episode 65 | show notes & advice
Today Sarah is excited to show Arthur around Rookery Farm, our plant nursery in Lincolnshire, a glorious festival of life where the plants she loves and grows at Perch Hill are scaled up to be sent out to you, to be planted in your gardens.
In this episode discover
- Why Sarah and Arthur think Rookery Farm is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of plants!
- What the nursery looks like, with carpets of infant plants, swathes of sweet peas, glasshouses and the processes in place to send out healthy plants to customers.
- More about the incredible innovative measures David, the owner of Rookery Farm, has introduced, from peat-free potting mixes, biomass boilers, no use of mains water, plastic-free packaging and what’s next.
- How Rookery Farm will take a hard-to-find plant Sarah loves, like Calceolaria ‘Kentish Hero’, and bulk it up into a range that can go in the catalogue.
Episode 65 advice sheet
The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of plants
Sarah thinks of Rookery Farm as a glorious festival of life with glass houses and polytunnels, the equivalent of cold frames, bedding out areas full of roses and things. Arthur likens it to a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but for plants, with so many people busying about, carpets and carpets of infant plants to 9cm plants, and more sweet peas than he’s ever seen before.
Rookery Farm is in the Lincolnshire fens, where the flat landscape and fertile soil gives the perfect conditions for greenhouses and growing on a large scale. Arthur likens it to Holland in terms of ideal growing conditions. He’s used to factory production having run the garden at Emma Bridgewater’s pottery factory in Stoke-on-Trent but he was blown away by the production process he witnessed at Rookery Farm.
This is something that amazes Sarah too, watching the different innovative factory processes that enable plants to be propagated from seed or cuttings into healthy seedlings or bushy plants ready to be sent out to customers.
Many of the processes Rookery Farm use have been developed by owner David Robinson, to solve problems Sarah encountered when she started out growing cut flowers. In her early days, seedling would arrive from suppliers in tiny peat blocks with three or five seedlings that, when planted out, would compete and then die! One year she tried ripping apart the peat blocks and planting out that way but that didn’t give great results either.
After years of trials and experimentation at Perch Hill and David’s trials at Rookery Farm, they have concluded that single seed sowing in a cell is the best method – no seeds are wasted, each seed goes into its own soil block (now done by machine but done by hand in the early days), going on to grow in splendid isolation without any root disturbance, before being potted on into a peat-free potting mix.
David has created a marvellous ‘Heath Robinson’ style factory system where the little plugs come along on a conveyor belt, having been germinated with a bit of heat, on a glorified potting bench on the base of the greenhouse. The next step is potting on, when seedlings are taken off the conveyor belt and plopped into the peat-free potting mix by a fantastic team of workers. Then David has devised this amazing cone that takes six pots off to be grown on, before they are packed up to be sent to customers. There are different packing houses for different types of plants and Arthur comments on the care taken by the ladies he sees packing the 9cm potted plants up for customers before being collected by the bright red Royal Mail lorry to be sent out across the UK.
A top reason Sarah loves working with David is he doesn’t take the easy option, but listens to Sarah and her team, to the science and the horticulture, and then applies his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory brain to find the best solution and thinks about how to do it to scale.
Scaling up sweet peas
A good example of this is sweet pea packaging. For Sarah, rootrainers are the best sowing system for sweet peas and she wanted originally to send all our sweet pea seedlings out to customers in them. But rootrainers don’t transport well so David investigated and found that pots originally designed for tree cuttings are the best equivalent – a long and deep pot with ribs down the side made from reusable plastic. David listened to Sarah and understood that sweet peas need the long runs down the side of the pot so the roots when they branch, get into one of those channels, then they come out the bottom and are air pruned and then you get this virtuous circle of lateral rootlet development. With this system customers get the best and healthiest plants.
The cuttings greenhouse
Rookery Farm has a greenhouse dedicated to propagating Sarah Raven plants from cuttings. This is particularly exciting as it means Sarah or Josie or Arthur, anyone in the team, who finds a plant they particularly love or that is hard to find in the UK, they can bring it along to be a parent plant, known known as ‘mother stock’ to create hundreds of new plants from, which can then go in the catalogue for customers to buy.
Sarah gives a couple of examples of plants currently in our range:
· Calceolaria ‘Kentish Hero’ – a plant of this was given to Sarah by her great friend Pip Morrison and she completely fell in love with it – like velvet slippers in mahogany – but you can’t get it widely at all. Sarah brought three plants she propagated from the original at Perch Hill to Rookery Farm and now there are lines of it. Every ‘Kentish Hero’ that comes out to customers was propagated from the mother stock developed from that original plant.
· Heliotrope ‘Reva’ is another example. Sarah has it in a window box in the greenhouse and the whole greenhouse smells of the amazing cherry jam perfume. She couldn’t find a source so she propagated from mother stock at Perch Hill and brought plants to Rookery Farm to scale up, and they are now ready to go out to all our customers.
Sarah absolutely loves that Rookery Farm is able to do this. She has just come back from holiday in Greece, where she collected seeds from a few plants not currently available here in the UK. She loves the idea that if the seeds grow well at Perch Hill, she’ll be able to bring them to David to bulk up and, if all goes well, they’ll be available for customers in two to three years time. These seeds are:
· Cerinthe minor – a more delicate variety with really dark, almost black hooded calyces and little yellow bells that hang below.
· Cerinthe contorta a new umbellifer which is a bit like dill crossed with ammi.
The advantages of having an in-house nursery means it is so much more reliable keeping varieties in stock for customers, this ability to propagate varieties Sarah loves in house, and it is so sustainable, no air miles, and the ability to continually review and bring in more sustainable measures like biological pest control, peat-free pottings mixes. The nursery is very close to being completely organic and on next week’s episode Sarah and Arthur talk to David about our environmental policy and all the sustainable measures he has put in place, from no mains water being used to grow plants, installing biomass boliers, and moving to plastic-free packaging.
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The story behind how Sarah came to work David and Rookery Farm
Arthur remarks on Sarah’s incredible journey to the current Rookery Farm operation from counting out seeds to sell from her kitchen table at Perch Hill with her two young daughters in tow.
Sarah first met David 18 years ago as she was looking for someone who could help her sell unusual varieties of chrysanthemums. She had done a trial, one of her first trials at Perch Hill, of dark rich coloured varieties and more spider type and one called ‘Shamrock’ – bright acid green one. She came to Rookery Farm and David did 500 orders that year. Rookery Farm now holds the mother stock for Sarah’s chrysanthemums (she still trials new varieties at Perch Hill and, if she loves them, she brings the parent plant to David to bulk up for sale), and now David sends out thousands of orders every day.