Howard Nurseries in Wortham is celebrating its 50th anniversary
If you are like me, entering a garden centre can present an adventure of its own kind.
Worming my way through aisles filled with towering shelves of pots and plants always leaves me with the distinct feeling of walking through a jungle.
I usually admire the spectrum of colours displayed by the perennials, but barely give thought to where the plants actually come from.
It is nurserymen such as David Howard who are the unsung, green-fingered heroes of the world of horticulture.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, his company Howard Nurseries in Wortham is one of the country’s largest, wholesale perennial specialists.
You might not have heard of David Howard, but, if you are a visitor of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, you will have come across some of his most famed creations.
His interest in plants started early on and, by the age of 19, he was raising dahlias, one of which was a chance seedling from the Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.
“That’s going back more than 50 years now. I raised that before I went on National Service, and I was sending flowers to Covent Garden,” recalls David, now 80.
“I was raising new ones pretty rapidly at the time and, when I was in the Army, I told my parents to keep an eye on that particular one saying ‘this is going to be a winner’.”
While David was gone, the vibrant burnt-orange flower was taken up by a visiting nurseryman who named it Dahlia ‘David Howard’ – and a multi-award winner it was.
Starting with eight acres and two varieties of flowers in 1969, Howard Nurseries is now a far cry from its humble beginnings.
David’s daughter Christine said: “I am very proud of my dad. Being in business for 50 years is an amazing achievement.”
With 150 acres of land, they lift nearly three million plants a year, propagated traditionally by top cuttings, root cuttings and division.
David admits that a lot has changed over the years but believes the company has been adjusting accordingly.
Environmentally-conscious, Howard Nurseries uses recyclable pots and collects six million gallons of rainwater every year, which they filter before putting back on the container area – a method which reduces pest and diseases and treats plants better due to less chalk and iron in the water.
They also use solar electricity generation to power their production and use green growing methods, such as a near peat-free production cycle for their bare root plants.
In the glasshouse, they breed atheta bugs which are used as a predatory biological control agent for the management of pest insects.
Christine, 38, joined the company, which employs 40 people from the local area, in 2006.
Service, quality and plant range are at the heart of the company with trademark plants such as irises and grasses.
But what exactly makes a good plant?
Christine explains: “When you’re looking at a plant, it should look strong and healthy, the colour is vibrant and it’s almost standing to attention – that’s a good quality plant.”
Howard Nurseries plants can be found all over the country as well as abroad. David can instinctively spot them on sight wherever he sees them, saying it is like recognising your own children.
“We roughly know where they are going, but you do recognise your plants,” he said.
“You recognise the quality and size. Sometimes, you can even pick up the compost and tell whose it is.”
Howard Nurseries supplies plants to garden centres, local authorities and garden designers and they can also be found at tourist attractions such as East Ruston Gardens and Houghton Hall in Norfolk.
One of David’s favourites this year is a tanacetum, a flowering plant of the daisy family, with a vibrant, pink colour.
He explains: “My favourite flower varies from year to year, depending on the season. This year, it’s the tanacetum. It’s nothing special, yet there is something about it.”
Over the decades, Howard Nurseries, like any other company, experienced many ups and downs.
“One year a terrific hailstorm damaged all the iris leaves, so we couldn’t sell them that year,” said David, who went to Wortham Primary and Hartismere School.
“That was damage of about £5,000. We take it on the chin and get on with it.” Christine adds: “It makes you appreciate when you have good times.”
With more than 1,600 varieties to grow, there is no such thing as an average working day.
“Each week, you can find something to enjoy,” says Christine.
“For us, even in the depth of winter you are seeing the plants get out of the ground. When you see the roots of the plant, you are almost getting to know the plant because you are seeing it at its most basic.”
Her love for plants has been nurtured since she was a child, which is why she decided to make it her career.
She recalls: “It’s been part of my life growing up and it has been all around me.
“My earliest memory is not having a garden but a stock bed, with rows and rows of plants.”
Both father and daughter agree that the backbone of the company are its staff and good management, which have contributed to the company’s success.
“We have very dedicated staff.
“If you haven’t got good staff, you might as well give up,” said David.
“You think you know the reason for your success until you start talking about it.
“I believe it’s treating your staff well and enjoying it. I know it’s money, but I’d still enjoy it without it.”
Predicting an oncoming trend is impossible, says Christine. She thinks the key to producing popular plants is knowledge and experience.
“The gardening world mirrors the fashion world, so what colours are fashionable with clothes sometimes mirror in horticulture.
“You can tell if a plant is going to get attention.”
This year, some of the trendier plants are irises and ‘walking out the gate’ at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show were the soft-lavender pink lychnis floscuculi ‘Petite Jenny’, a flower which is attractive to butterflies.
Among many achievements, the nursery won two gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and has contributed to multiple-award-winning gardens over the years. In June, it was named as one of the top 10 suppliers at Wisley Plant Centre, which they have been supplying with flowers for more than 30 years.
Despite big plans for the future, further expansion is not on the plan.
“What we do now, we do well. You want to keep it tight, you don’t want to get too big that you lose control,” says Christine.
“You also want to keep a certain standard.”
In the future, they would like to develop an online ordering system for customers.
David, who has no intention of retiring anytime soon, sums up his 50 years in business: “I could wish for nothing better, really. I love growing plants and I’ve enjoyed doing it.”
This article appeared in the Diss Express on June 14.