From left to right:
Kylie Balmain (from the RHS), Sarah Eberle (Garden Designer & Chelsea Gold medal winner), Nick Coslett (Palmstead Sales Manager), John Langman (Chairman & founder of Palmstead Nurseries Ltd), Dr. Glynn Percival, Eelco Hooftman, James Alexander-Sinclair.

Delegates at this year’s Palmstead Soft Landscape Workshop held learned that sugar is the secret ingredient for survival. Over 300 professionals drawn from across the industry came together to hear Dr Glynn Percival, Sarah Eberle, Eelco Hooftman, Kylie Balmain and James Alexander Sinclair discuss the hot topic of the day: “Survival of the fittest”.
NickCoslett, Marketing Manager at Palmstead Nurseries opened the annual Soft landscape Workshop, now in it’s fifth year by welcoming the delegates and exhibitors to the Ashford International Hotel in Kent.
Unfortunately one of the lead speakers, Tony Kirkham, had to withdraw from this year’s programme following the tragic accident at Kew recently. Tony was replaced at the last minute by James Alexander-Sinclair.
Nick Coslett took the audience through tree survival and what Palmstead can do to help, then gave the floor to Dr Glynn Percival of Bartletts and Reading University who introduced the audience to the idea of ‘sugaring’ their newly transplanted tree roots and carbohydrate loading their sickly trees and shrubs.
Dr Percival spoke about the substantial death rate of transplanted trees in their first year remaining unchanged since research began in the 1980s, with the figure being between 30 – 70% dying in the first year after transplantation.
Speaking about his innovative research, Dr Percival said: “We knew what happened if we grew trees with too much or too little water and if we grew trees with too little or too much light, the only bit missing was the impact of sugars and how trees responded to it. What we found was, if we feed plants sugars (whatever they are) what you do is, switch on their feast genes, photosythensis drops because the plant has sugars in the water streams, we get less shoot growth and because the leaves are high in sugars the nutrient reserves are stored in the roots, promoting good root growth. We can manipulate plant growth to a degree by applying sugars, working at a molecular level.”
Kylie Balmain, head of horticultural trails and relations at the RHS outlined the challenges faced by the RHS: she acknowledged that trials in the past had been a ‘closed shop’. She said ‘One of our design challenges is what is the trials garden of the future – where things can be seen in situ that are more meaningful and inspiring to Wisley visitors,’ she added.: “it’s about working with the industry and the trade, making sure we are always promoting the art and practise of horticulture, sharing and building expert knowledge that we have collectively as an industry in order that we can then pass it on to future generations.”
Multi-award winning designer Sarah Eberle took the delegates through a personal aesthetic journey and shared her approach, developed over 35 years in the industry; she said: “I came into the industry because I loved natural landscape and architecture, but what i didn’t really understand was plants, I didn’t have any aspirations to become a gardener” she explained how she used various rules to select the plants that would join her Gold winning gardens and one of the keys for Sarah was : “to always set myself a challenege and use plants that I don’t always like; I have to use the materials available. I used to dislike certain types of plants because they didn’t appeal to my own particular aesthetic but if they are right for the space then I knew I had to learn to use them.”
Eelco Hooftman landscape architect, tutor and co-founder of GROSS.MAX spoke with passion about ‘survival of the fittest’ referencing Darwin, one of his heroes, and the ‘garden’ he made on Ascension Island with Joseph Hooker. Eelco explained his fascination with their man-made ecological system there and said: “ Natural selection is superseded by cultural selection.” He added of the ecological debate: “only being allowed to use native plants is ecological taliban – Darwin was anti this and made a difference, and proved that yes we can make ecology and we can make nature.”
James Alexander Sinclair closed the event by saying: “gardening is not easy but part of the fun of it is it isn’t? If we all wanted a life without challenge then we’d do something else; we have to worry about what will survive, what will eat it, and the whole point of getting up is that day will not be the same as the next – that’s something we guarantee as gardeners.”
Nick Coslett thanked the speakers and the delegates for coming and said: “It’s always great fun organising this annual event – I approach various iconic people in the industry and they nearly always say “yes” ; the response from the delegates is great and it’s wonderful to get together to discuss the issues of the day; survival of the fittest is relevant to all of us. ”
At the end of the event, delegates tweeted that they were off to ‘bulk buy sugar’ after the event, with many repeating how they would go off and experiment with the information shared today. Mark Gregory, a delegate on the day and partner at Landform Consultants said: “It’s been fascinating today and well worth taking time out of a busy schedule to come too – it’s the odd comment that makes it worthwhile ; Dr Percival’s sugaring of the trees – for me that was a “wow!”. I’m going to take that away and experiment. Events like these show you’re always learning; if you don’t take time to learn then you can’t stay on top of your game.”

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