Friday, 21 September 2012

Growing for something new.

It is at this time of year, every year, that people say 'I expect it's getting quieter for you now?'
Frankly it couldn't be further from the truth.

I am in the enviable position of being a grower retailer that has control of both the stock I order in and the stock I grow. This has advantages in abundance.

I can grow the crop so know if it is easy or difficult as a young plant, and I can explain why we don't grow things that people think are fabulous. It also means that I get the opportunity to learn from my mistakes. There are more advantages but this is the one that, this year, stuck in my mind as one of the best.

Choosing next year's crop is a long job but one which is very fulfilling. I get to look at the stock we grew this year and in previous years, and a new list of plants; and I get to blend the two to produce a mixture of stunning, understated, practical, ridiculous or simply popular plants for people to enjoy.

What I am trying to explain is that I get to try a little of everyone's pallette and to add some unusal things in 'just because', and all I have to do is convince my staff and the customers who seek my advice that these plants are the best.

Retailers all over the country would groan at the prospect, but to me it is the easiest thing imagineable. I chose it because it was the best of a selection of colours; I grew it because I know it won't struggle and cost the world to get a finished plant; and I put it on a bench for sale because I knew it is worthy of a place in any border or pot. It is not because a model in skimpy pants told you it's good and it's not because a boxer told you it would grow as well as he fights. It is purely and simply that it is a terrific plant.

I recently listened to a talk by Pat Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald Nurseries) about plants and plant use and how it is down to growers and retailers to focus their plant stock at the spaces available. I know it sounds basic common sense, but for years we have ignored it and just grown the same as we did last year.

Landscapers and architects are also to blame for getting too comfortable with the pallette they are using and, because of customer feedback, are frightened to chance a new variety even though the promise is massive. For example: the most likely Geranium to be seen out and about is 'Johnson's Blue'. Don't get me wrong, it is a blinder but as I thumbed through a hundred plus varieties yesterday evening I wondered how it had remained on top for so long.

I still know landscapers whose staple is Cotoneaster horizontalis or Hypericum 'Hidcote'. Grasses must not step out of line either - in that Stipa gigantea and Festuca glauca still list high.

You can't throw caution to the wind and abandon all the favourites but you could try and break out with some crackers. With the new breeding that is available, more of the new varieties should be out there rubbing shoulders with 'Johnsons Blue' and Festuca glauca.  Be a bit Victorian - find something new!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

To Jubilee or not to Jubilee

If you have followed my blog you will know that the nursery trade has been a little steady this spring. For this reason imagine how the little burst of warm weather and the apparent lifting of grumpy faces towards the fiery, gaseous swirling ball of heat we worship and adore affected us at the nursery. People started to buy barbeques and adopt Australian accents and a love of crustacea. Bedding plants that had been scorned were stacked so high that all you could see was a hairdo pushing a trolley, and the sustainable teak forests were being bought up wholesale to adorn the slabbed runway that we all know as 'patio'.

So yes, sales have improved and the faces of managers and owners alike have lightened from an ever darkening grey to a flustered pink. This is not remarkable or interesting but what is, is the fact that we could not supply the whole country with red white and blue.
'So what?' I hear you say. 'They just couldn't plant up the place'. Well this is the remarkable thing. My love of all things British stems from a nations ability to make do and say 'it's not red but it's a very dark pink.'

I have, for a number of years, wondered if this was gone - this concept that we can create something more wonderful from 'not-quite-rights' than we would if we had exactly what we need. People bought what was available and spent some time talking to staff about how they could use it. Things were purchased that never sell because they aren't the norm, which instantly put a smile on my face. Most importantly we had very few miserable customers. They were, for the most part, happy to wait in that true British way and they didn't complain when the queue was jumped (except to mutter gently to a partner that it really wasn't the done thing) and overall they were enjoying themselves.

What made this year so different? Well, the weather made life pretty dull for a fairly long time this year and because we all had to wait for Mother Nature and not some snotty nosed assistant there was no one to blame and we had to get on with it. We also have the promise of the jubilee and the olympics that stretch over a long enough period that there is the prospect of good weather at some point.

I know that some people don't get on with the concept of a royal family and I also know that some people don't care too much for sport but in a year that is so full and special for Britain lets take one chance in time to enjoy it for what it is without too much discussion. For my money, if it could be like this every year and we sell a little less I would be happy. In truth I think it would only serve to help sales but that's not the point. The point is I love a happy Britain that is willing to change and adapt whether it be a new plant or a different curry. Go on - be a bit British!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The veritable merits of training your plums and maybe a nice pear.

I consider myself fortunate in that I have lots of space to grow fruit and veg without being too restricted by my boundries. Having said this, I love trained fruit and the formal soldier-like rows of veg in a well maintained and thought out veggie plot.

As a nurseryman I spend a lot of time getting plants to do what I want when I want them to and in a space that I dream about being double the size. So many people are in the same position as me, the basic difference being it's home and not work.

You want it to look beautiful or neat, or both, and with so much emphasis put on 'grow your own' there is also the expectation that it should produce wonderful veg and flowers. These expectations are the same with me and although the approach is different the basic concepts are the same.

If you have a limited garden space make sure you use your walls and fences productively. Espaliers, Fans and Cordons are a brilliant way to get a massive volume of fruit whilst using very little of your garden's precious floor space. This is especially important if you have kids or dogs as they will only congratulate you by pruning with a football or finding the tree as appealing as a lampost for peeing against. (I point out here that the children prune and the dog pees just in case there is any misunderstanding).

Pruning is once a year on trained fruit and it is, to me, one of the most relaxing passtimes you could have. Be mindful that the range of fruit found ready trained is more limited than that of bush fruit but if you are brave you can take a maiden (term for 1 year old grafts not Guinevere) and turn it into whatever shape you like if time doesn't worry you. Make sure that your rootstock is correct and the variety is spur bearing not tip bearing.

These all seem like strange terms if you aren't used to them but a quick google search or visit to a garden centre or nursery with knowledgeable staff will have all of these questions answered usually with  a trained fruit tree in front of you so it all makes sense on a practical level. If you decide to visit the nursery ask for myself or David and we will happily explain as little or as much as you feel you would like to know.

It is worth knowing what fruit will suit which style of train so I have listed them below:




Stone fruit (Peach, Nectarine, Plum, Damson, Cherries)



There are other ways in which to save space when producing fruit. The obvious is to use a cordon or minarette tree to form a column of fruit in a border or parterre but remember that ripe colouful fruit requires a good aount of sunlight so don't grow things through them or right up the stems.

The second way is to use stepover fruit as a border to beds and veg plots. Stepovers are effectively the first tier of a an espalier designed to show the border off but demarking a boundary at the same time.

There is a lot to explore with trained fruit, including u-cordons and candelabra trains. As always remember that a garden is trial and error and should predominantly be a pleasure to undertake. Yes there is some hard work but the effort will reap rewards, especially with fruit.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Garden grumble.............not really

I am a nurseryman and as such am prone to complain about everything that prevents me producing what I consider 'the perfect crop'. So I have, for the past couple of months, had the perfect foil with which to carve a really miserable grumble into my days.

I can honestly say, however, it has been the opposite for me this year. Yes, I have sold less than I would like and I have tunnels full of plants that really need to go out but I have had the time to spend getting that crop to it's best and I haven't had to make any compromises. I have potfulls of rooted bulk standard plants and an incredible selection of plants that are very unusual and they have all had much more time than they would ordinarily have had.

I now need to sell them but that is a minor detail because the plants are great. They will sell themselves and my customers will get much more than they bargained for. We never sell bad plants but I do feel that sometimes one more feed or a touch more picking over would just finish the plant to a higher standard. With Chelsea just around the corner I feel this more than ever and I hope that the weather hasn't made things more difficult for the exhibitors.

The other thing that I am pleased about is that I have given my customers more time. It is very easy when things are hectic to organise the plants for customers and get them out, without really talking to your customers about where they feel the plant market is or should be going. I am now stocking some lines I didn't and selling them. In this case a little more conversation a little less action is certainly proving beneficial to the nursery and the customers that shop here.

We hold regular open days for our trade customers and by talking to them about why we grow in a particular way or why it's best to buy Bay from Belgium and Photinia from Italy.  It has allowed a really good relationship to build up based on the experience of grower and landscaper.

I always try to look on the bright side and, as I was building my ark and drawing up my list of worthwhile animals to save, it felt as though I may not find that optimism for the year. I did find that, in time I didn't really want, I had the oppotunity to improve some things I didn't know needed my attention.

I could do with some dry weather now but I have in a round about way really enjoyed the wet.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The coast

I live all but 20 minutes drive from the sea and I love it.  If I'm honest I couldn't imagine life without it or at least the prospect of it.  Every season I promise myself I will get more time in the water and every year I get less. I often contemplate a small place around Croyde that I can retreat to in winter and catch some of the waves the grimmer weather can offer.

This, however, is a dream and the one thing I know would upset me is the limited choice of plants. (There are of course lots of plants that will thrive near the sea but very few that will take a spot on the beach.) So with that moan about not having enough surfing time and a lead into plants at the seaside I will endeavour to discuss some of the plants you might like to try and the ways you can get away with more.

As with so many aspects of gardening, there are several rules of thumb that will get you by if you are planning a seaside garden. Your first problem, if you garden by the sea, is that your plants must be able to put up with salt winds. So how do you know that the plant will be ok with a salt wind? It might be the preffered approach of Prince Charles, but I'm afraid a sit down discussion with each subject you like the look of is not going to result in good choices. In honesty it will most likely encourage your eviction from the nursery in a comfortable and secure white van!

What will be useful, though, is the recongnition of features that help prevent moisture loss through foliage: blue/grey and hairy. (Not a comment on the residents of Glasgow but a very good indicator of foliage that will retain good amounts of moisture despite drying winds and salt air.) Some examples are Brachyglottis (Senecio), Nepeta, Lavandula, Eryngium, Echinops, Stachys.
The other thing that is useful to know is that fine-foliaged or needled plants are very good at retaining moisture. This said, it must be applied with some caution. Not all needled and fine foliage plants will cope but many do thrive. To give examples of both, many of the pines love the sea, Tamarix grows beautifully and grasses will seed themselves merrily through pebbles and scree. On the other hand Acer Koto no ito will scream with fear as it approaches the coast.

As I mentioned earlier, the proximity to the sea plays an important part in what you can have in your garden. If you are on the beach with no breaks then be content with the fact you have some prime real estate and that the sea kale, Eryngium and Centranthus are pointers to that fact.
If you are, however, a row or two back from the sea be happy in the thought that your neighbour has sheltered your property from the weather and sea, and that although he or she has more value in their house they can, of course, grow sod all while you have a broader pallette to work with!

One last point before I give a little list of great seaside plants - remember a garden is yours to experiment with. Although some things shouldn't grow there it is more often the case that some plants, which have no right growing in the harsh coastal conditions, will do just wonderfully in a little spot in your garden.

So here is a short list of plants that you could try:

Grasses (nearly all)        Tamarix                 Crambe          Lavandula            Hebe (some)
Phormium                       Cordyline               Pinus (some)  Eryngium             Cytisus
Genista                           Allium                    Eremurus       Olea (sheltered)   Osmanthus
Olearia                           Sedum                    Rosmarinus    Malva                  Brachyglottis (Senecio)

There are lots more but there's a start.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Friendly beasties the evil weed!

'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?' Well me, frankly! But I have to say not as afraid as some of the aphid in the nursery this week. I have released some of the finest predators known to pest and I'm not afraid to have them on the payroll.

I started at the nursery eight years ago, give or take, and when I started we had an arsenal of chemicals that would have made the weapons of mass destruction look non existent. I have worked hard to reduce chemicals and to pay close attention to biological control.

Our chemical control is now 10% of what it was and our friendly bugs and fungi are starting to need topping up rather than restocking. We still have aphid and we still have caterpillar but we spray with biocontrol safe sprays when we have to.  We allow a percentage of damage and accept that everything has to be in balance.

It is, of course, well worth knowing that you can buy nearly all of the bugs that we use online or in store. If you need encarsia in the greenhouse for those pesky whitefly or Aphidius persimilis for the little terrors eating your fruit trees then make sure you use them.

I would love to be 100% pesticide free but for us it is a labour cost we could ill afford and I think it is well worth considering that as a home gardener. Your garden is intended to be a haven for relaxation and entertaining on warm, sunny, memorable days. It isn't supposed to be a weight around your neck that insists you tend to it hourly.

It is with this in mind that I suggest the following: if you insist on perfection and complete removal of all living things that harm your favourite blooms then biological control and organic gardening are not for you. You apply beneficial insects to reduce sap sucking, leaf munching insects and keep a tolerable balance, and this is never perfect. As for weed control there is nothing but the continuous pulling, hoeing and raking to look forward to and that too is far from perfect.

I like to combine the two. I spray with glyphosate which, once it meets the soil, is inert and once dry is completely harmless. I use this for all surfaces and although it isn't instant it is far more satisfactory than burning the tops off with Diquat or other contact herbicides as it works to the root.

In the garden I use very little of anything. I am, however, vigilant. If I see a curled over leaf I will investigate and usually I will see the pest and deal with it by hand. This works well with caterpillar but not so well with smaller pests and I find that Ecover washing up liquid, or a handheld insecticide is a good gardening companion.

So where do I stand on pesticide? I'm afraid I sit on the fence. As a commercial grower I know there are some things I can't get rid of without some use of chemical although I know I can reduce my chemical use with good plant husbandry and cleanliness. I also know that biological control is a fantastic way of keeping harmony in a garden.

So here are what I suggest as some pointers:
  • Be a good gardener. Clean up and keep your tools sharp and clean
  • Believe your parents! A little work now will save a tonne later
  • Bio control is not new but it is now much easier, so use it where you can
  • Don't discount chemicals but use them where there is no real alternative except madness
  • Make sure above all else that your garden doesn't join the list of chores that you already have*
  • Remember a garden is about balance and not having it all your own way. Nature has a tendency to win (thank goodness). 
  • If you are ever unsure of the best route with your garden please ask people who care. This means avoiding the DIY stores and talking to nursery folk and real garden centres.
  • Your garden is for you and your family and friends. If all you want is a barbeque on 6ft grass then stick with it and call it meadow planting!

I hope this blog makes sense and that biological control makes a little more sense.

*I have had countless people ask me what to do with lawns. The answer is simple. 'If you want a pristine lawn please give up weekends (unless you are retired and have time), and if it is for football practice, do nothing until the kids have stopped destroying it. Oh, and if you are very shady in aspect make more shrub beds'.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The supermarket gardener

I try very hard not to go to the supermaket hungry, for fear of buying everything sweet and chocolatey the store has to offer. I'm not sure how to avoid the same thing happening with plant shopping. As a retailer I know we put temptation in your way so you can do nothing but buy the shiny sunny-faced beauties we entice you with.
I really don't want anyone to stop buying in the ravenous way I do on an empty stomach, but somehow I feel a duty to help people buy in a way that leads to a beautiful garden all year round and not just for the one sunny day we had in April that year.
It wasn't that long ago that people had to buy in autumn/winter because it was the only way to buy plants. It's a hard way to buy but what it did was make people think about their garden for the whole year and plant for the long term. I love that we can all buy and plant for the whole year but sadly it doesn't make us buy for the year. It makes us all dribbling, plant lusting zombies that cannot control their urge to buy the 'precious'. I have seen two women lock eyes across the plant area in a blood chilling dash to the last Erysimum Bowles Mauve or Choisya Sundance. It is only once the plant is secured that the blood lust subsides and the air is filled with calm once more.
I have, in the past, waited until that moment and then brought out a trolley laden with four different colours of Erysimum just to see what will happen. It's a sad thing but very entertaining.

So what do you do instead of the supermarket sweep? My advice is simple and also just that: advice. I wouldn't dare tell a woman to think more carefully about her shoes or wardrobe and equally I'm not brave enough to do that with plants. What I would say is to apply a more interior approach to outside.

If you want a cool garden then fill it with greens (Hostas) and blues(Nepeta and Festuca glauca) and other cooling shades. If you would like a  garden hotter than the very pits of hell then fill it with Crocosmia Lucifer, Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff and Rudbeckia Goldquelle. In the same way as a Crunchie makes a poor sandwhich filling some plants will not fit your garden no matter how much you want them at the garden centre or nursery. 

I feel guilty telling you all not buy on a whim because, as a plantsman, my garden has very seldomly been manicured or tailored to a colour scheme. I would also say that anyone who has met me would probably pass that comment on my general appearance. In my defence the plants are usually a little out of the ordinary or querky and so would seldomly work well with other plants. As for my wardrobe ther is little I can offer in defence.

I have two very good friends who are extremely adept at choosing plants for schemes and designs but they do work on large scales. I think it is more difficult for small gardens but also tremendous fun. If you have a large garden I would encourage mass plantings with points of interest. Hellebore underplanting with Catalpa or snake bark maple, Digitalis and cherry or crab apple trees. In a large garden individual plants really get lost without a canvas to place them on.

I'm unsure really why I started this blog in particular but I see a lot of shopping trollies filled to the brim with fantastic plants of all sorts of colours. They look amazing.... in the basket and I can see the aim but feel it will never be exactly what the customer was looking for. Our time is really stretched in the nursery at this time of year but all of my staff will always help with the practicalities, and I think it is worth a quick natter with someone before you take home the beginnings of your Capability Brown moment.