Understanding The Cost Of Plants

We had a lovely trip up to Yorkshire via East Anglia last week visiting some of our suppliers. And the odd pub, needless to say.

Hot Pipe Callusing – part of the grafting process

Whenever I visit any of the nurseries which supply us I’m always impressed. There’s so much expertise involved. Take fruit trees, for example. There’s a whole extra level of difficulty here because of the grafting process. Joining scion wood to rootstock on a commercial scale looks easy, but it’s time consuming and skilled work. Once the graft has taken the whips have to be grown on and pruned, before lifting in the winter.

I say “commercial scale”, but there’s not that much demand for many of the trees RV Roger sells. They’re lovely old heritage varieties, many pretty obscure, and they only graft and grow them in tiny numbers. The nursery is a plantsman’s delight and to my mind the cost of their plants is absurdly cheap.

Down the road, outside Norwich, we popped in to see British Wildflower Plants, our native plug plant supplier. They grow in bigger numbers, of course, but even after our mark up you can buy their 55cc plugs for under 50p each before carriage. They work hard for their share of that 50p. Their plug plants are propagated from seed, either collected or their own, and each species has different optimal germination conditions. Like RV Roger they are peat free, and they only use natural pest control. Stock control is a nightmare; they list a wide range of species, but are regularly cleared out by single large orders.

Newly planted coir rolls going to be grown on before sale.

We buy our aquatic plants and pre-planted coir rolls and mats from Salix Rivers and Wetlands in Thetford. They have similar stock control issues, as their coir products are in huge demand for large scale river and lake bio-engineering projects. Their business, too, is as complicated as it is ethically run. Lots of manual intervention in the fabrication and growing processes, and care over sourcing materials.

As usual, all three visits reinforced our understanding of the difficulty and cost of growing plants commercially. Very few people have ever made a fortune out of horticulture, but it would be nice if the good guys could make a good living out of it.

Much of that is up to resellers like us.

It’s a challenge. We don’t just need to get across to people the reasons for buying plants like these. We have to explain why sourcing them from the suppliers we use is a good option, and why it’s worth paying more for them. These issues are similar to the challenges facing the food industry, of course.

I tire of people boasting about the price of their latest purchase on online fora*. Wow! I’ve just bought three 5ft tall apple trees for under £5 each at Aldi/Tesco/B&Q/(delete as appropriate)!

Like food, we have forgotten the value of plants. Although ethical produce sales increased around 6 fold from 200 to 2015 (Source:
The Ethical Consumer Research Association), we still spend under half of what we did on food overall as a proportion of our income than we did in the 1950s (Source: ONS).

It’s not too fanciful to think that as we re-evaluate the economic importance of the natural world we might rethink our understanding of the cost of plants as well.

*fora? forums?

Ecobuild

I spent a knackering three days at Ecobuild last week. Ecobuild is a mega trade fair, now at the ExCel centre in London. It took me three hours just to walk round it last year as a punter, and this year as an exhibitor I was so busy I couldn’t even leave my stand to get a coffee. We were part of the Biodiversity Pavilion, where I was mentored by the lovely Blanche Cameron and neighbours with nice folk like Wildflower Turf, one of our suppliers. British Wildflower Plants, another supplier, grew the gorgeous native wildflowers for us. Thanks chaps.
There was a lot of chat about whether the show was still true to its core values, which arguably it isn’t, but the thing that struck me was that it still had room for enthusiasts and they weren’t marginalised. Sure, these events are all about shifting product, but this was a much more honest and catholic church than the major horticultural shows. You can’t have an arbiter of appropriate trade stands; it’s the paying punter who dictates what’s on display and, by and large, in the wake of the solar bubble it made for interesting viewing. It felt contemporary and buzzy too, which the horticultural shows certainly don’t; I met interesting people and saw some interesting things, and even got to give a couple of talks. I’ll be back next year please Blanche.

Chelsea 2012

I’ll be taking part in my own Olympic event in 2012. We’re going to have a show garden in the RHS Lifelong Learning area at Chelsea to promote some of the things we’re trying to get folk to do. Gulp! I say “we” but I’m just going to be doing the signage and the running around panicking. The design and build is being sorted by the brilliant Phil Brown, and one of our suppliers, the equally brilliant British Wildflower Plants, are supplying the plants and doing the growing for us. We’ll do a splashy Press Release in the new year along with a whole lot of other stuff, but I couldn’t contain my excitement in the meantime, so by way of a taster here’s the outline of the design brief:

 

Habitat Aid aims to build a garden exhibit to show how diverse micro-habitats can be created in contemporary urban design. We will use British native plants exclusively but it will not look like a “wildlife garden”. We feel that “Wildlife gardening” is often marginalised because it ignores the aesthetic and practical requirements of the most important animal in the garden – its owner.

It is an important part of Habitat Aid’s work to create landscapes which are both attractive and functional for their users AND which also deliver biodiversity, focusing on plants and invertebrates. We are trying to put the creation of micro-habitats at the core of a design philosophy rather than offering it as an option.

The London Wildlife Trust’s recent survey, reporting increasing hard landscaping in the capital’s gardens, suggests that this approach should also include specific reference to SUDS and usage problems confronting urban garden owners – e.g. parking.

The Chelsea exhibit will also be used to promote key messages from Habitat Aid’s partner conservation charities, including Butterfly Conservation, Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who are all keen to be involved in the project. We hope to make it interactive as well as educational.

I’m sworn to secrecy as to details, but it’s going to be very different to anything you will have seen before. Wish us luck!

Flowery Meads

I met Jane Owen at an open day with the charismatic Andy McIndoe at Hillier’s this week. I’ve got a pretty steep learning curve to deal with but at least, as I’ve commented before, I’m finding some of the best and nicest people to help me up it. Jane was researching an article on flowering lawns so I put her in touch with Linda Laxton, the expert’s expert on native plants and founder of British Wildflower Plants, one of our suppliers.
We sell both plug and seed mixes for flowering lawns, so I ought to know more about them and post more information on the website. I do know that “flowery meads” or “enamelled lawns” were an important element of medieval gardens and I can very much see their attraction now. Playing football on them might be problemmatic but they’re low maintenance, hugely more wildlife friendly than a “traditional” lawn and add colour and interest to smaller gardens in particular. I suppose a well kept tightly mown lawn is the gardening equivalent of a field of perennial rye grass from an ecologist’s point of view…

Unmown section of lawn
Unmown section of lawn
If you don’t want to go the whole hog then mow tightly around small islands and only let them grow a little to make them look neat, which I saw at Jenny Steel’s garden (left). Leaving these sections unmown for a couple of weeks or so gives at least the clover and, here, Selfheal as well (a good bumblebee plant) a chance to flower. Perhaps I could sell this solution to the footballers.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to Jane’s article on the lawns and, in the meantime, back to Linda for some notes to help folk on the website.