Grown in Wales

Grown in WalesGrown in WalesGrown in Wales

12

September

The worst job on the nursery

Charles Warner

People often make the mistake of thinking that the plants that they buy in garden centres are grown by gardeners or at least by garden enthusiasts. This is not really so. The people supplying your garden centres are business people. Some of them running quite big businesses. many of them outside the UK. If I was a gardener I might think that the worst job was double digging the asparagus bed or clipping the laurel hedge or something. As a nurseryman, you may think that my least favourite job is labelling plants on a freezing February morning or spraying the plants for thrips. For me it's non of those. When I get to do a bit opf horticulture it's like a holiday compared to my least favourite jobs. I spend an hour every morning as soon as it is light weeding and although my fingers a freezing it's far more enjoyable than what I have to do now. I'll tell you in a minute.

This year has been special. I have worked damn hard to create a product that is as good as anything out there and this year I feel as though I have achieved that. The next thing is to plant the year so that we are able to keep up with the demand from our customers. So far that is looking very good indeed. I have never been more pleased with how the nursery is looking. That has given me the confidence to, at last, really go out there and tell the world about us. I have been helped to do this by Horticulture Wales who have put several opportunities in my direction. The best of these was to share a stand with them and Pottles Premiere Plants at the Fours Oaks Trade show near Jodrell Bank. In amongst 430 trade stands from businesses all over Europe I set up just a single trolley of our plants. I was a bit apprehensive. I had no idea what people would make of my little display . As it turned out people loved them and the event gave us a huge boost and a great deal to think about.

Some of the time at Four Oaks we were overwhelmed by people wanting to see our plants and have a chat. There was a word that kept cropping up it was..."struggling" . Of course noone admitted that they were struggling themselves but lots of people were telling us about all the other businesses that were. It's easy to think that your little business is alone with the difficulties that it faces but my guess is that there are problems in the nursery stock trade and it is affecting everyone across the board. Here are my thoughts about what is going wrong.

When I got into commercial growing in the early eighties the garden centre was a relatively new thing. Previous to that plants were generally grown and retailed by the same person. An industry developed whereby growers appeared that supplied the retailer which allowed the grower to develop his skills and the retailer to develop theirs. by the time I started in business there was another split. The propagator rooted the cutting or germinated the seed. he then sold it to the plant finisher who potted it, grew it on then sold it to the retailer. This started to favour large producers. This is because by buying in the rooted cutting or seedling, the profit margin of the wholesale nursery was reduced. Only slightly because now  there was another grower in the chain but by concentrating on their own part of that chain they could be more efficient. With a slightly lowered profit margin it became favourable to grow the businesses to take advantage of the economies of scale but also if you have a smaller unit profit you must sell more units and so it went on.

The people that I worked for went from a partnership on a little paddock near Banbury in Oxfordshire to producing 2 million herbs and alpines a year. They propagated a bit themselves and bought some from the UK but most of it came from Israel. They had a stated aim to be the largest producers in the Uk but they failed in that. There were other growers who peaked at 5 million .

Being at Four Oaks really showed me how much had changed in the industry. Now the supply chain can sometimes consist of the plant breeder, his agent, the tissue culture specialist (probably in Thailand), the young plant producer, the liner producer, the wholesaler, the distributor and the retailer. All of these want to make a profit and yet the real price of the plant in the garden centre is about the same as it ever was. Again this favours the big grower. If you sell 5 million plants, you make £50000 per penny per plant profit. If i make a penny per plant  my profit is £400 and I am stuffed.

That is why it is so hard to make a living and it's probably something to do with why I now have to do my least favourite job. I have to complete the small claims online form because one of my customers has not paid since the spring and will not return my calls or emails. If they are insolvent then it will be the second one this year. Sometimes it feels as though the industry is collapsing under the weight of a combination of too many people in the supply chain and a price that does not reflect the production costs. I absolutely hate this process of asking for money . I have to get all the details together and then I sit for a while and gather my thoughts before I call. This time all i get is a messaging service that is full and I fear that another customer might be going under. I need their payment so I have to keep trying.

Much of this could be avoided is people saw more value in their plants. It's probably the industrys' fault. They got efficient and then competed with each other on price until the pips squeaked. Fifteen pence on the wholesale price of my litre pots would probably secure my future and that of my independent retailer customers but a desire for low prices negates that . Put into perspective my 1 litre pots cost about the same as a pint of Guiness but unlike the pint will give pleasure for years.

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