50 years of quality perennials built on loyalty & sustainability
Straddling the Norfolk/Suffolk border, Howard Nurseries is not only one of the UK’s premium wholesale perennial nurseries – supplying an impressive 2 million plants of 1600 different species − but also one of the most environmentally sustainable. This year the family-run company is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Having started out growing plants on his parent’s allotment, David Howard established the nursery at Wortham, near Diss, in 1969. Supplying bare root plants was then the norm, however, as trends changed the nursery embraced container-grown production and to this day benefits from offering both.
Having recently retired, David’s daughter Christine took over at the helm. On completion of a general Horticulture degree at Writtle College, she pursed a career elsewhere in the industry before returning to the family business in 2006.
“We are seeing strong demand for perennials,” says Christine. “People like the fact the plants will return year after year. Salvias and Irises are proving particularly fashionable at the moment.”
While two thirds of production is container grown, Howards supply some 600,000 bare root plants annually from its open-field site, including Iris, Hemerocallis, Geraniums, Achilleas and Euonymus.
With a glasshouse for propagation, and polytunnels providing protection in bad weather, the majority of the 100-acre site is devoted to open ground container production in 9cm, 2litre and 5litre pots. With the growing popularity of bare root plants, there are plans to expand the 12-acres of open-field production.
With a good network of contacts, and good relationships within the industry, Howards has added over 100 new species to its plant list in the past two years helping to keep its offering fresh.
“We’ve always benefiting from having a strong, diverse and loyal customer base,” says Christine. “We supply garden designers, landscapers, retailers, tourist attractions etc.”
In turn, the nursery has remained loyal to many of its suppliers. For over 30 years Howards has employed Levington growing media and Osmocote controlled release fertilizer. “While we remain cost conscious and have trialed other products from time to time, these products continually deliver what we want enabling us to maintain high plant quality,” says Christine.
“Over the years we’ve also benefited from the accompanying advice. Initially we worked with Mike Humphries and when he retired John Clarke and now technical area sales manager Stuart Gammage.
“We’ve always found the team friendly and knowledgeable. We feel we get good advice and good customer service. Stuart drops by every two months or so for a catch up and a biscuit or two!”
“We currently use a single 23% peat reduced Levington Advance Solutions mix across the site to grow all our container-grown stock,” says Howards Nurseries operation manager, Marcel Willems. “It performs very well. Compared to hardy nursery stock operations, we turn our stock around quite quickly. The Osmocote Exact Hi.End (8-9 month) is good as when the plants leave the nursery they still benefit from the controlled release for a few months.
“There will be cost implications in switching to peat-free. It’s not going to happen over-night but we do plan to eliminate peat from our operations. We remain very environmentally conscious in everything we do.”
Howards has won several environmental accolades including a Gold level Carbon Charter Award for Environmental Responsibility. Demonstrating commitment to the local environment, they have won the award three times. In 2016 the nursery scooped the UK Water Efficiency Award for the Farming and Horticulture category of the Waterwise Awards*, before being granted the overall Environment Agency Chairman’s Award for Water Efficiency.
The award was in recognition of the naturally clay lined reservoir which holds over 7 million gallons of water. Even though situated in one of the driest parts of the country, the nursery’s container production is 100% self-sufficient for water. But that’s not all, the reservoir does not look out of place on this spectacular nursery as it contains over five thousand Norfolk reeds, is well stocked with fish and supports a wide variety of wildlife and plant life. Meanwhile, its water management workings are fully powered by solar panels and feed a fully automated irrigation system.
A passion for sustainability
Christine is passionate about sustainability and continues to implement new initiatives – large and small. Visit the nursery and everywhere you turn there is evidence; such as a host of sustainable growing methods such as hives of bumblebees to boost natural pollination, IPM strategies to minimise chemical usage alongside a recycling box for the workforce crisp packets, a recycling bin for shoes and boots and another for labels.
A nursery constantly moving forward, last December saw the competition of a new office extension enabling Howards to host specialist talks, the first by Neil Lucas on grasses. Other recent initiatives include bespoke plant labels for customers, employing the nursery’s large in-house library of image, and a new Iris retail pack aimed at garden centres in biodegradable packaging alongside new taupe coloured pots for container plants.
“This autumn we’re launching online ordering for wholesale customers and a new plant catalogue,” says Christine. “Printed in book format, the 50th Anniversary Catalogue features 100 new varieties and is printed by a local company that also holds a Carbon Charter award.”
While the mailing envelopes are manufactured from 80% recycled paper, to reduce the carbon footprint still further, customers visiting Four Oaks Trade Show next week are encouraged to visit stand E76 and pick up a copy!