green spaces.
  • And finally, what’s horticulture got to do with biological diversity and conservation? More than you might think. Not only to the point raised above about how well-designed urban greenspaces and gardens could directly contribute to habitat provision (many nature reserve managers are envious of Jennifer Owen’s back garden, at least when it comes to insect counting credentials), but also the fact that most nature reserves and conservation zones are actively managed (or perhaps one could use the pejorative term ‘gardened’) to encourage and enhance their biodiversity. Few nature reserves are truly natural landscapes, the ‘hand of human management’ is everywhere. If horticulture is not the manipulation of the green landscape for a specific purpose or set of purposes I am not sure what is? It may not be exclusively about biological diversity in every case, but it certainly can be ‘in the mix’, if the management regime so desires. So I would argue that all the main conservation bodies ‘garden’ or ‘cultivate’ their landscapes in one sense or another. In reality ‘horticulture’ is not an alien concept to them.

So that’s the name dealt with!

Now what about that cover? Wow what an amazing colour – Sunglasses at the ready! I can’t take any credit for it – CABI’s choice –– As someone who enjoys temporary blinding his students via his ‘eye-razing’ Powerpoint presentations this is a move I relish fully – None of your subdued and subtle landscapes here, thank-you very much.

Anyway I digress…….!

I hope some of you find the time to read the book and indeed, get past the title!!!

Guest blog post by Dr Ross Cameron

Environmental Horticulture is now available to buy on the CABI Bookshop.

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