I spent a knackering three days at Ecobuild last week. Ecobuild is a mega trade fair, now at the ExCel centre in London. It took me three hours just to walk round it last year as a punter, and this year as an exhibitor I was so busy I couldn’t even leave my stand to get a coffee. We were part of the Biodiversity Pavilion, where I was mentored by the lovely Blanche Cameron and neighbours with nice folk like Wildflower Turf, one of our suppliers. British Wildflower Plants, another supplier, grew the gorgeous native wildflowers for us. Thanks chaps.
There was a lot of chat about whether the show was still true to its core values, which arguably it isn’t, but the thing that struck me was that it still had room for enthusiasts and they weren’t marginalised. Sure, these events are all about shifting product, but this was a much more honest and catholic church than the major horticultural shows. You can’t have an arbiter of appropriate trade stands; it’s the paying punter who dictates what’s on display and, by and large, in the wake of the solar bubble it made for interesting viewing. It felt contemporary and buzzy too, which the horticultural shows certainly don’t; I met interesting people and saw some interesting things, and even got to give a couple of talks. I’ll be back next year please Blanche.

The Porsche Cayennes of Larissa

One of the funnier stories to come out of the fiasco that is the Greek economy has emerged in the Athens News. Apparently a couple of years ago there were more Porsche Cayennes in the country than people declaring tax on earnings of more than 50,000 Euros. The diligent and talented citizens of the farming city of Larissa (pop. 25,000), have more Porsche Cayennes per head of population than London and New York*. I can’t imagine a clearer illustration of why there’s as much chance of the Greeks returning to the fold of the fiscally responsible as my wife.

What’s odd about this is that no Greek I have heard has made any mention of this kind of behaviour as being an issue. And how do the Germans (who are after all selling them all this kit) square the reality with the forlorn hope they won’t default? It’s left to people like Michael Lewis to point out that the average employee in the terminally knackered Greek railway system takes home 65,000 Euros a year. In the meantime, the feisty electorate blame bankers, markets, the Eurozone, the system, politicians, St. Paul’s, global warming…

I increasingly wonder at our own sense of reality here in the UK. Society now seems so fragmented it is increasingly difficult to piece it all together – and the earnest current arguments about the City are just a small symptom of that. For example, we’re currently talking to the planners about building a new house. There are issues which need to be discussed about the proposed design and landscaping. The planners seem to be very pleasant, professional people, but unfortunately, the process they are working inside now seems incomprehensible, time consuming and expensive, and guaranteed to alienate the reasonable applicant. Perhaps it should be no surprise that there are folk like our maniac ex-neighbour around, who built a house (!) in his yard without planning permission at all.

I’m not sure we haven’t come to this kind of pass with conservation. I’ve been really disappointed by the lack of take up for the ecological services we offer; why don’t landowners want ecologists on their land to recommend improvements to it? Is it price? Lack of interest? No; they don’t want a conservationist on their land for the same reason homeowners wouldn’t ask a planner to recommend improvements to their house. They’re worried about what they might find or what they might not find. There might be rules and regulations they’re not complying with or things they’re doing wrong, or new guidelines to follow they weren’t aware of.
Like the planners, the conservation lobby, backed as it is by the same kind of clunky heavy duty legislation, is often percieved as being an obstructive, expensive and silly extension of bureaucracy. The fact that both planners and conservationists perform a valuable economic and social function passes most people by. And conservationists are either Bill Oddie nice or they get so ANGRY they seem difficult to deal with; they are angry with Defra, farmers, landowners, gamekeepers, developers, lack of money, Jeremy Clarkson, 5th November… Because they’re passionate they also get excited about – well – stuff most people find laughable or at best incomprehensible. A recent example from Facebook, without an apparent trace of irony:

Today…finally… I have seen some Tree Bees (b. hypnorum)!!!!! Life doesn’t get much better than this 🙂

For all the work of folk like the Sainted David Attenborough (who described what we’re doing as “pioneering” – what’s not to like!), promoting biodiversity is to the mainstream here what paying taxes is to the mainstream in Greece. Why is it so difficult to persuade the 8.4 million watchers of the Frozen Planet, or the 41% of the population RHS research says “enjoy gardening”, to grow some native flowers in their back garden? The knack for folk like us – and we’d better get it right or we’ll be out of business – is to get away from the Conservation world with a capital C. It’s not the RSPB membership we have to reach out to, it’s the other 60 million people in the UK. There’s no point promoting our or our partner charities’ core values at Conservation shows; we have to be at Chelsea (and in the main bit, not the “Environment Zone”) and at events like Ecobuild and the Game Fair.

On a similar theme, we’re working on a project with the Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Benchmark, which is reaching out to businesses and landowners with a great product of real ecological AND commercial value. There’s no point berating businesses about what they’re doing wrong; there has to be a commerical incentive for doing it right, which is why this initiative is so sensible. Promoting biodiversity, like paying taxes or planning control, has a real economic and social output – but it doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize you’re never going to sell it that way. You’ll never persuade the Greeks to give up their Cayennes and start to pay taxes on the basis that it’s for the common good. It has to become the social norm.

*Tim Harford subsequently analyzed these figures on Radio 4’s More or Less and found they were er… rather dodgy. What he also found, though, was that the Greeks pay CONSIDERABLY less tax than they should do, so the point still stands.

Newsletter No.18: October 2011

There’s almost too much going on. On the home front I’ve started work on the new veg garden while we wait to hear from the planners about the house. From March you’ll be able to read my monthly column about the whole thing in Build It magazine, so I hope we don’t screw it up!
I’ve been adding more products to the site, particularly apple trees, which are already selling well. We sold a lot of seed in Q3, which is carrying on, and now the orders for bare root trees and hedging are coming in as well.


We’re piloting some wildflower seed packets at Thorntons Budgens in North London. They’re only £2 each, pukka kit as you’d expect, and a fund raiser for the lovely Buglife. We hope to roll them out to other stores if sales go well. Fingers crossed!

Hacked Orf

Apologies to those who have tried to access the site recently. We fell foul of a Russian hacker, which meant that the site picked up a malware warning from the search engines. All should be returning to normal shortly.


We’ve got the Creating Landscapes Show coming up later this month, and I’ve just signed up to next year’s Ecobuild exhibition at ExCel. We’re using Hannah McVicar’s graphics for our stand, which should look amazing. I’ve had huge help on the concept from Liz Evenden and David Martin. Designer Phil Brown is already hard at work on the Chelsea garden too. Thanks all!

Thank you Muammar

Nice one Tony
The Libyan crisis has once again exposed our addiction to the black stuff. Whether crude gets through $200/barrel this time around or whether it will need another round of political unrest to spike dramatically one thing is for sure – it’s not going to get any cheaper. I’m very sympathetic to those folk who are struggling with the diesel and petrol prices which have ensued; it’s ridiculous to argue a car is a luxury item in the countryside – it’s a necessity – and sometimes a 4X4 is a necessity too. There are those who have a Clarkson-like disregard for practicalities like fuel consumption, however, and seem to be in denial about the short, medium, and long term prognosis for the price of crude. Rising oil prices are not George Osborne or anyone else’s fault other than our own.

We’ve noticed this about houses as well. Oil fired heating and hot water boilers and cooking appliances are very much the norm hereabouts. The bills have, recently, been UNBELIEVABLE. And what’s odd is that people don’t seem to be doing much about it – at least yet. We’re house hunting at the moment and have been amazed at the lack of insulation, properly fitted double glazing and modern boilers we’ve seen. The estate agents don’t even mention good insulation when it does occur.
This is quite apart from any micro-energy generation. Recent Feed in Tariffs have made solar power particularly attractive, but we haven’t seen anywhere that has it. A friend of mine with an old mill house has a micro hydro-electric scheme and is making out like a bandit.

Against this background of rather bizarre inactivity I was hugely cheered by the Ecobuild exhibition at ExCel last week. I popped up to London to do some personal research prior to buying a house, as well as to chat to people like the Bat Conservation Trust and to check out green roofs and walls with my corporate hat on. I came back with a trolley load of brochures and tremendously excited. The advances in technology there have been in areas like solar power generation, heat exchange pumps, insulation, boilers and biomass heating systems are fantastic. High oil prices and the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive this week mean they are now a no-brainer, and low interest rates mean they are… even more of a no brainer. It’s a fact of life that the vast majority of people will only react to this kind of issue if they are self-interested. This is a mantra familiar to readers of this blog. In this instance they won’t reduce their carbon footprint to save the planet, but they will do it to save some of their hard earned cash.
I guess it’s rare that an economic crisis produces such a potentially spectacular ecological (and, hopefully, political) dividend like this with only a relatively small nudge from HMG. Perhaps we should be thankful for it.