When we bring visitors onto our nurseries from outside the industry, they are often genuinely taken aback by the scale of our operations and amount of work that goes into creating the product they see in their local Garden Centre. Here are some insights into what happens behind the scenes to produce our high quality garden plants…
Starting from scratch – Tristram Plants produce a large proportion of their product lines in house either via seed sowing or vegetative propagation.
Walberton released Coreopsis Walberton’s® Flying Saucers in 1997, and since then have propagated by hand, grown on and sold in the region of 750,000 plants. In the video we can see cuttings that were taken from our own mother stock plants being inserted into already watered propagation trays. Propagation workers are skilled at quickly selecting cuttings by size and placing smaller ones around the edges so they receive adequate light. Trays are then placed in a low polythene tunnel on a heated floor until they develop roots and are able to be weaned and potted on.
Fleurie’s seeding line makes propagating by seed far faster than doing it by hand. It really is an impressive operation to watch, and one that takes a fine art to run smoothly. Larger seeds like peas, seen in one of the videos opposite, require a double pass through the machine…once to fill the trays with compost, sow the seeds and lightly compress, and another to top up with compost before watering and labelling. Smaller seeds, such as lettuce (tiny thin seeds covered in blue clay to enable the machine to pick them up) are sown in a single pass through the machine – filling with compost, sowing the seed, covering with vermiculite, then watering and labelling. This faster operation can produce 250 units per person per hour. Fleurie use the seeding machine to sow a wide range of products – vegetables in different formats (packs, 1L and 9cm), sweetpeas, nasturtiums, and many more.
The emergence of Spring – Binsted sell in the region of 600,000 pots of potted bulbs each year. From Daffodils and Tulips to Fritillaria and Muscari. The key to successful bulb production is a period of vernalisation, i.e. cold. The bulbs in your garden would have been submerged under the soil all winter, enduring the cold, to then burst through in a riot of colour in Spring. But without that cold, they would not flourish. To replicate those natural growing conditions and ensure the Garden Centre market has a plentiful supply of flowering bulbs from December onwards, potted bulbs are held in Binsted’s 700msq cold store for anything between 30 and 100 days, dependent on variety and pot size. They are then bought out of the cold store and set down outside in ‘warmer’ conditions to replicate Spring and encourage the new shoots to emerge. This is the operation you can see in these videos, with 70,000 pots of Fritillaria Meleagris being transferred from the cold store to the great outdoors.
Potting – Potting all our crops takes a staggering 34,000 man hours to achieve across the 3 nurseries every year. We have 14 specialist potting machines, plus a seeding machine and a bulb topping machine, without which, efficient potting would simply be impossible on our scale. Whilst the machines vary slightly in how they work, the basic premise is this…and it really is fascinating to watch:
An 4-5 m3 bale of compost is inserted in the back of the bale breaker. Chains within this break the compost up and feed it into a hopper, which is fitted with a sensor so it doesn’t over fill. The compost is then fed into the potting machine where a pot descends from an overhead automated belt into a pot holder, specific to that pot size, which carries the pot around the machine. Compost then drops into the pot and a drill bit plunges into the compost to create a potting hole, the drill bit itself being adjustable in size to suit the size of plant being potted. The compost-filled, drilled pot them emerges from the dark innards of the machine and in some cases then has a measured amount of CRF (Controlled Release Fertiliser) dropped into the hole automatically. This gradually supplies the plant with the nutrients it needs for a pre-determined length of time, for example 3-4 months or 12-14 months depending on the plant’s needs. Finally, one to two people insert the young plants into the holes, often two hands at a time and gently firm them in. The finished plant then travels down a long set of conveyors where two people scoop between 5 and 20 pots off in one go (dependent on pot size) using specially made pot forks, and set them down in their final growing location….simple!
Trimming – There are occasions when hand trimming with secateurs is just what’s needed, and on smaller nurseries that would be entirely appropriate. But when hundreds of thousands of plants need trimming each year, and sometimes more than once, there’s no more efficient way to do it than with some high tech machinery.
There are a variety of trimming machines across the businesses used for a variety of different pot sizes. Some, like the EazyCut trimmer (nickname the ‘flatbed trimmer’) can trim up to 25,000 small plugs an hour, which is ideal for helping the young plants create a strong framework in their earlier growth stages. Others, like the TEA XRL trimmer (affectionately nicknamed the ’roundy, roundy trimmer’) are specialists in helping to shape plants in their final pot in a uniform fashion, ready to put on even growth prior to sale. This is thanks to their 5 cutting heads, each of which can be individually angled (or removed if necessary) to create the perfect ’rounded’ shape appropriate to it’s final selling size.
Scale – You wouldn’t know from the public highway, as our sites are tucked behind hedgerows in many instances, but our nurseries (both rented and owned) cover well over 100 acres of land. It’s not surprising then that we are able to grow crops on such a large scale, and that we have to use the high tech machinery described above to grow it all.