How effective are the forthcoming Brexit border checks?

Some of the plants that Julian Davies grew for his trial on retail peat-free growing media bags.

At the British Ornamentals Association’s annual technical conference, the effectiveness of the forthcoming Brexit border checks was top of the agenda.

Martin Emmett, chair of the UK National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Horticulture and Potatoes Board, has expressed concern about the effectiveness of the forthcoming Border Target Operating Model (B-TOM) border checks.

From April 30 (2024), consignments of high-risk plants (including plants for planting and ‘woody plants’ such as conifers) coming from mainland Europe (the EU) will be physically inspected at the UK’s new border control points (BCPs). Some consignments of medium-risk plants will also be subject to BCP checks, which the UK government is putting in place to maintain the country’s biosecurity.

‘It’s a jeopardy’

Emmett, who is also a director at leading ornamental plants producer Tristram Plants (a group of nurseries in West Sussex), expressed his concern whilst speaking as a guest at the British Ornamentals Association (formerly known as the British Protected Ornamentals Association BPOA, and now operating as BOA) technical conference.

The conference occurred on January 31, 2024, at the NFU’s headquarters in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire (UK). There, Emmett described the new border controls as “one of the biggest issues I’m addressing at the moment.”

He said: “It’s a jeopardy – this extra stage in the supply chain – that we do not need. And then, of course, is the practicality of packing and repacking. They’re not really going to make a key contribution to maintaining our biosecurity because I cannot be assured that they [the BCP staff] can do a very effective check in the small space that we have at the border. I just do not believe that it’s going to be possible. They’re [the BCPs are] not actually fit for purpose. We do want biosecurity – it is important to our sector as well as to the wider environment. But the place to do it is in our nurseries with a more targeted inspection.”

When Emmett asked the audience members if they were also worried about the border checks, the majority of delegates raised their hands to show that they were also concerned.

To date, these Brexit inspections have been taking place at the Place of Destination (PoDs) – namely, on growers’ premises. However, these PoDs were only a temporary arrangement and are being phased out and replaced by BCPs. Growers do have the option of applying for the Control Point (CP) designation, which performs the same function as a BCP. However, the UK government notes that requirements to become a Control Point are more stringent than for PoD.*

Martin Emmett, chair of the UK National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Horticulture and Potatoes Board.

Switching to peat-free

Meanwhile, as growers wait for the checks to start, they are busily fine-tuning their peat-free growing regimes. This is because the government in England is phasing out both the professional and retail use of peat in England by the end of this decade (2030). The governments in Wales and Scotland have also announced plans to phase out peat.

Neil Bragg of Substrate Associates advised delegates to get to know their (peat-free) materials and mixes, to run trials on their nursery of new peat-free mixes, and to “get some regular analysis done” on these peat-free materials.

The components of peat-free growing media are continuing to evolve, but currently, they mainly include either one or a mix of the following: bark, coir, wood fibre, and green waste. Bragg noted that peat-free growing media tend to be low in nitrogen when they arrive at the nursery.

“You’re always going to need extra nitrogen when you start – and this is critical,” asserted Bragg, who noted that a recent trial carried out in Somerset (UK) showed that seven out of 21 mixes had no available nitrogen.

In the garden retail market, the sale of bagged peat composts is due to be phased out by the end of this year (2024) in England.
Steve Harper, chair of the UK horticulture industry’s Responsible Sourcing Scheme (RSS) – which assesses and then scores** the environmental impact of peat-free mixes – noted that, helpfully, QR codes are now featured on the bags of peat-free composts so that consumers can look up the most up-to-date RSS scores online without a product’s barcode being changed. This is because the growing media materials can vary (depending on their availability, for example).

Trialling peat-free growing media bags

Julian Davies from Stockbridge.

With the garden retail peat ban in mind and with the ingredients in peat-free compost “not as consistent and uniform as peat,” Julian Davies, director of agronomy at Stockbridge Technology Centre in North Yorkshire, revealed that he had conducted a trial on peat-free growing media bags.

His trial sought to answer the question: “Can gardeners get good results using peat-free compost?” It saw 47 types of peat-free composts from 31 manufacturers/brands – and a total of 87 retail bags of peat-free compost – put to the test. Using peat-based compost as the control, Davies raised petunia and tomato plug plants and germinated tomato seeds in these peat-free composts.

Davies then rated the plants as being “excellent, very good, good, poor, or very poor.” After four weeks, 18 per cent of the petunias raised in peat-free were rated “poor” or “very poor.” The tomato plants “were a similar story,” he said, while 17 per cent of the tomato seedlings were “poor” or “very poor” after three weeks after sowing.

Whilst not everyone in the audience agreed, Davies asserted that these were “pretty good results” given that the peat-free composts yielded more than an 80 per cent success rate. He noted that as little as three or four years ago (when peat-free mixes were arguably more variable), the results could have seen 50 per cent of the peat-free growing media underperforming.

Davies added that locked–up—or no—nutrients is one of the major issues with peat-free materials, which is why consumers need to be educated on the need to carefully check the young plants once they’re in the compost. Consumers/amateur gardeners must then be prepared to liquid-feed their plants, if necessary, he said. The audience was generally in agreement that consumers need to be better educated on how to work with peat-free materials.

Reducing carbon footprints

The phasing out of peat is largely to protect biodiversity and wildlife habitats and reduce carbon emissions. The BOA audience was reminded of the UK’s legally binding requirement to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and its commitment under the Paris Agreement to a plan to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.

Some of the guest speakers pointed out some of the ways in which growers can help reduce carbon emissions and cut down on their energy usage—and their energy bills.

For example, Mark Sait, CEO of SaveMoneyCutCarbon, revealed that he and his team recently worked with the grower Lincolnshire Herbs (based in Spalding, Lincs) to help the company save 193 tonnes of CO2 annually.

Working with SaveMoneyCutCarbon, Lincolnshire Herbs—which produces fresh-cut and living–pot herbs—installed 3,000 LED lights in its nursery. Happily, the producers reported that, in addition to reducing its energy use, the LEDs are helping the firm produce a better-quality plant with a stronger root structure.

Sait also advised delegates to look around their premises to see where smaller energy savings can be carried out – such as installing LED lights in offices and aerators in bathroom taps.

Eirinn Rusbridge, senior engineer at NFU Energy, highlighted how tweaks in growing regimes can improve nurseries’ resource use efficiency. These measures include, for example, installing/replacing climate screens, adjusting the glasshouse’s heating/cooling setpoints, improving insulation, installing timers and upgrading old/inefficient equipment.

Reducing waste in the nursery also helps protect the environment. To that end, Marcel Hubers from Syngenta explained that medium-sized droplets are the most effective way to reduce runoff, achieve good coverage, and penetrate the leaf canopy. “Compromise is key,” he said. The choice of optimum spraying parameters is always a compromise between application volume, droplet size, product recovery, and drift.” Hubers added that adjuvants help mitigate against losses and maximise delivery to the target.


This article was first published in the April 2024 issue of FloraCulture International.

↑ Back to top