The nursery and the environment
While we are not organic the nursery has always been run in an environmentally sensitive way, becoming something of a wildlife reserve at times. Plant production is a business that should be in tune with the environment although it is sad to see that many nurseries are anything but "green". I am pleased with the way we have developed things and we are always looking to improve, and reduce, our impact on the environment.
We have always propagated a lot of our plants in-house but in 2018 made the decision to produce everything ourselves. This means that since March that year we have diverged from the copy-and-paste type lists of bought-in mass-produced plants that many nurseries offer, often protected by Plant Breeders' Rights, not always true to name and far too often accompanied by unwanted extras. We no longer offer any plants protected by Plant Breeders' Rights, a system with good beginnings that seems to have been corrupted to earn money for middle-men but not for many genuine plant breeders.
So we now have full control of, and responsibility for, the range of plants we offer and they are produced with no "miles" on the clock until they leave us. This does mean that we no longer list some of the most popular plants (such as the ever popular Geranium Rozanne 'Gerwat') and that we don't always have the same plants available every year, but it does mean that we have a truly unique list. The huge advantage we have now though is that we have a better selection of less commonly seen plants that you just won't find in a garden centre. They still have to be worth growing in your garden though!
We only use peat-free compost, custom made for us by a specialist producer. Our current mix includes a variety of ingredients, including some coir (not an ingredient I'm entirely happy with) but no composted green waste which is a notorious source of problems in cheap peat-free compost. Because a large proportion of our mix is made of wood and bark products we do occasionally see some fungal growth in the form of white mycelium and little brown toadstools but these do no harm to the plants - don't eat them though! These are just decomposing the woody elements.
Peat has been one of the most-discussed environmental topics in the gardening, and general, press in recent years. Various voluntary targets for the horticultural industry to stop using peat have come and gone with little change. We started to reduce the amount of peat in our compost relatively early on and as we learnt more about the options we made more progress. We did trial two peat-free composts in the early 2000s but found them unsuitable for our wide range of plants.
We have used entirely peat-free compost since May 2018 and our previous compost had only contained 25% peat since at least 2007 (the exact date of changing to that mix has been lost to time). Why is this important? Mostly because of the valuable wildlife habitat and carbon sink that peat bogs provide.
Rather than writing huge amounts about this here, if you are more interested here are some websites with more information:
Some customers have been confused by the notion of our plants being "peat-free" and understood it to mean that they need special conditions in the garden. This is not the case at all. It simply refers to the type of compost we use in our production.
In recent years there has also been a lot of media interest in the plastic plant pot and its recyclability. Unfortunately the bottle-neck in recycling plant pots is caused by the refusal of councils to cover the cost of recycling through doorstep collections as they do with all other household plastics like food packaging and cleaning product bottles. With few exceptions plastic plant pots are (and always have been) fully recyclable, though the black ones are hard to sort automatically. Most councils won't accept any plant pots due to an assumption that they will be contaminated with soil, compost or plant matter. Pot manufacturers mostly accept used and broken pots back for recycling but only in large quantities, much larger than we are able to accumulate.
The modern trend to beige, grey or blue pots is largely greenwash as these alternative coloured pots are made from exactly the same type of plastic as the black ones! And still most councils will not accept them because of the supposed contamination. An increasing number of black pots are made from at least some recycled content and some grey, beige and blue pots from France and Germany are made from 100% recycled plastic. Unfortunately UK manufacturers (those few left) seem to be lagging behind and still using mostly new plastic.
We have tried biodegradable pots of various types and found them all inadequate for our range of plants. The largest problems with these supposedly "green" pots are their short life in use (some of our slow-growing plants need 2-3 years to make a saleable plant) and the lack of information on their sustainability. Do we really want to import relatively bulky, heavy pots (~50% less pots per pallet, ~25% heavier than plastic) made from materials such as bamboo of unknown (wild?) origin from the Far East with a short useful life? All the biodegradable pots I've seen come from the Far East whereas the plastic ones are made in Europe. The final problem with these biodegradable pots is the cost of them, plant prices would have to go up another 20p-30p to cover the high prices.
So, for now, we continue to use the best quality strong plastic pots we can, and are using the new colours as they become available in the hope that councils will take them in the future.. The aim is that they will last a long time and be suitable for multiple re-uses before they have to be recycled, and that they are strong enough to protect the plant on the nursery and in transit. Our last delivery of 9cm pots are made from 100% recycled consumer waste and are a beige colour so that there may be some hope of a UK council taking them for recycling in the future!
Finally, we have always, and will continue to, accept our pots back for re-use.
Plastic plant labels
This is the only other potential single-use plastic we distribute. At the moment I have no idea how to practically move away from them. Any label we use has to be easily mass printable using (affordable!) desktop-type printers and the resulting label has to be legible and durable outside for some time. Our labels at present carry the Plant Passports that are legally required for mail order so we need a solution that allows this too.
I have spoken to our supplier and they confirm that they are trialling alternative materials. Hopefully better news on this front soon.
Less well known in public environmental discussions is the potential contamination of water and land with fertiliser run-off or leaching. While our small scale means that we would never be the source of a major problem I have always used the minimum needed and only in pots.
We have used various types of slow release, and nowadays controlled release, granular fertilisers that, as the names suggest, only release the nutrients as they are required by the plants. This is governed by a combination of time, temperature and moisture.
We have topped up with watered-on seaweed-based fertiliser in times of stress such as prolonged hot summer weather.
With more challenging conditions recently caused by less predictable weather and the slightly different characteristics of our peat-free compost we are now investigating adding extra fertiliser through our irrigation system, or even changing over entirely to liquid feeding. This is something I am approaching carefully and will choose organic fertilisers where possible.
Much of our watering is done with a handheld lance on the end of a hose so we are able to accurately water trays of plants with what they need and not over- or under-water. As we have grown, more of the nursery is now watered using sprinklers which produce a heavy droplet akin to rain to reduce losses through drift, this is all controlled manually though, again to make sure that plants only get what they need.
Unfortunately we rent our site (since 2000) so are currently unable to invest in a full water recycling system as the capital cost would be huge with no long term guarantee to rely on. For the same reason we are reliant on mains water rather than a borehole.
Through the drought of 2022 I am pleased to report that our peat-free compost performed very well and required much less water than competitors' composts.
We haven't used any routine chemical treatments on our plants for many years and have no intention of starting again.
Nematodes (a form of biological pest control) are used for vine weevil control and have been for over 20 years. We find they work well when the weather co-operates and I would say we actually have less problems than when we used chemical controls. Any perennial nursery that claims to have no vine weevil at all hasn't looked hard enough! Vine weevils live in the countryside and will constantly move back into your nursery or garden.
For the occasional outbreak of other pests or diseases we have used SB Plant Invigorator which can often provide a good solution with zero harvest interval if you'd like to use it on edible crops. Otherwise we generally rely on good growing conditions and nature helping a bit too! I have also stopped growing certain plants entirely if they were badly affected with a pest or disease.
We do employ a professional pest controller to keep on top of rodents which can be a problem especially in autumn when the adjacent 90 acres of cereal or maize gets harvested!
Mail order packing
Again since 2018 we have abandoned using plastic packing materials in our mail order packaging. No polythene bags, polystyrene peanuts, blister/clam-shell packs (not that I ever used those) or parcel tapes. All orders are packed in paper wrappings, mostly recycled newspaper, enclosed in cardboard boxes sealed with gummed paper tape. I'm glad to say that this has been working very well and we have had many customers contact us to say how pleased they were to see it.
I just have to ask you not to judge us by the newspaper we use if it's not your preferred one! We are given papers from various sources and I don't have time to read any of them... they are just packing material to me!
So far we are still sending most plants in their pots as they provide good protection to the rootball in transit. We are planning to start trialling removal of the pots from at least some plants (where they have stronger roots).
The nursery itself
I am pleased to say that one of the first things we did in October 2000 when we moved to the site in South Lopham was to plant hedges. Since then we have planted hundreds of, mostly native hedging shrubs and trees, including over 400 trees in a shelter belt.
We are very proud of the large range of wildlife, particularly birds, that is regularly seen on the nursery - though we could do with less rabbits and muntjac! There are many times when you turn round and nearly tread on a robin that has crept up on you, find a toad hiding amongst plants or even catch a glimpse of the stunning purple hairstreak butterflies in the summer.
We have a number of bird nesting boxes around the site and many birds take advantage of the general habitat, both greenery and pot stacks, to nest naturally.
I am convinced that one of the main reasons we are able to produce our plants with minimal chemical input is the population of wildlife on the site that helps keep things in balance. Song thrushes are better than slug pellets.
Tim Fuller, Owner