From Grower to Garden Centre

Adam Wallis from the Gold Club revisited us in April to give us a talk called “Grower to Garden Centre”. This was an interesting insight from a third-generation nurseryman on the journey of a plant from seed or cutting to the sales bench in the garden centre.

Adam was keen to point out that unlike the large wholesale nurseries in Europe which produce 80% of the plants grown in the UK, most small independent nurseries are not mechanized with potting machines filling pots or conveyor belts moving plants around huge glasshouses.

If stock is grown from seed there may be problems with cross pollination and so most of the stock of plants grown by Adam’s family nursery are grown vegetatively; either as soft, semi-ripe, or hardwood cuttings (from mother plants kept specifically for this purpose) or from budding or grafting plants.  

Adam demonstrated the steps needed to produce healthy cuttings to grow on. It is extremely important to use a very sharp propagation knife, sharpened regularly to avoid tearing the stem, and to keep everything clean using Citrox or alcohol gel. Cuttings are taken from disease and pest free plants in the very early morning while there is some malleability in the stems. On a plant like lavender, only a small amount of foliage is needed and so most of the stem is cleared of leaves, the top pinched out and a cut made below a node. 

Adam said that to make the whole process of taking cuttings on a large scale quicker, individual tasks were also done on a large scale; so, all labeling is done at the same time. Modular trays need to be labeled with the date, the variety, the exact compost mix and even the particular polytunnel that the plants are grown in. All of this is needed for the plant passport that has to accompany the plant on its journey to the customer. Once labeled, the clean modular trays are then filled with the growing medium; a mainly peat free sowing compost with added mycorrhizae, (although of course in the future there will be no peat at all) mixed in a cement mixer! The trays are levelled off but not compressed and watered with a fine rose from the top. Next the cuttings are put into the side of the modules where they will root better than the middle. In this way two or three cuttings can be made in each modular compartment of a seed tray. (This is a useful tip for us home gardeners).

The trays of cuttings go onto large aluminium staging tables inside the double walled propagation polytunnel. A layer of polystyrene covered with landscape fabric keeps the tray away from the colder aluminium. Clear polythene is placed over the tables in winter and a white fabric, to reduce scorching, in the summertime.

Once the cuttings have rooted, they can be planted into liners and moved to the hardening off polytunnel which has fleece on the sides and over the top to afford some protection. Doors are opened during the day to allow for good air circulation but shut up at night to retain some heat. All watering is done in the morning to avoid plants sitting in the damp overnight.

By feeding plants with Maxicrop seaweed tonic, plants can be held in liners for 12 months and if they become leggy, they can be cut back. To grow the plants on, they are then potted into a 2L pot in shrub mix and cut back two or three times to promote a bushy shrub. Most shrubs except Daphne, Viburnum and Cotinus will respond to this treatment. The pots are moved again into a finishing polytunnel with increased light levels via sky lights and with ventilation at both ends so that they are used to outdoor conditions and can will be able to go straight out into the garden.

The finished plant then needs to be tidied up for sale. Any yellowing leaves are removed, any weeds removed, and the pot wiped clean and labelled clearly. Plants are then stacked onto special trolleys and wrapped for transport to the garden centre by lorry. Finally, they are placed onto the staging benches ready for the customers to buy and take home.

Adam admitted that his nursery’s decision each year as to what might sell well is always a bit of a lottery. Selecting what type of plants or what colour will be trending sometimes two years ahead can be a gamble. There are certain stalwarts such as lavender, viburnum, pittosporum or philadelphus which will always sell but any stock left over is generally composted so that pots can be re-used. This generated debate amongst club members but, as Adam pointed out, a nursery is a business and costs of everything have rocketed over the past few years. The cost of compost, energy, polytunnel skins (need replacing every 2 to 3 years), plant feed and labels have all increased. If a plant is potted up to sell the following year, it must be looked after over the winter and will take up the space that could be used by several smaller liners. 

At Adam’s nursery the year is a short one. Plants are growing from January but the main business period when plants are sold to garden centres is only mid-April to June. Each plant will only be kept on the shop floor for about 6 weeks and then swapped out for something new. This means that plants need to be looking great to catch the customer’s eye.

So, when you are next in the garden centre – spare a thought for all the work and heartache that goes into producing these plants for our gardens. Nurserymen are not making a fortune, but you can’t put a price on their passion and commitment.

                                                                                                                        Pauline Bartlett