‘What is excellence in horticulture?’ This question kicked off three days of lively discussion at the Sibbaldia and PlantNetwork Conference 2020: Promoting Excellence in Horticulture. The conference was collaboratively organised by PlantNetwork and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. For all of us, maintaining excellence has been challenging in many unforeseen ways this year. Yet by bringing together a diversity of perspectives, it emerged during this conference that the horticulture sector can not only adapt but can grow to new levels of excellence when confronting new challenges.

Through the conference’s opening Free Session, delegates deemed four key words most important to defining excellence in horticulture: ‘knowledge, professionalism, sustainable and education’. Across sessions addressing each of the six key conference themes of Heritage, Education, Plant Health, Conservation, Cultivation and Collections it remained apparent that all four of these concepts will be crucial to confronting current issues affecting horticulture, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. The Free Session panellists for example identified that some valuable knowledge and skills held in botanical institutions that is needed to confront these challenges is not formally recorded, rather possessed by their staff. The panellists considered designing structured educational programmes and defining clear career pathways in horticulture to be imperative to ensure these skills are not lost. Dr Adrian Fox, Senior Plant Virologist at Fera, also highlighted in his presentation that poor knowledge on rarer plants such as niche crops can mean a lack of established biosecurity protocols. These protocols maintain consistent professional practice during the collection, trade and maintenance of plants, and their absence presents risks of plant disease spread. However, through researching such rare crops as Ulluco tuberosus, Adrian identified some new plant pathogens and had Ulluco newly listed under European legislation as a high-risk species.

The global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns naturally pervaded almost all conference discussions as a prominent challenge, but also as an opportunity for new growth. Lockdown closures lead to vital losses of revenue and the move to primarily virtual workforce communications for botanical institutions. The pandemic also drove the switch from in-person to an entirely virtual conference. Though undoubtedly a challenge, the organising team gained new technological skills through the experience. As the environmental and accessibility issues of in-person conferences were already a concern prior to lockdown, these skills will likely continue to be important beyond the pandemic. Waheed Arshad, Helen Allsebrrok and Havard Ostgaard of Candide demonstrated that horticulture is also fast embracing new smartphone technologies. The trio presented at Sibbaldia on their multifunctional gardening app Candide, designed for garden experts and enthusiasts. The app has provided crucial services for gardens reopening under social distancing, with its virtual ticketing, audio tours and augmented reality plant labelling functions. Fresh from a recent merge with Botanical Software, Candide continue to grow and develop more digital tools with botanical gardens and organisations, and warmly welcome new potential collaborators.

Despite the many challenges COVID-19 has presented, with everyone trapped at home interest in horticulture has been fast on the rise. In the UK alone, over £3.7 billion was spent on gardening during lockdown. That equates to around half of what UK gardeners spent over the whole of 2017. Recent research by the Horticulture Trades Association reports that lockdown has generated almost 3 million new UK gardeners, almost half of which are under 45. These young new audiences present a great opportunity for growth in horticulture, and for raising awareness on how the sector tackles pressing local and global issues. Botanic Gardens could be key to effectively engaging the public on this, as Dr Natasha De Vere, Head of Science at the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW), demonstrated during her presentation. Natasha discussed many arms of NBGW’s socially conscious research and engagement programme, including their Saving Pollinators Assurance Scheme. This uses information from DNA barcoding projects to identify which plants key pollinators visit, and then works with garden centres and other vendors to accordingly label whether plants are pollinator friendly. Such community-integrated research is not only highly relevant but can be quickly utilised to safeguard our threatened environment and wildlife.

The Sibbaldia and PlantNetwork Conference 2020 has been an opportunity to collectively take stock on recent progress in horticulture, plan for its future and call horticulturists to action to share our knowledge. Paul Smith called on horticulturists to sign up to the Directory of Expertise recently launched by Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Martin Gardner called on us to record and publish what we learn about the plants that we grow, and Peter Symes and Clare Hart urged us to join the Climate Change Alliance of Botanic Gardens to strengthen our networks and inform planning. A more comprehensive assessment of the outcomes of this gathering will be published as Proceedings in Sibbaldia, The International Journal of Botanic Garden Horticulture next year. This conference has highlighted such pervasive issues as social inclusion, recovering from COVID-19, and environmental pressures which will undoubtedly remain priorities for horticulture in the future. Communication and a readiness to keep learning are key assets that will allow us to continue pursuing excellence in our Gardens when facing these and any new challenges.

Post written by Aaron de Verés and Kate Hughes.