With Chelsea a huge success and a great opening to the garden show season it’s easy to get lost in all the amazing show gardens and overlook the meaning some designers put behind them. The ‘Stop the Spread’ garden sponsored by the Food and Environment Research Agency is a perfect example. Designed by Jo Thompson Landscape and Garden Design, this silver medal winning garden is a beautiful contemporary work. A sunken garden of herbaceous plants and sculpture by Tom Stogdon, surrounded by a lush woodland, it is a stylish and functional exercise in inspired garden design.

But this garden is more than just an aesthetically pleasing place to relax. Like so many big show gardens it has a hidden message, and as is also the case it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. Fortunately in this garden the message is a tree. In the heart of the garden a tiny black pool harbours a an island on which is planted a single oak sapling, demonstrating a struggling native ecosystem besieged by foreign invaders.

While it is a fine garden in its own right, ‘Stop the Spread’ was designed and built with the support of Fera, Defra and the Forestry Commission among others, to highlight the need to resist the spread of foreign pests and aggressive species into the British environment.

These problems have become all too common, especially when it comes to gardening. Many gardeners take pleasure in growing exotic plants, even bringing cuttings and bulbs home from holiday, and while this may seem perfectly harmless there can be serious ramifications.

For one, pests. Plants and insects have a very close bond and have since prehistoric times. Certain plants attract certain insects, we all know that from primary school biology, but what we forget is that the plants we bring over into this country have insects of their own. Once those insects make their way over here they spread and conflict with our own ecosystem until problems like new diseases crop up. These seem minor problems, but if a foreign disease spreads in your garden it can easily destroy your more native plants and can easily spread beyond the garden, causing a serious problem.

Similarly the plants themselves can be just as dangerous. Bringing a non-native species into an ecosystem always causes trouble if it isn’t maintained properly. A perfect example would be the near extinction of red squirrels and plants are no exception to the rule. People have been bringing specimens back to this country since the Victorian times, and in most cases it has been a good thing. Acers, Chrysanthemums, Orchids all of these exotic plants were brought over to liven up the garden and add something new. However, they were not alone. Japanese Knotweed, Rhododendrons and other invasive plants were brought over just as innocently and soon began haunting gardeners’ nightmares across the country. Even otherwise safe foreign plants can be prone to creating an imbalance in the local environment that can end up being disastrous. This doesn’t mean a gardener should boycott all foreign plants of course, but it never hurts to take care when selecting and planting species that are not native to this country.

In the end, if you have a penchant for the exotic there is nothing to stop you from choosing rare or interesting plants. The most effective way to ‘Stop the Spread’ is research. Choose wisely when selecting what to add to your garden, check environmental agencies websites for warnings about particularly rare plants and remember to give them the proper care and maintenance that they need. Any queries about specific plants can be answered by going onto the Fera or Defra websites and to start you off, Fera have provided a simple set of tips to make sure you can grow your garden safely and responsibly:

Sourcing plants:

  • Check new plants are healthy
  • Buy UK-grown plants where possible
  • Avoid bringing plants or cuttings home from holidays – you could inadvertently bring home a pest or disease. For further information see our ‘Advice for Travellers’ page
  • Preferably plant small and enjoy watching your garden grow – semi-mature trees from overseas pose a higher pest and disease risk
  • Pick the right plant for the right place and avoid plants that might become invasive – your local garden centre or nursery will be able to help you

Good gardening:

  • Carefully manage your plants to stop them escaping from your garden and to keep them healthy
  • Keep all of your gardening equipment and outdoor footwear clean
  • Dispose with care –  compost garden waste thoroughly or dispose via your local council green waste collection and don’t dump it in the countryside
  • Avoid moving pond plants around and empty pond water on the lawn or use it to water garden plants   – even tiny plant fragments can lead to massive problems if they escape into local waterways