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?

R.V. Roger

R.V. Roger Ltd. is one of our best suppliers, and typical of the businesses I love to work with.

R.V. Roger
Steve and Ian share a joke (Ian’s crocs?).
The nursery was founded by Royston Valentine Roger before the First War, and today his grandson Ian runs R.V. Roger in the same spot at the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales, in Pickering. There are very few British nurseries left, so they must be doing something right.
They don’t use seasonal labour, and many of the folk working on the nursery have relations there too. Rogers are deeply embedded in the local community. Their staff feel a real sense of belonging and share responsibility for the successful running of the firm.
R.V. Roger fruit trees
Fruit tree, anyone?
They have to feel that way; lifting trees in the dark and a foot of snow is not a job for the faint hearted.
Ian Roger is a passionate plantsman, and has huge knowledge ranging from the heritage fruit trees and roses which are the firm’s bread and butter to rare and exotic bulbs. He’s endlessly patient and a fantastic source of information. It’s his fruit trees and bulbs we sell, although the bulb exotica never make it onto any website as they’re snapped up by collectors.
I visited Rogers in Pickering earlier this week, mostly just to catch up and buy some bits and pieces, but to have a good sticky beak around the nursery as well.
R.V. Roger plant centre
Mary does the watering
Roses at R.V. Roger
35,000 Roses
There are new greenhouses, bizarre bulbs, a garden centre, the odd National Collection, a scion orchard, and, of course, thousands and thousands of roses and fruit trees. The fruit trees include some of the rarest you can find. Fab. R.V. Roger is a great place to visit and a great nursery to support.

The Stupid Price of Plants

Lupins at Gardener's World
Westcountry Nurseries’ lupins
I was at the Gardener’s World Show last week with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the bumblarium, and reflecting on the price of plants. Regular garden show goers tend to get a bit blase about the floral marquees, which we shouldn’t be. We’re so blessed to have such fabulous nurseries in the UK, and how on earth any of them pay for these displays, let alone make a living, is quite beyond me.

By way of contrast to a floral marquee I spent two hours in Ikea yesterday evening. Among other wonders were beautiful pots of lilies in flower for £1.80. £1.80! Half the cost of a regular latte at the show. It costs me the equivalent of three lattes to buy a fruit tree from one of our (British) growers at wholesale prices. These might be heritage varieties, so rare there might be fewer than 20 sold in the world in a year. The process of growing them isn’t exactly quick or easy; the rootstock is established, then planted out and budded in June/July. The following year the rootstock is pruned back and new growth trained and supported with a cane. From that autumn the maiden plant is lifted (sometimes in the snow) and wrapped. Three lattes – is it any wonder so many of our plants are imported?

Newsletter No.26: November 2012

As it turns cold and we start to ship bare root trees one of our native species is much in the headlines. Chalara fraxinea is here, a disease from Europe which threatens to do to our Ash tree population what Dutch Elm disease did to Elms. As various stable doors clang shut it does strike me that perhaps the government is not to blame – or at least, not in the way you might think. When consumers buy a “native tree” or “wildflower seed” they deserve to know where it’s from. If we can persuade them to buy from us rather than inadvertently end up with a “native” tree from Lithuania, “conservation” hedge plant from Holland or “wildflower” seed from Bulgaria then I’m doubly happy.

Charity News
It’s tough out there at the moment. One of my favourite charities, the Grassland Trust, bit the bullet last month. There are precious few conservation charities focused on flora rather than fauna, and they will be sadly missed. As a consequence, though, we have managed to make a donation to Alderney Wildlife Trust’s woodland planting project. Good luck guys – it looks a great scheme. It’s also a great excuse for an Alderney Puffin photo.

We’ve announced the date of next year’s meadow day at Hookgate Cottage – 15h June. That’s assuming we’re not still knee deep in the builders’ mud! Do get in touch if you’d like to learn how to create and maintain a meadow area. Cost is £75.

Stock up on Honey!
The Beekeepers’ Association reckon that the miserable summer and honeybees’ other well publicized problems have led to a 72% fall in honey production this year. It’s a timely reminder to do your bit for bees by planting bee friendly plants. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) have just published the excellent Plants for Bees – fight to get a copy!

Fruit Trees
We’ve continued to add weird and wonderful local fruit trees to our catalogue, and will start shipping them soon. We’re already starting to run short of some varieties, so don’t hang about if you’ve got your eye on something.

A Partridge in a Helpful Pear Tree

Like 99.99% of the population I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. There are hardly gazillions of partridge around anymore and there are even fewer pear trees. I don’t understand why, as pears have so much going for them. I’m particularly fond of them because they’ve got something for all, from humans to everything else down the foodchain.

Pears as edible fruit are a bit tricksie. They’re either hard as bullets or the wasps have got them. Do not despair! Mrs. Mann has discovered the answer – mulled pears. Yummy. If you’re not talking about edible varieties but rather Perry Pears, then power to you. A good Perry is a delightful and rare thing, and like a MazzardPerry Pear is a handsome ornamental tree.

Fruit needs pollinators. Where local ecosystems are in a mess, as in places in the U.S. or in China, they’re imported in vast numbers. Millions of honeybees are driven across the States to pollinate almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and citrus fruit in Florida. But it’s a two way street; fruit trees are excellent news for bees too. They produce masses of early blossom, ergo masses of early pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees.

And not so early blossom too; a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provided huge amounts of forage from February to May. The Victorians grew apple varieties like James Grieve as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit. Pear blossom too is spectacular in early spring.

This is one of the reasons why orchards are great for wildlife – and not just because of their blossom. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates, but they all give up the ghost quicker than our native trees, which means habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered goodies. Pyrus (pear) decays relatively slowly, then Malus (apple), and quickest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc.). A mixed orchard will provide saproxylic flora and fauna a wonderful range of niches to thrive in.

These include the Noble Chafer, who is a lovely little chap but endangered. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves, for example. Then there’s the six invertebrates associated with Mistletoe, which itself thrives in orchards. Further up the foodchain it’s no surprise that bats and a wide variety of birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species.

The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop. That itself makes it a valuable resource for wildlife. That’s true particularly in the autumn when covered with windfalls which are a boon for late butterflies and birds like thrushes and Blackbirds (“Colly Birds”), together with small mammals like Hedgehogs. At Habitat Aid’s HQ we have an area where there are fruit trees with an understory of fruit bushes. Many orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks interesting and it’s low maintenance. The cook’s happy – all sorts of interesting culinary opportunities. And as for the wildlife… biodiversity is first cousin to utility as well as it is to beauty.

The best time to plant fruit trees is now. The bare root trees we sell are not only cheaper but will also do much better than pot grown, and are best planted over the winter when the plants are dormant.

Newsletter No. 19: November 2011

Much to do, as ever. We’re starting to ship fruit trees, which reminds me, belated congratulations to R.V.Roger, one of our fruit tree suppliers, who not only won a Gold at Malvern this year but also the coverted President’s Trophy at Harrogate. Good job guys – a fiver well spent!

New Products
We’re launching a new range of solitary bee and bug boxes. Like other sales through the website we’re donating 50% of profits to a charity partner, in this case the invertebrate charity Buglife. We generally stay clear of selling “stuff”, as opposed to seeds and plants, but well designed bug boxes do work and engage people’s interest. They’re attractive too, which is important to us; promoting biodiversity doesn’t mean the garden has to look like a biohazard. The boxes come in 4 different sizes, working up to the regal Buggingham Palace, and are priced from £21.50 inc. VAT and P&P. They are individually made in a small workshop in Dorset from locally sourced materials.

We are planning to be at the following shows in 2012 with our spiffy new signage – hope to see you at one of them:

Ecobuild, ExCel Centre, London
20th – 22nd March
Chelsea Flower Show
22nd – 26th May
BBC Gardener’s World Live, NEC Birmingham
13th – 17th June
Game Fair, Rutland
20th – 22nd July

(Social) Media
Unlike Tom Archer’s footballing pigs we’re not a social media sensation, but as I write we’re a gnat’s breath away from 1,000 mostly sane and mostly interested followers on Twitter. The 1,000th follower of @Habitat_Aid wins a packet of Meadow Anywhere wildflower seeds. I’m also on LinkedIn and failing to understand Facebook properly too, so there are lots of ways of staying in touch with us. Oh, and, of course, the blog toddles on – latest offering is a guide to planting native hedges.

Fruit Tree Management
The next of our orchard management days is on the 19th January. Tutored by well-known nurseryman Kevin Croucher, this one day course is an invaluable and practical introduction to establishing and caring for traditional fruit trees. Sign up now to avoid disappointment!

Newsletter No.7: 1st September 2010

Cold Wind Blowing
It’s my favourite time of year. We took a bumper honey crop at the beginning of August and, despite the wasps, the bees look in good shape. We’ve finished scything the meadow, which was lovely this year, and seeding a couple of new areas. The kitchen staff (surely some mistake – Ed.) are now wrestling with current and impending gluts of courgettes, apples, plums, pumpkins (!), and, more excitingly, usable numbers of quinces, figs, medlars and pears. We’re cleaning the apple press and might even have enough Perry Pears to think about our first vintage. Huge furry new bumblebee queens have started to buzz the sedum and the bats and swallows are zipping about in celebration of a fecund year in the garage. The new pond we made for our course in April has been extraordinary – the latest excitement there has been the arrival of Anax Imperator.

Basking in the late summer sun I should feel content, and looking forward to what I hope will be a busy month as folk start buying seed and ordering bare-root trees. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in front of my computer recently, but instead I feel rather morose. The economic and environmental news over the last few weeks has, let’s face it, been pretty grim, and there’s worse to come.

On the other hand, my resolve is also strengthened. Charities have to find new ways to fund themselves. Small businesses and consultants have to find new ways to market, and the internet should be the perfect medium for them. It should also work well to promote localism generally. This is all very much what Habitat Aid is about.

Most people have been incredibly supportive, but there’s a certain residue of suspicion about what we’re doing, which is understandable. My background was in the City (not a good start), and I have no expertise in many of the areas I’m looking at now, I do know people who have. The idea of a business which isn’t driven by financial profit is still a new idea for a lot of folk; I’m often asked questions like “is your blog commercial?”, or at the other end of the spectrum “who is funding you?” I still feel like we are a tiny boat (coracle?) in a pretty vast and stormy sea, but we are making headway I think. Since we started trading in May last year we have had nearly 100,000 page views, which to me sounds like a lot from a standing start.

Meadows Website

We’re launching a microsite about meadows at www.micromeadow.co.uk. To quote the blurb:

The site is intended to encourage folk to establish smaller scale meadows and to provide access to good quality plants and seeds, as well as to reliable information and advice.

Got it? Have a look and let us know what you think.


We’re delighted to announce we are working with Downderry Nursery to sell a range of lavenders from the spring. Downderry are regular Gold Medal winners and owner Simon Charlesworth is a committed conservationist. I met him originally at an open day organized by the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University, with whom he is working to trial the best bee friendly varieties.


We have started to carry adverts on our main site and blog. Not the usual nonsense, but we are being guided by the excellent Digital Spring. Like us, they occupy an interesting spot in the demi-monde between charities and commerce. They have put together a portfolio of ethically vetted conservation related advertisers – binoculars, birding holidays, etc. – whose ads appear on our sites. We make money, they make money – and donate some to a related charity.

Somerset Pride
We’ve signed up to become an associate corporate member of our local Wildlife Trust. It’s a great scheme, and another example of a partnership between charities and corporates where everyone wins.

Fruit Tree Management Courses
This winter we are hosting two one day courses on managing fruit trees, tutored by respected specialist nurseryman Kevin Croucher, owner of Thornhayes Nursery.

About Us
Habitat Aid aims to persuade and enable folk to at least partly recreate or help replace key habitats like meadows, wetlands, orchards and woodland. The company also helps a small number of charities.

We are partly an online retailer selling mostly trees, plants and seeds sourced from really good quality specialized suppliers who often have a limited or no e-commerce operation themselves. Half our profits from sales go to selected partner charities, which are linked to specific products; this doesn’t just help charities financially, but also helps get their key messages across.

We also act as a kind of honest broker. We are building a network of consultants in areas like “wildlife garden” and estate design, meadow creation, and wetland and pond projects. We recommend and introduce these folk to end clients and landscape professionals, to give advice or to design and project manage. We then supply the plants for these schemes.

Lastly, we are developing products directly with our partner charities. We are working with the ‘Adopt a Beehive’ scheme and BBKA Enterprises to supply native seed mixes for bees, for example.

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