With a well-earned reputation for quality and consistency, the Bransford Webbs Plant Company near Worcester is constantly investing, innovating and adopting new technologies and management techniques to improve productivity, its product offering and customer service. Constantly expanding and adapting this forward thinking company has doubled in size in the past 10 years.
In February, having scooped the Nursery Stock Grower of the Year Award, the nursery went on to be crowned overall Ornamental Grower of the Year 2016 at the prestigious Grower Awards – hosted by Horticulture Week.
Growing a wide range of hardy nursery stock, totaling 1.5million plants annually, Hebes remain Bransford Webbs’ core product line with 300,000 being grown this year. Hellebores are another key group accounting for 100,000 units.
“New plants and products are the life blood of this nursery,” explains Geoff Caesar managing director of Bransford Webbs. “They may be crops that are new to Europe from New Zealand or the USA, or new varieties we’ve bred ourselves.”
As a result of its in-house programme, started in 2010, Bransford Webbs is introducing nine new varieties in 2016 under the Hebe Red Wine and Summer Drinks brands. Bred by Karl O’Neill, in his role as propagation manager, the new introductions are highly floriferous and include Hebe ‘Burgundy Blush’ and ‘Ruby Port’. With wonderful red foliage that deepen very early in autumn, Burgundy Blush retains its colour throughout the colder months while ‘Ruby Port’ offers striking purple red foliage and red stems.
From the Summer Drinks collection, Hebe ‘Champagne Ice’ produces a mass of delicate lilac white flowers throughout summer and boasts distinctive foliage with an orange coppery tint. In contrast Hebe ‘Pink Fizz’ is compact variety with a mass of raspberry pink flowers and simple green foliage.
“As a direct result of our active R&D unit, the production team has trialed over 200 varieties in the past year alone resulting in 20 new introductions,” says Geoff Caesar. “We aim to have a constantly evolving plant range and have identified a gap in the market to increase the range for sale mid to late summer and stimulate impulse buys. We rely on trial and error and on our team’s huge experience, built up over many years, to make new introductions work.”
As Karl O’Neill (acting production manager) explains, while the Hebe are fairly robust plants, it is particularly crucial to get the growing media right for crops like Hellebores grown from a small plug to final size over 12 months.
Karl works closely with ICL’s technical area sales manager Steve Hughes to identify the right products and specifications to match individual crop needs, often tweaking recipes for mixes annually. “ICL’s custom mix growing media programme – recently rebranded Levington Advance Solutions – helps us maximise each crop’s potential,” he says.
Fifteen years ago the nursery relied on home mixed growing media using a specially adapted cement mixer. Production now relies on 12-14 bespoke Levington Advance mixes, delivered to the site in probales, each carefully tailored to the needs of key crops. These bespoke mixes are constantly evolving.
During potting the probales are loaded in to a Hortec Javo big bale machine to be broken down. The resulting free flowing growing media automatically fills pots on a moving carousel. With such a diverse product range it is not practical to calibrate an auto transplanter so the skilled team transplant by hand.
At the end of the season the production director, Christine Chalmers (currently on maternity leave) and Karl O’Neill sit down with ICL technical manager Andrew Wilson and Steve Hughes to discuss any particular challenges. “We review crop performance through the season and might change factors such as the longevity of the Osmocote product or the bark content to improve drainage,” explains Karl.
“Some crops don’t warrant their own specific mix – we have to draw the line somewhere. If this was a specialist nursery, growing a single genus, we could tailor everything exactly. We have a general liner mix for our young plant production.
“Unusually for most nurseries of our size, we propagate 70% of what we sell. By propagating our own material we can keep control and optimise quality and specification – it is also more cost effective. Being in full control of it we have plenty of advance warning should there be an issue. All our Hebes are propagated on the nursery while the Hellebores are propagated locally.”
For nutrition, Bransford Webbs pursue a policy of using high quality controlled release fertilizers (CRF) minimising reliance on water soluble products. To tailor the programmes to crops specific needs, ICL employ their AngelaWeb 2.0 precision nutrition programme. This takes in to account individual crops needs as well as the growing media and the pH of the water supply. As a result Bransford Webbs utilise a range of Osmocote Exact products including Hi.End and High K in different longevities and Osmocote Bloom for bedding production.
“We have just introduced 5-6 longevities on the short term herbaceous crops,” explains ICL’s Steve Hughes. An 8-9 months longevity is used for the bulk of the mainstream herbaceous crops with the longer 12-14 months for a few crops such as Hellebores. From the accompanying graphs growers can see exactly when the nutrients will be released.”
“The High K product is ideal for the herbaceous production – high nitrogen is not ideal as it promotes too much lush top growth. Osmocote High K promotes a stronger more compact plant with vibrant colour.”
“Osmocote makes life much easier for us, we wouldn’t put the effort in our end if didn’t work,” says Karl. “Compared to water soluble programmes, CRFs save considerable labour while simplifying and improving the nutrition programme. These technically advanced fertilizers not only continue to feed plants whilst on Garden Centre benches, but also provide end user satisfaction as they help plant performance when planted out in the garden.”
CRFs also give Karl and his team additional control over crop watering and ultimately manipulation of the crop environment.
“We operate a ‘just in time’ watering strategy which gives better control of the environment and encourages better rooting, as roots are forced to explore and chase out in the container,” explains Karl. “ For example, freshly potted Alstroemeria liners are watered once in October and not again till February.”
While helping to prevent over watering and leaching through of nutrients, by minimising humidity the watering policy reduces the risk of downy mildew, phytophthora, pythium and botrytis.
When it comes to plant protection, as part of its Environmental Management System Bransford is committed to reducing its impact on the environment. The production team employs an IPM approach featuring biological products from Koppert including Macro-mite (Macrocheles robustulus), Thripex (Neoseiulus cucumeris) and Spidex (Phytoseiulus persimilis) and, as part of its Levington Advance Solutions packages, Exemptor (thiacloprid) is incorporated in all liner mixes – except for edible crops.
Bransford used to rely on Vi-Nil (fipronil) and SuSCon Green (chlorphyrifos). Since their withdrawal Bransford Webbs has switched to the new product Exemptor.
“We see Exemptor as an essential tool for vine weevil and sciarid control while it also helps controls aphid and whitefly,” says Karl. “It is compatible with our beneficals programme which is ideal.
“While the granular bioinsecticide Met 52 provides another option for vine weevil control, we have found it needs a supporting cast of Bacillus subtilis and entomopathogenic nemataode products.
“We haven’t had a vine weevil issue on this nursery in years – Exemptor continues to see to that while providing constant sciarid control. We have found it to be the most cost effective solution.
“With Levington Advance Solutions, the growing media, nutrition and protection is optimised. Operating a busy nursery, it is great to have these things taken care of leaving us to concentrate more efforts on other areas.”
In recent months twenty-two new lightweight flexible tunnels, 6.3m wide, have been installed. Built on firm beds, created from a 4-inch layer of granite chippings, each drains in to an end drain and into the river.
“Using CRF we don’t get problems with leaching,” says Karl. “Cooler growing conditions encourage compact growth. We pull sides up during the day and down at night to kick off growth and to keep the weather off the crop. We employ overhead irrigation and have tracks for our CC Trolley system.”
A new water recycling system captures all the rainwater from the glasshouse and warehouse roofs and stores it in a reservoir to irrigate crops. A new 60KW solar energy system installed on the warehouse roof is anticipated to provide around half the business’s electricity requirements.
Meanwhile leaner working practices have been introduced across the site. “These are enabling us to further increase our productivity and quality, improve our integrated crop management systems and reduce wastage,” explains Geoff Caesar.
“Three years on from the completion of our new 3,000m2 dispatch and office facilities, we are seeing proven improvements to efficiency, communication and customer satisfaction. Up to 100,000 plants a week are dispatched during peak weeks and much of the site is double crop in a bid to utilize every square metre.
A further 5,000sqm of glasshouse was erected last year using second hand Dutch glass supplied by Kees Greeve.
“This has increased our ability to directly control our growing environments,” says Geoff Caesar. “The objective is to provide a large range of Hebe throughout the entire season to further improve our offer.”