From sandpapering seeds to dealing with plant pests, we learned a lot about the wonderful world of propagation at our recent Marque networking event.

Held at Mabel’s café at Shallowmead Nurseries, the event featured Shallowmead’s propagation manager Kate Brady giving a talk to more than 40 attendees.

Shallowmead is an independent, family-run nursery on the outskirts of Lymington and an incredible 90% of the plants it sells are grown on site. This assured provenance is one of the reasons the nursery’s plants are endorsed with the New Forest Marque.

Plants have been grown at Shallowmead since 1947 when the nursery was established by Dennis and Marcia Phillips, who purchased a four-acre field of wheat with a black wooden shed for £950! Their first crops were half an acre of potatoes and some radishes, carrots and lettuces, closely followed by strawberries, melons, cabbages and cauliflowers.

The business has flourished over the years and was run by the same family until 2013 when it was taken over by new management. The new team has introduced Mabel’s café, a farm shop selling local produce and further developed the grounds.

The team now propagates most of its own plants, splitting and cutting shrubs, conifers, herbaceous and grasses.

Kate said: ‘Our aim is to be as self-sufficient as we can and around 90% of the plants you see on site have started off in our propagation unit.

‘The plants are grown in greenhouses with specialist mist and fog irrigation systems to provide the best environment to root cuttings. The unit works through a humidity sensor which sends the fog round when it is required and hot water is heated by biomass boilers that run on wood pellets.’

At any one time an incredible 105,000 cuttings are being grown and the team use several methods of propagation to produce plants. They collect cuttings from stock plants around the site and from finished plants that require pruning. Each cutting is a direct clone of the parent plant and can take from one week to six months to set down roots.

Kate said: ‘Seed are collected from plants on site as well as brought in from elsewhere, always with a provenance certificate. Some seeds require very specific treatments to start the germination process, for example smoke treatments, cold treatments, hot water treatments and even sandpapering!’

Once cuttings have rooted, after a short weaning period they are then potted to take them into the next stage and beyond. Some plants on site can be sold within a season, others take several years before they are ready.

Kate said: ‘We look after them, feed them and trim to produce quality plants. Many of our customers have been buying plants from us for several years and we try to provide them with new ideas as well as the ranges they expect. For a lot of our customers this is the only place they will find what they are looking for.’

All around the site are plantings which are used as stock to provide cutting material, including the plants in the beautiful café garden.

Kate said: ‘All the plants and hedges on site are a vital part of the growing process, plus we can show these plants to our customers to confirm provenance.’

The nursery’s plants even have their own passport.

Kate said: ‘All our plants are in the plant passport scheme, so plant health is monitored and we have regular site visits and testing. It’s now compulsory for nurseries to offer this to all clients except retail but we’ve been registered voluntarily for more than 20 years. Following Brexit, provenance is more important than ever and we can tell you everything about each batch of plants we offer.’

Shallowmead not only sells to the public but also to other nurseries, retailers, designers, landscapers and members of the horticulture industry. Their customers include some impressive names such as The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Hampton Court, the National Collections of plants and London Zoo. They have also provided for many botanic gardens,  BBC Gardening programmes and the Chelsea Flower Show.

No pesticides are used on site, instead the team use biological control.

‘In a nutshell we use natural predators to control and eradicate plant pests,’ said Kate. ‘They are applied every two weeks from March to October, which achieves excellent results.  As an added bonus, we’ve found the volume of beneficial insects around site has also increased. For example, aphids this year have been in very high numbers but the ladybirds we have in the greenhouse have kept them under control.’

The nursery is committed to stop using peat as soon as possible and is already using peat-reduced compost (now with a 40% peat mix whereas before it was 100%). They also buy in large bales rather than bags to reduce plastic use.

Kate said: ‘The horticulture industry is committed to stop using peat by 2028 and there are some really good alternatives out there but it is a bit of a learning curve for growers such as ourselves as these alternatives need different watering and nutrition and have different effects on plant growth. The next step for us is to go peat free which we will do as soon as we are happy that we are getting successful results and that the industry can supply us with what we need.’

More recently, they have also installed a bore hole on site for watering plants and they collect water from the greenhouse rooves which is filtered and added to our irrigation water.

Shallowmead has an online shop and runs a click and collect service, as well as home deliveries. Visit Shallowmead’s website for more information.