‘I retired to Italy – thanks to Brexit I have to smuggle in seeds for my garden’

A 70-year-old London horticulturist who escaped to Italy after Brexit says he has resorted to “smuggling” suitcases of flower seeds into the country for his lavish English-style garden following Brexit restrictions on bringing plant products to Europe.

Peter Greene* is a retired tech engineer turned gardener, left the UK in 2018 and retired to the Abruzzo region in central Italy. He bought an old three-bedroom farmhouse for €80,000 (£68,197) and created a two-hectare English garden with gazebo and fountains in the countryside near the coastal town of Vasto where he lives with his three cocker spaniels.

However, due to new post-Brexit export rules, he can no longer place orders in the UK and complains he has been forced to become “somewhat of a smuggler” of typical English garden plants into Abruzzo.

“After Brexit, with the end of the European Union (EU) common market to which Great Britain belonged before, many flower seeds producers in the UK no longer export to the EU due to tough licence permits and difficulty in keeping up to date with current EU certification requirements,” the widower told i.

“It is really frustrating, before Brexit came into force I regularly ordered the seeds online from the seeds producers’ websites but now, they are no longer available to the EU.

“Many of the businesses I used to order from still ship seeds to Iceland, Norway, Canada and even as far as New Zealand, but no European country. So each time a friend or relative visits me, I ask them to bring some seeds along.”

Mr Greene said he sometimes travels back to Italy with a suitcase full of seeds (Photo: Supplied)

Under post-Brexit EU-wide trade laws, certain plants and plant products exported to the UK from the EU need to be accompanied by authorisation from the country of origin and a phytosanitary certificate to show they have been inspected and are free of pests and disease, though plants and seeds from Northern Ireland are an exception to this.

Breaching these regulations can incur unlimited fines in the UK and a penalty of between €5,000 (£4,000) and €30,000 (£25,000) under the Italian law approved in 2021 to regulate the matter post-Brexit, which also considers risks for biosecurity and contamination.

Officials from Italy’s Agriculture Ministry told i that penalties are set at national level, even though the legislation is EU-wide, and fines differ across the EU and depend on the extent of the offence.

Representatives of one of Italy’s top horticulturist associations downplayed the penalty for private gardens in Italy, saying the main risk would be when people resell seeds to others in Italy beyond personal use.

Mr Greene, who retired in 2017 to dedicate himself to what he calls his “passion for green”, asks people in the UK he knows to seal the seeds in envelopes when they send him mail. When he returns to the UK occasionally to visit his brothers, he flies back to Abruzzo with his suitcase stuffed with seeds.

“Each time I land at Rome’s airport I’m always scared the customs will ask me to open my suitcase, but luckily this has never happened,” said Mr Greene, who has an Elective Residence Visa (ERV) based on passive income from his pension.

Mr Greene said he spends an average of €300 (£255) per month on garden upkeep, including the cost of the seeds and handymen. He is inspired by a sense of nostalgia in transforming the wild Abruzzo landscape into a neat English garden.

The retiree’s English-style garden is a rich patchwork of bright garden roses, peonies, dahlias, ranunculi, snapdragons, hollyhocks, sweet peas and foxgloves. He has built two small stone fountains and stone walls covered with roses, and a winding path leading to the woods below his property.

Mr Greene said that despite the difficulty of procuring seeds, he believes he has no choice if he wants to create the garden of his dreams, as the quality of seeds found locally is lower than those found in the UK. The seeds in Abruzzo are similar, though not quite identical to those found in the UK, he said.

He says he is aware of the law and understands the importance of applying in future for a phytosanitary certification, which he plans to do, and if it turns out to be complicated, he will import from Northern Ireland.

“It’s not a matter of the type of seed I use, it’s really an issue of the higher quality of the UK seeds, they just blossom much better, are more resilient to weather and live longer, even if belonging to the same flower or plant species and are planted in a warmer climate.”

“True, I may have escaped London after Brexit because I voted Remain and no longer wanted to live in the UK, but I still want to keep a bit of Englishness with me and this garden is my little corner of paradise,” he said.

* Name changed to protect identity