Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. The ‘traditional’ thing is to give your love roses to show your love. Why give a fruit tree instead of roses?And what is the environmental impact if you do?

Beautiful snowdrops growing at the side of the road in Leur, Gelderland. In Dutch they’re called sneeuwklokken, ‘snowbells’. Taken 10 March 2015.

Buying fruit trees instead of roses for Valentine’s Day is a suggestion by the Bealtaine Cottage blog, and it makes a lot of sense to me. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, when was the last time you saw any roses blooming in February? Primroses, yes. They’re in flower in my garden right now, as well as snowdrops and crocuses. The daffodils won’t be far behind. They don’t make very impressive bouquets, mind you. Not that my husband buys me flowers for Valentine’s Day, but still. We even have the Guelder Rose in flower (Viburnum, Gelderse Roos in Dutch). But roses? No. So I’m pretty sure there’s nothing traditional about giving roses, but there are other good reasons not to do so.




Roses in winter

So where do roses come from at this time of year? According to Bealtaine Cottage, they are likely to have come from Kenya’s greenhouses, with a third of their annual production ready for 14th February. The blog describes how academics and environmentalists are worried about this because the water for this comes from Lake Naivasha that is gradually being poisoned by pesticide runoff from the cultivation of flowers, strawberries and beans. More about that later.

Giving trees for Valentine’s day

It may not be the time for planting fruit trees. Not sure about that. You could grow one in a big pot until it is. Or give your love a card promising to buy them a fruit tree of their choice when the time is ripe. The idea is that a fruit tree provides oxygen for two people for their entire lives. Not to mention fruit you can share. Better than a bunch of flowers that wilts after a week.

Give seasonal flowers and help the bees

Alternatively, and this may be more seasonal, I would be delighted if my husband gave me snowdrops. You are supposed to buy them ‘in the green’, i.e. when they have finished flowering and all you are left with are bulbs and leaves. Then you plant them in your garden to delight you next year. The bees will thank you too, if there’s a mild patch in early spring. There’s not much around at this time of year, so if solitary bees wake up on a mild day, they need early flowers to visit. Snowdrops, crocuses, primroses, liverwort. All flowering in my garden right now. Or buy primulas for indoors, then plant them out for next year. They smell fabulous too. If you’re worried about your local florist going out of business, go and buy a bowl of pre-planted bulbs like hyacinths, grape hyacinths or daffodils like Tête-à-tête. Enjoy them indoors this year, then plant them out for next year. In fact, there’s a solitary Tête-à-tête out there now in the shadiest part of the garden, with nothing to talk to except some Christmas roses; their conversation is so Helleboring! Oh, and there’s one stunning Iris, too. I can never remember if they’re Siberian Iris or something else, but this one’s gorgeous.

Buy local, buy Fairtrade, plant native species and plant for spring and autumn as well as summer. Just a few things I believe in. Be my Valentine! ♥

The consumer’s dilemma: buy local or support the developing world?

That’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Should you buy products from countries in the developing world, helping their economies to grow? Or should you stick to buying local, without the environmental impact of long-distance transport? For me, unless it’s something that can be grown in Europe, my first choice is local, then Dutch, then European, then Fairtrade if possible. But what is the impact of the globalised economy in flowers, fruit and vegetables?

Lake Naivasha in Kenya

Never heard of Lake Naivasha? No, me neither, but do you remember Elsa the lion cub rescued by Joy and George Adamson in the true life film Born Free? That was Lake Naivasha. The Maasai water their cattle there. Now they’re restricted to one small area, and the lake is being polluted.

Effects on Lake Naivasha:

  1. Agriculture takes water
  2. Restricted access to lakeside for locals for washing clothes, feeding cattle
  3. Locals forced to queue at taps for water
  4. Lake is being choked by water hyacinth, fed by fertiliser runoff
  5. No lake will mean no tourists
  6. Water supply no longer constant, surging in the wet season and shrinking in dry season
  7. Soil erosion from the hills: sedimentation fills the lake, increasing the temperature leading to growth of algae

Problems of growing for export markets

This is an ongoing problem, causing major tensions around the world. For an excellent summing up of the problems of flower-growing in Kenya, I recommend this article from the Financial Times. An interesting point is that, as many cut flowers are as much as 95 % water, Kenya is exporting one of its most precious resources to Europe, that has plenty!

Since water levels have fallen drastically both to irrigation and climate change, wildlife is suffering; there are over 25 % fewer hippos, for example. It’s heading towards the tipping point where the water will become a toxic soup of algae unable to sustain other life. And the people who live in the area will naturally also be affected in innumerable ways. Doom and gloom all round, it seems, but is there a silver lining?

Payments for Watershed Services

The WWF has launched a major Payments for Watershed Services (PWS) programme intending to promote sustainable agriculture in the hills surrounding Lake Naivasha so that soil from the hills is not washed down into the lake. This is a so-called Payments for Environmental Services (PES) programme, controversial as it may be.

How to stop soil erosion on Kenyan hills

The original bright, shiny Western idea from the WWF was to build terraces; expensive, disruptive, high maintenance, possibly not a long-term solution without continuing funding. The sensible solution, now adopted: strips of napier grass (mfufu) every 10 metres or so with rosewood trees in each strip. This is genius!

Benefits of napier grass strips:

  1. stabilises soil, naturally forming terraces
  2. little water or fertiliser required
  3. attracts predatory insects for pest control
  4. trees fix nitrogen in the soil, acting as a natural fertiliser
  5. fodder for dairy cattle
  6. forms natural terraces as it captures eroding soil
  7. timber in the future

Even though it was set up by WWF, finance was still required from somewhere and they received pledges from several sources. When they came to redeem those pledges, only one organisation was able to pay. Guess who? The LNGG (Lake Naivasha Growers Group) representing 29 flower growers, so they might be causing problems, but they are also helping to provide solutions. The hotel association and property protection group had no funds available at the time and later, the charity CARE also pulled out. The Dutch and Danish came to the rescue as the Dutch Directorate General for International Cooperation (DGIS) and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) helped fund the project, as does LNGG on a continuing basis. So there are benefits to having flower farming in Kenya.

The cost to local cultures of African flowers

Environmental factors aren’t the only issue. What about the people involved? You can bet your bottom dollar it’s not the people working on the farms who are making any money out of turning their environment into a desert of greenhouses or plantations. More than likely it’s a multinational corporation raking in the money. Meanwhile, the local farmers are still only scratching a living and many people aren’t even doing that. The land belongs to someone else. What can the local people grow and eat? Imagine having to work in a greenhouse growing roses and knowing a farmer could be growing good food for you instead. Yes, you’d have a wage, but are you then forced to buy overpriced processed food made by a multinational? Some locals are being paid a wage, but as modern greenhouses are so efficient, they probably don’t even employ that many people.

“globalisation means that although Kenya depends on imported food, since the 1980s Kenyan agriculture has been increasingly devoted to crops for export to Europe.” –

There are also concerns that locals with invaluable local knowledge and expertise are not being consulted. In June 2012, a delegation of indigenous people presented a declaration to UN officials, signed by more than 500 indigenous leaders and blessed in a ritual ceremony, claiming:

“The green economy is a perverse attempt by corporations, extractive industries, and governments to cash in on Creation by privatising, commodifying, and selling off the Sacred and all forms of life and the sky, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and all the genes, plants, traditional seeds, trees, animals, fish, biological and cultural diversity, ecosystems and traditional knowledge that make life on Earth possible and enjoyable.” –

Global exports helping or hindering developing countries?

A few years ago, I read a book by Rigoberto Menchu about the exploitation of workers on plantations in Colombia. They were virtually starving while having to produce food for the export market because vast areas of land were owned by unscrupulous outsiders, leaving no land for local farmers. My review was in Dutch, so that’s not much help for anyone who doesn’t speak it, but it certainly opened up my eyes to something I hadn’t thought about before in relation to food.

Another fascinating book was the autobiography of Wangari Mathaai  who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Growing up in a rural area in the mountains, she realised that arid areas could grow food if there was more shade. Trees draw up and store water and create shade under which food can be grown. She developed a complete theory, empowering women by creating tree nurseries at local level, tending seedling trees. They were then planted out along the sides of roads, creating shade, growing food. More food meant they could keep goats, giving them milk and meat, their children were better-fed and stronger, they could sell surplus so they had money to send their children to school. Now if that’s not win, win, win, I don’t know! Fits the ‘local is best’ theory, too.

Dutch link to Kenyan flower-growing

The Financial Times article about flower imports deals with the UK market, though. Given that large parts of the Netherlands are covered with greenhouses growing flowers as well as food, I wondered if the Dutch import as many flowers as the UK. The answer is that of course they also import flowers at this time of year. In fact, it does not surprise me in the least to discover that it was the Dutch who created the flower industry in Kenya when the Oserian Farm started producing cut flowers for the Dutch market. That’s a pretty smart move considering Dutch flower auctions export throughout Europe and Dutch firms are leading suppliers of climate-controlled greenhouses, equipment and expertise, so they were creating a market for their technology and work for the flower importers. Edit to add: While I was looking for images of the Kenyan flower trade (none free, hence no image), I saw a photo of the high-tech greenhouses in use at the moment: polytunnels! So maybe the Dutch financial aid is less cynical than I at first made out. Perhaps I should examine my cynical side. Sorry, Dutch government!

The positive side of multinationals

There are positives to international companies running huge enterprises in low-wage countries because they do often provide access to health care and education for their employees that can benefit whole families. The question is if this is an entirely good thing as it may undermine the country’s own government’s efforts to do the same if the big companies’ income is tied to commodity prices elsewhere in the world; collapse of the market disproportionately affects countries like Kenya. I found an interesting article about this here.  At least there is also some good news in this article, with major food companies like the Dutch multinational Unilever that has pledged to trade with an extra 500,000 small-scale farmers by 2020, allowing them to use the immense clout of their marketing and distribution systems for the benefit of small-scale farmers. The article describes a shift from selling by ‘pushing’, i.e. advertising to influence consumers to buy more, towards basing production on demand, i.e. a ‘pull market’.

The ‘push’ market of selling flowers at Dutch flower auctions has changed to a ‘pull’ market, driven by demand. For example, Wilmar Agro Ltd imports flowers from over 4,000 smallholder flower growers in Kenya, sending the boxed flowers to auction in the Netherlands. This definitely sounds like an improvement!

“Working with a local NGO as part of the Kenya Horticulture Competitiveness Programme, Wilmar helps make local farmers invest in vital resources such as shade netting, irrigation and food security crops.” – International Institute for Environment and Development,

Update 25 February 2016: Good news! According to this article in the Economist, the Kenyan flower trade has been cleaning up its act.

It’s a start. Still, I prefer to grow my own roses and enjoy them in the summer. Snowdrops and primroses for me! How about you?