Thursday, 1 August 2013

More to do...

After a busy spring period summer is a useful time on the nursery to take a breath. Most of the young plants have been potted and are growing away in their tunnels or outside, and in a few cases the fastest rooting plants are making their way slowly but surely towards the sales area. Summer is a time to get some real horticulture in, pruning, training and staking plants as necessary, as well as watering and using liquid fertiliser (including the amusingly named 'fertigation', that is applying feed via the drip irrigation to trees etc.).

Adding a complex task to the summer schedule is unwise, especially if you're short staffed. Nonetheless there are some things where the pain is worth the rewards, and one such job is potting shrubs sent from New Zealand.

But why New Zealand, and why is this a problem? In New Zealand there is a rather excellent nursery called Stepping Stones, and they produce large Acers and Magnolias (and possibly other things too). In terms of the product they are world class, producing good sized plants at a reasonable cost. For those 'in the know' it is easy to recognise a Stepping Stones 'rod' in a garden centre or nursery- the distinctive straight stem with horizontal branching can be spotted from quite a distance. The advantage to the gardener is that fairly large specimen trees can be bought for less than a UK grown plant of the same size would cost.

The problem comes from the shipping time; plants are sent dormant and bare rooted in July which is winter in New Zealand... but is summer in the UK! The battle for any UK nursery is to allow the plants to have a 'spring' in August, grow a little and become established, and then move safely into autumn with the rest of the deciduous stock. Successful overwintering of the new stock relies on the skill and experience of the growers, regulating the moisture of the compost all winter.
You can see why they nickname these boxes 'coffins'!
Potting quickly is vital, the delicate roots won't stand being exposed to dry air for long. Plants are carefully unpacked and sorted into their varieties; each plant is taped with a code that relates to the name of the plant. Once sorted, each plant is potted up into the appropriate size pot, usually 7.5L or 10L. 
Picking out the trees from the 'coffin'...

... and counting them in their batches.
Tape with a code for each variety...

... best to write your own label too!
Quickly sorting and potting the plants is only a tiny part of the struggle- now here comes the tricky bit! Allowing bare rooted Acers and Magnolias to be subjected to summer heat is not a good idea; the plants need to gently ease themselves into growth, rather than exploding into full growth. Plants need a cool and shaded space, under plastic, with a very good air flow. We found a spot in one of our tunnels where the new plants are sheltered by large specimen Acer griseums, Acer davidiis, and a few specimens of Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'. The other side is open to the elements and this should allow good air circulation- if the weather takes a turn for the worse we might have to choose another spot!
Potted and set out in the tunnel.
To help reduce stress on the Magnolias the suppliers sent a bottle of a 'Sticker' which gets mixed in water and sprayed over the new shoots. I believe it works by providing a protecting film over the fleshy stems which seals moisture in. Can't say if it's effective or not because I've never seen what happens to a Magnolia that hasn't been sprayed- the opinion seems to be that if Stepping Stones sends it with their products then it probably works!
Free gift- 'sticker'.

For now the plants are settling down to their new surroundings and should leaf in the next fortnight or so. These plants will probably be ready for sale in 18 months or so, so it's a long process, but should be worth it in the end. Sorry if you're hoping for hot and dry conditions for your summer holidays, a lot of UK nurseries will be hoping for cool and dull weather!