Grown in Wales

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Potting machine

Charles Warner

Most of the plants that you see on a garden centre that are in pots smaller than about 5 litre are potted on a machine something like this.

We don't have a potting machine. We pot our plants by hand.

Now don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with plants that are potted on a machine. I cut my horticultural teeth on potting machines. My first proper job was on a nursery that was run by two partners. It was only for the summer but they could see that I was keen so they persuaded me to go to college. After a year at Pershore I returned as their first Supervisor on their new site. In my absence they had devised a business plan to become the largest plant supplier in their field in the UK . The potting shed was an old pig unit and in it was the first potting machine that I had ever seen. My winter job was to strip it down, replace all the worn parts and put it back together again.

Once you decide to pot by machine you need a team of people. On the basic model that we had, you needed four. One to put the pots on . One to put the plant in, one to take them off and one to wheel them away to the nursery. Once you have four people potting plants you need to keep production up. Every time that the machine stops, four people stop. To pay the wages and to pay back what you borrowed to buy the machine you need to produce more plants which takes more space. As the distance from the potting shed to the nursery bed increases you need better ways to take the plants away. Mechanisation rather than hand barrows and then better roads and bigger tractors and trailers to move the plants around

We had a great team. The noise of the potting machine drowned out the radio and any speech and it's monotony would send you into a zen like reverie while you automatically put one little plug into each pot as it passed. Sometimes we used to put things in the pots to surprise the person taking off the plants. Stella raided her sons toy box and we all waited to see Pat's expression as a pot came around with the arm of an action man poking from the compost with a little flag saying help ! on it. Sometimes that's just how you felt. As though you were drowning in a giant pot of compost. In colder months we stood on cardboard to try to keep our feet warm.

The nursery grew and grew until it was producing two million plants per year. Profits were good and some of it was always ploughed back into the nursery to provide better, more comfortable working conditions. Glasshouses were built so that workers were protected from the worst of the weather. A comfortable mess room was built with a smoking area and heating and a new potting shed was built which housed three machines and mechanical handling equipment for bulk compost bags.

Each time a potting machine stopped, three people had to stop. The director of the business would give a paddington stare out of the office window at the manager and the manager would rush to the machine and try to get it running again. better machines stopped a bit less often than the old ones but it was still an issue. Nothing could be allowed to interupt the flow of plants. This was a business that made its name by coping well with the peak sales periods and always having something to put on a garden centre bench. Systems were efficient, they had to be if a profit was to be made. The larger garden centre chains forced down prices.

I remember the first potting shed. It was an old cow shed. Mice lived in the stone walls. We potted by hand and threw frozen lumps of compost at the wall to shatter them when it was cold. I remember one of the partners doing a funny dance like they did at the Isle of Wight festival when Hendrix played and I remember laughing until I cried. We used to have our coffee when Simon Bates did "Our Tune" on radio one and we would all look at our feet when the sad bits came.

This was a business that in terms of horticulture was a huge success. With dedication and focus and shear hard graft the owners took it from being a tiny place to a big player but somewhere along the way something was lost. The stated aim to be the biggest led to a commodification of the plants. It's not unlike the food industry where your tomatoes have to be the right size and shape and shade of red. Once you decide to produce many rather than few you have to start selling to the big chains who dictate the terms and drive down the price. To compete as a producer you have to be ruthlessly efficient. Systems must be slick. The potting machine must not stop.

Plants are living things. To grow them succesfully requires a certain amount of understanding. Growing by numbers is an option that can work for a select group of varieties. You can buy rooted cuttings from Israel on a certain week , pot them on a machine and send them to the garden centres in their millions and most of the time, if you do your sums right and the potting machine does not stop you will make a profit. The people that work with the plants don't really need to know anything about them. Most of the time nothing goes wrong and when it does it's more efficient to throw the plant away. In this way the garden centres fill up with the same plants, grown in the same way by a handful of large nurseries that all buy their cuttings and seedlings from the same companies. On the nursery that I was describing a culture grew whereby the people that worked with the plants were discouraged from learning about them. As someone that loves to be on his hands and knees amongst the plants this was difficult to understand. For me training a staff member is all about engaging their interest in the subject and you can't do that by creating a system that they are expected to blindly follow by numbers. To do so destroys creativity and the joy of learning and that is exactly what happened. Noone cared about the plants that they produced any more. As long as they stuck to the rules and kept their heads down the working day would eventually end and they would go home.

There was nothing wrong with the plants. I am sure that they are still giving the people that bought them a great deal of joy in gardens all over Britain. The people that worked on the nursery though seemed less happy in their work than any I have ever encountered. For a nursery, the facilities were excellent but those that did'nt escape to eat lunch in their cars sat in the new mess room and stared at the floor for half an hour in silence. People still carried out their work with loyalty and dedication but with little enjoyment. It was not what the owners had wanted. They wanted, and they tried to build, a working community as well as a profitable business. Eventually they failed. The heart had gone out of it.

It might be that creating real profit and a creative and fun working environment might be an impossible dream. At QYP my approach is to understand that to be allowed to live in this beautiful place at this time should be added to the profit and loss account. It's hard to quantify in pounds sterling but if the fulfilment of a geat life is factored in , it takes pressure from the numbers on the bottom line and then maybe. Just maybe we can pull off the neat trick that has eluded so many other businesses. Watch this space ! 

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