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23 Jan 2020

Don’t Risk It! – protecting our plants and gardens

Written by Chris Wardle, Gardens & Designed Landscapes Manager – Aberdeen and Angus
A close-up of a diseased shrub with dead stems, yellow-brown leaves and some healthy green leaves.
We must do all we can to reduce plant disease threats and the ‘Don’t Risk It’ campaign aims to protect our country by asking you not to bring back plants, seeds, fruit or vegetables into the UK from your travels abroad.

Protecting our plants and trees for future generations

The UK is blessed with a magnificent and diverse range of plants and trees. They beautify landscapes, public and private gardens and urban areas, providing habitats and food to support our wildlife. But the threat to the health of our plants and trees from pests and diseases is real and increasing, and we need a strong response.

Even if they look healthy, pests and diseases can be present on plants, seeds, flowers, fruit and vegetables, on soil clinging to the roots of plants, or on plant products, like root vegetables.

The UK government has invested £4.5 million to strengthen border security, as well as recruiting plant inspectors and enhancing training. The UK Plant Health Risk Register is the most comprehensive in the world, containing over 1,000 pests and diseases which are regularly reviewed and prioritised for action, by government and industry.

But we cannot eliminate all risks and we all have a part to play in protecting our plants and trees for future generations to enjoy.

Illustration of red suitcase with Don't Risk It! written in white letters across it, with an olive plant in a pot, some potatoes, flowers and some insects crawling on the suitcase.
Please don’t bring plants or flowers back into the UK. They can carry pests and diseases that would destroy UK plants and crops. Always buy from a UK garden centre or supplier.

One of the biggest threats to the UK

A big concern at the moment is Xylella, one of the most dangerous plant diseases worldwide. Although Xylella is currently not found in the UK, it does occur in regions of Italy, France, Portugal and Spain. Its presence has major economic and environmental impacts.

Any outbreak in the UK would lead to widespread destruction of plants and trees, the restriction of horticultural trade and the use of pesticides to control the insects which spread the disease. In Italy it’s estimated that the impact of Xylella on olive trees alone has so far amounted to a loss of €390 million in the past three years.

A broad list of plants and trees are capable of being infected by Xylella and carrying the disease, some of which are seen as higher risk than others. At present, olive, lavender, rosemary, almond, oleander and milkwort are considered the most significant threat to the UK, but the host list changes frequently, which is why our advice relates to all plant species.

Xylella can look very similar to several other plant diseases; if you are concerned that your plants may be infected more information and advice on Xylella can be found on Defra’s UK Plant Health Portal.

Dead and diseased olive trees in a grassy field.
Olive trees in Europe affected by the Xylella disease

How you can play your part

There are already restrictions or bans on bringing some seeds, fruits, vegetables, cut flowers and live plants back into the UK. Find out more information about these.

To help protect our nation’s plants and trees it’s best to not bring back any plants, seeds, flowers, fruit or vegetables to the UK. If you’ve enjoyed seeing a particular plant or tree on your travels and want to enjoy it in your own garden then always buy from a UK garden centre or supplier. This is the best way to ensure they have been sourced responsibly and are free from pests and diseases.

If you want to learn more, check out the Plant Health Portal, including if you have concerns that any of your plants are infected with Xylella.

Diseased yellow-brown leaves on a branch
A Prunus plant, infected with Xylella, which shows that it can look like many other diseases

Protect your garden

With ever-increasing threats from pests and diseases, it’s important for gardeners to be alert and try to prevent problems taking hold.

• Watch out for new threats

Keeping our gardens free of pests and diseases has always been high on gardeners’ agendas. The arrival of new pests and diseases in the UK is linked to the increase in the volume and diversity of plants being imported from abroad. Changes in climate, especially warmer winters, may also enable more pests and diseases to become established in our gardens, so planning for healthy gardens has become even more important.

• Source new plants carefully

One of the most common ways for pests and diseases to enter gardens is on new plants, or in associated soil.

Propagate your own plants, from seeds or cuttings.

Where possible, purchase plants grown in the UK.

• Check plants coming into the garden

Check plants for signs of pests or diseases before purchase, and keep them an isolated part of the garden for a few weeks before planting out.

• Keep your plants healthy

Good plant husbandry can reduce the impact of pests and diseases. Strong, healthy plants are more resilient and are less likely to be severely affected by pests and diseases. Mulching not only feeds plants to increase their vigour but may also prevent some pests and diseases leaving the soil and infecting the above-ground parts of your plants.

• Keep it clean

Keeping your garden clean and tidy helps to reduce pests and diseases. Cleaning garden tools, greenhouses and water butts also reduces the chances that pests and diseases will threaten your garden in the next growing season.

• Monitor your plants

Keeping an eye out for pests and diseases means that problems are more likely to be noticed early and before they cause serious damage. Early detection also means that the problem is likely to be easier to control.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is an excellent source of advice for specific pests and diseases and RHS members can access free diagnostic and control advice. The RHS will also provide advice to members of the public where a plant is suspected to be affected by an exotic pest or disease (not previously reported in the UK).

• Deal with garden waste appropriately

Garden waste affected by pests and diseases should be disposed of appropriately.

Home composting can be used for most green waste. Local green waste schemes compost at higher temperatures and therefore kill more pests and diseases.

Burning or disposal at a council refuse site is best practice for woody plants, and material affected by persistent pests and diseases.

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