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Sustainable business strategies for small scale, independent nurseries

The Botanic Nursery, Wiltshire, July 2020. 

As part of a recent contribution to the Young Propagator’s Society zine I have decided to release this corresponding research and my dissertation from 2016. Due to the circumstances in which the dissertation was written (limited word counts etc.) and a set academic approach, it is rather dry in tone and (I am a little galled to say) feels like it brushes over some of the topics. Nevertheless, I feel there are important things that can be extracted from the piece, which was based on interviews I undertook with several nurseries England, Wales and Holland. These gave an insight (in their own words) of how they approach their businesses and reveals their thoughts and ideas around sustainability. Although it is not my finest work, its ended up being one of the reasons I was granted the Prince of Wales Sustainable Horticulture Award in the same year.

I've since updated the dissertation and have added notes from Caroline Jackman, a brilliant educator who marked the paper, who had some valuable insights to share from her professional experience. But although not entirely satisfied with it I have resist the urge to tamper with it too much. It is what it is and belongs to a certain time and place. I have added more recent links to references and online articles also that I have come across. 

In researching the paper, I came to realise that the concept of sustainability, its interpretation and discussion are easily (and often) polarised, whereas the reality is doubtless far more nuanced. Although in this day and age, where information is so easily accessible and where everyone can voice their opinion, there seems to be more confusion than ever around definitions and best practice. So please do not take anything in the piece as creed and do your own research. I am open to facts being disputed (as long as the argument is well reasoned). Sustainability is a constant work in progress and because of the its inherent complexity, there are rarely finite or "complete" solutions. It is, as I keep emphasising, just a start of a beginning of a dialogue. 

Based on my findings (and bearing in mind that there might be advancements and development on some of these points from the time that this was first created), I am able to summarise that the different factors to consider if you want to run a sustainable nursery are:

    •    Growing (includes propagation methods, growing media used, pots, irrigation, feeding, pest and disease management)
    •    Energy (heating and transport)
    •    Land and location
    •    Scale (plant quantities and how to be economical)
    •    Business (specialisms, diversifications, marketing and support networks)
    •    People (human resources, care of people and customers)
    •    Legacy (education, how to pass down ethos, knowledge etc.)

I also think it is very beneficial for gardeners to try and do a stint in a really good nursery because as well as providing great skills on how to propagate and raise plants, they can be places that can show you good practice in efficiency and economy. De Hessenhof in The Netherlands, for example, usually takes on seasonal apprentices/ staff from March to October with possible accommodation. And Great Dixter of course now does a one year Propagation specific traineeship.  

Knowing what I know now I would have just concentrated my research on one case study - De Hessenhof - as I think this unique and amazing nursery is a great example to use, to illustrate the points to consider when thinking about how to run a sustainable business. I may still try and do this at a later time in this blog.

The above was written before Covid19 seems to have deeply changed the face of the world and the course of things. It has been interesting to see how nurseries have coped even in these circumstances, but we are yet to see what the outcome of everything will be while we are still weathering the storm.

Hopefully these businesses will still be able to teach us lessons about resilience. 

Sustainable business strategies for small scale, independent nurseries

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