The year ahead: predictions from industry experts 

Recruitment, education, the environment and technology are dominant issues for the landscape industry in 2019.  

From the challenges of an ageing workforce, positive thoughts about climate changes and environmental issues, to the legalities of new technology (drones anyone?), the industry has an interesting year ahead. We talked with experts from across the industry, including horticulture, landscaping, garden design, groundskeeping and machinery. Ffion Llwyd-Jones reports

Communicating opportunities
Getting the word out about the varied opportunities in the increasingly professional and data-driven industry is proving to be a major challenge – with dire consequences if the message isn’t understood and broadcast to the wider audience, including educators, career advisors and the younger demographic.

“If we don’t get more people working our industry in the next 5-10 years, we’re going to have a real problem,” says Darren Taylor, Marketing and Communications Manager at the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI). 

“Some of our biggest issues will be staffing,  to get the younger employees who want a long-term career,” agrees Richard Kay, Green-tech chairman. “Getting the story out this is an industry with career prospects, that embraces digital trends and techniques, and is backed by an education structure is the challenge. We’ve sponsored ’30 Under 30: The Next Generation’, and the RHS ‘Green Plan It Challenge’. “

Sarah Morgan, Society of Garden Designers (SGD) Chair concurs: “There’s a need to enlighten career advisors and students that if you’re skill trained and good you can go out tomorrow and earn a decent salary. We take long-term training seriously, from student level to our 70-year old still-practicing members who permanently strive for the best.”

Geoff Webb, Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG) agrees: “We need to create better communication how to access the industry. We’ve launched our new IOG Prospectus, with courses available at every step, created for volunteers through to professionals.” 

Darren adds that the GoLandscape education, skills and careers initiative works closely with colleges, career advisors and employers. “Students were taught potentially dated curriculum, and employers found it hard to hire or retain apprentices or full-time staff,” he explains. “We’re focused on a campaign specifically about career advice, with a pack of offline and digital tools to enable careers advisors to explain the benefits of working in the industry.”

And Lee Burkhill, Garden Ninja, saw first-hand that students want more exposure to the opportunities in the industry, having witnessed positive changes through his involvement in school campaigns such as the RHS’ Green Plan It Challenge: “I saw the students doing incredible design, while being enthusiastic about mindfulness and mental health.” 

Lee Burkhill, Garden Ninja

Jim Croxton, British and International Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) CEO also believes there’s a greater desire for education: “More clubs expect staff to be educated, and the demand for apprenticeships is better than we hoped.”

Geoff adds that the UK turf industry is held in high regard in the UK and globally: “We must harness this and export our products, knowledge and education. We’ve also built a thriving Young IOG community.”

Positive extremes
While climate change will undoubtedly affect all aspects of the industry, requiring adaptation and innovation, there are also some positives including the growing acceptance of the need for future-proofing and research-backed decision making. 

Jim sees a positive result from climate change and weather disruptions: “The challenging weather brought the sector into the public eye, and that’s good because so much of our work goes unseen that we need extremes for people to realise it’s a challenge.”

Sarah agrees that clients are now far more sympathetic to new ideas. “The major challenge is continuing to educate clients about sustainability,” she says. “And, addressing very low-budget public projects and making sure the integrity of the design is retained in terms of sustainability and vision.”

John Miller, Managing Director Cleveland Land Services & CLS Selfdrive, cites positive change with local authorities spending more wisely, and schemes having a positive local impact. He adds: “Clients tend to specify proven products and are happier to work with recycled materials. These sudden changes in weather conditions make sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS) compliance a challenge. Fortunately, manufacturers are on board.” 

And Richard comments that developers and investors are learning that investing in a landscape adds value to their projects, and makes planning come to fruition. 

Jim adds that challenging weather also means golf clubs have to be better future-proofed. “Golf clubs that didn’t react effectively in the autumn will find their golf course not very nice in the spring, and the initial response will be that it’s the greenkeepers fault. We’re also deep into a long-term challenge where more clubs recognise the need to run as a dynamic, focused business.”

Geoff believes climate change means adapting and reacting to adverse conditions: “The grounds  staff has pressure to provide the optimum playing surface. Stadiums’ increased usage pushes the limits of pitch capacity. Stress is another serious issue, and we must ensure support networks; the IOG will be networking with organisations such as ‘Mind’.” 

For Lee, a big challenge is the use of plastics (“the sheer amount is terrifying”) along with testing various bio-degradable, ethical, low-carbon footprint methods. He adds: “Gardens will become a refuge from modern life.
Sarah adds that the decision-making process of what constitutes carbon-neutral design is interesting: “For example, is it worth having composting on site, or actually minimising the amount of carbon output and input in the design, along with the efficiencies of maintaining it?”

Green-tech has ordered new palette wrappers with technology that reduces half of the tonnage; Richard comments: “It saves money. We’re also researching how to recycle tree shelters, making sure they have a second life.”

And David Denny, marketing and insights manager at the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) believes the demand for plastic-free solutions is likely to continue into 2019, adding that plant health and bio-security will also become more important.

John notes another industry-specific challenge: “It’s a massive challenge to recycle green carpets and the shock pads. We have a sustainable solution for the shock pads, and working on dealing with the carpets.”

Wayne Brown, McConnel’s Marketing Manager, sees a definite trend to electric machines. He adds that future legislation may include banning diesel or petrol machines from city centres: ‘And if that’s a blanket ban, it means no diesel lawnmowers etc. ” He adds that the stumbling block is battery technology, but comments: “As auto technology develops, it opens up opportunities in all other markets.”

Better business
While we may be some years away from seeing robots marching around the landscape, there is an upwards trend for robotic- and data-driven technology bringing added professionalism and efficiencies to the industry.

Jim sees a future where there are fewer people working on the golf course because of technology: “Although, as long as people can be found work elsewhere, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Golf clubs will want educated, professional staff because you’re not going to give somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing a fleet worth hundred of thousand of pounds. We’re also much cleverer as an industry in using data, and it provides more professionalism.”

And Geoff comments that IoG believes the use of AI and drones will continue to grow, increasing the grounds professional’s toolkit. He adds: “We’re working on a self-assessment application, gathered from our evidence-based research from 4000+ pitch assessments at grass-roots level.”

Darren sees robotic machinery being used more in production horticulture, rather than ornamental. “Digital apps enable measuring time against performance and vehicle tracking. It’s grounds maintenance leading the way.” 

Richard envisages the yard lads “having micro iPads and a scanner”, with an automated warehouse operation. He adds the company has commissioned an app “making us a 24-hour business. GenerationZ and Millenniums want it now so we’re expanding our live chat from 8 to 18 hours a day. We must be able to talk to the clients at any time and in whatever format they want.”

Dave agrees digital apps and social media platforms make it easier for consumers to share and source ideas, and provide opportunities for businesses to be part of the conversation.

Lee also believes smart plant apps are the way to engage: “The younger demographic looks online to see plants used as interior design, from an aesthetic rather than horticultural aspect. Then they ask where do I get one? How do I keep it looking like that?” He adds that social media allows people to watch videos online first, rather than go to garden centres and feel awkward asking questions. “I like to explain and break down gardening concepts through my YouTube channel: how to do things; this is what you need to know. Knowledge doesn’t diminish the more you share it.”   

Sarah agrees digital technology can be helpful: “Geological information and surveys and mapping help inform the design process. Collaboration and keeping informed – such as bio security plant disease alerts – is positive. Robotics and digital technology is incredibly useful if people understand what they are trying to achieve, and there is guidance when it may or may not be appropriate.”

Darren adds that virtual reality (VR) has interested BALI for a while: “We’re keen on providing VR experiences to the public and trade, to enable visualisation of a landscape.” 

John says the company uses weather apps to find current and weekly conditions: “We’ve also started using GPS (on the initial prep work) with the plant and equipment and the savings are astronomical. The machine will not let the operator go beyond a certain point, so it means we can tailor a project to certain dimensions and know we’re working to those tolerances straight away. 

For Wayne, safety is a key benefit of robotics, taking the man out of the danger zone. “It can have a huge impact on work output,” he adds. “Our goal is fully autonomous machines. Legislation is probably an issue from a commercial aspect, getting that sorted, who is in control of machine, who is responsible, who is liable.”

Remote control enhances safety. Picture credit: McConnel Ltd.

Dave comments that while robotics and apps have the potential to affect productivity and costs, realising the benefits depends on capital investment, hence the industry’s ask of government for support for an investment incentive scheme.
And Darren adds it’s importance to get industry funding for science and research: “BALI has played its part in the All Party Horticulture and Gardening Group (APHGG) responsible for horticulture.” 

Strength to strength
Last word from Dave: “Research shows the UK horticulture industry generates a £24 billion contribution to the nation’s GDP, with the landscaping sector contributing a major part. Combined with a continuing strong appetite for gardens and gardening among the general public, it all suggests the industry’s set to go from strength to strength.

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