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?

Caring for God’s Acre

Thanks to Caring for God’s Acre I had a lovely trip to Wales this week. Caring for God’s Acre is a charity promoting sensitive and helpful ways of looking after burial grounds, which includes establishing and managing wildflower meadow areas. This is where I came in; they very kindly asked me to give a short spiel at their conference at the National Botanical Gardens on getting meadow areas started. The quality of the (other!) speakers was excellent, and the first point of writing this blog is to recommend Caring for God’s Acre as a hugely well organized and impressive organization, punching way over their weight. Burial grounds are an important ecological as much as an under-used community resource, and Caring for God’s Acre seem up to the task of sorting that out.

Salix Rivers and WetlandsAnyway, it gave me a great excuse to saunter over the border and visit a couple of my favourite suppliers en route, as well as enjoy an overnighter in Llandeilo. First stop was saxophone playing head nurseryman Lew in the Gower. Lew knows his business. He’s the kind of bloke you might expect to find shooting arrows at the French or playing hooker for Llanelli, but in actuality he knows everything there is to know about British aquatic plants. Cool, as he’d say.

Y FelinNext stop was to the equally remarkable John Shipton of Shipton Bulbs. John is the son of an explorer and a great wanderer himself, but in between trips to exotic locations he grows native woodland plants with his daughter Astra on his beautiful smallholding in Carmarthenshire. This is a remote part of the realm as far from my experience as it is outside my Satnav’s! The puckish John looked like a woodland sprite in the gathering evening gloom.

Thence to Frontas in Llandeilo, and after a sound sleep a sumptuous full cooked. The Great GlasshouseFrom Llandeilo a short hop and a skip to the National Botanical Gardens, which were an unexpected delight. Why on earth hadn’t I heard of them? Glasshouses, walled gardens, bee gardens, bog gardens, wild gardens, Japanese gardens, apothecaries’ gardens, boulder gardens, sculpture gardens, wild gardens… the plants were breath-taking.
And in the middle of all this was the Caring for God’s Acre conference. Sometimes I love my job.

The Landscape Man

A great coup for us last week. We were asked to come up with a native planting scheme and supply the plants for a large pond in Yorkshire for next spring’s Channel 4 series of The Landscape Man, presented by Matthew Wilson. Right up our street, but we only had 5 business days to do the whole thing… Undeterred, we parachuted pond consultant Hugh Roberts onto the site on Monday and had his planting scheme in our sticky hands that evening. Not only was he recommending a plant list, but there was also some bio-engineering to do to keep the pond bank from eroding. Landscape Man pond projectThe owner had been persuaded to use granite sets to line a section of it, which would have to be removed and replaced with preplanted coir rolls. We had all the plants and rolls on site on Thursday to film the planting on Friday. Hugh was then on hand to help Matthew with the planting. Phew! Thanks everyone, especially Lew from Dragonfly Flora and Hugh. The site will not only be absolutely stunning but also a huge boon to wildlife – just the sort of landscaping we’re trying to promote.

Ponds to the People

Bentomat Liner
We Paid For This?

Today was the day of our first course – making a large scale wildlife pond. We were a class of 10, with Professor Hugh, from Environments for People, Rob the Plant from Salix Rivers and Wetlands and, of course, Hugh the Slew in charge of the machinery. The dogs thought it was brilliant and we’ve ended up with a state of the art pond, thanks in no small part to the muscle power of the paying punters. Although I was dashing about I learnt a huge amount, and I can’t wait to get involved in some water projects. The quality of our partners in this area means we should be absolutely spanking at it. I’ll post more pictures here and on the photo gallery as the pond fills up so I can get our beautiful plants in and it looks more interesting than a hole in the ground. Whatever Parsley thinks it’s quite an impressive hole in the ground at its deep end, mind you, and its apex will be a really nice boggy area.

Pond digging
Parsley is unimpressed by Hugh the Slew

Lining the Pond
…but we think he\’s great

Deep thought
Roger and Hugh help the Prof. with the overflow

Wildlife Pond
Ready for Rain