Resistance is futile: it’s time for me to get a tattoo. I don’t think I need to beat about the berberis and go for some curvaceous buttock-hugging design, just stick ‘awkward gardener’ across my forehead in letters an inch tall. At least then folks selling plants, seeds, bulbs and gardening paraphernalia will see me coming. That’s what I’ve been this spring: awkward. Not just for the hell of it, either; I’ve been awkward because I’ve started asking straightforward questions. More of us gardeners are starting to do it, and it’s good news for the world around us.
I decided to fulfil a desire and plant Nerine bowdenii to cheer my autumn days. I’ve the perfect backdrop: blue slate chips to set off their emerging shoots, and the green cladding of my cottage to frame their zingy pink heads. I mentioned this to an earth-aware organic gardening friend and she offered me some bulbs. They arrived with a note saying, ‘Should be quite ‘neonic’-free as I’ve had them for four years, and were probably grown from seed.’ We’re hearing a lot about neonicotinoids or ‘neonics’, the systemic pesticides which scientists say are having a detrimental effect on bees and other pollinators. The latest ‘news’ is that insects actually become addicted to neonic-tainted nectar – hardly surprising as the genesis of these pollutants is nicotine itself – preferring sullied flowers to as-nature-intended ones.
The arrival of my freebies spurred me to see what our big-name bulb suppliers were offering, as I wanted to buy more bulbs as well. I emailed six bulb sellers, asking if their nerines were treated with ‘pesticides, especially any systemic neonicotinoids’ (I gleaned little or no information from their respective websites). Two needed a reminding nudge a week later. ‘We’ll get back to you,’ was the reply from others. One admitted they couldn’t guarantee bulbs to be free of pesticide treatment, others assured me their bulbs hadn’t been treated and, curiously, one said, ‘I am afraid that none of our bulbs are treated, we do not use chemicals on our nursery.’
I’m only tepidly reassured. If I plant neonic-treated bulbs, plants or even hedging (it seems that too, bizarrely, needs to be ‘protected’ from bugs), I could be passing on a dose of a disorientating pesticide to bees and other pollen- and nectar-seekers. This doesn’t mean that I’ll see bees dropping dead mid-flight, but it does mean they might pick up enough neonic so they fail to live, nest and reproduce properly.
The bulb business is big and global; many companies are just selling on bulbs they’ve had no hand in cultivating. Only one firm suggested that to guarantee freedom from neonics I should choose a variety of nerine they grow themselves (not my colour, I’m afraid). Gardening businesses of all hues need to do a lot better at being honest with their customers about what’s happened to their wares before they hit our trolleys. That’s unlikely to happen unless you get the tattoo and start asking a barrowload more questions. It’ll sting a bit at first, but our living world will be the better for it.