There may be romantic appeal to running a lavender nursery, but there is little room for this notion on the modern nursery. Downderry Nursery, however, offers a sensual experience which compensates for a great deal of time, worry and effort. Set in the peaceful beauty of a Victorian walled garden, in the heart of the Kent countryside, it is also the home of the Lavender and Rosemary National Plant Collection® in Kent. It affords both customer appeal due to its display gardens of lavender and is a successful commercial concern.
- 1 Business plan
- 2 Marketing
- 3 Advertising
- 4 The retail lavender nursery: Nursery management
- 5 The retail lavender nursery: Production
- 6 Good garden lavenders
- 7 Caring for lavenders in the garden
Predominant factors involved in the operation of a retail lavender nursery, marketing and well organised nursery management, are prerequisites for the efficient production required to fulfil sales projections, be competitive and make a profit. As with any business, there is no more important task than planning. Time spent at this stage will yield great dividends in the future, in both the short and long term. The tangible benefits of ‘thinking time’ may not flow for some time, but provides a sound infrastructure on which the execution of jobs, from propagation to selling, can operate smoothly and efficiently.
Once the initial business plan is in operation the rolling programme of production needs to be addressed annually in advance. Successful sales require that all aspects of the business are integrated to produce the right plant, at the right time, at the right price. To achieve this, production scheduling needs to work back from the sale date. For instance, a finished lavender in a 3 l pot for June requires striking a cutting in June the previous year. However, striking a cutting in February can achieve the same by July. By pruning a lavender four weeks before it is supposed to bloom, June flowering can be delayed until August. The options are numerous.
Often given short shrift in horticulture, marketing is as important on the nursery as watering plants. There is no purpose in producing a plant for which there is no demand. Lavender is undergoing something of a renaissance. Demand is insatiable. This makes marketing considerably easier, but still requires attention to ensure that the market share is at least maintained and preferably, increased. In growing one genus there is a certain degree of vulnerability to fads and fashions. However, the extraordinary expertise of the specialist nurseryman provides a firm foundation to take advantage of niche market opportunities. The enduring popularity of lavender is a real benefit.
Initial market research aims to reveal gaps in the market for a product, after which honing methods to target the right market and marketing the right plant, at the right time and at the right price are all important. As a specialist nursery it is possible to respond swiftly to changes in tastes within the product range offered for sale, which the larger nursery may find comparatively more costly and complex.
The specialist is also able to command a higher price for a lavender, as the extra knowledge accumulated is available to the customer to make a more informed decision as to which lavender would best suit their situation. In this respect the dissemination of information from grower to customer increases customer aspirations and broadens their perception of what it is possible to grow. With the additional knowledge, the customer is prepared to experiment for themselves and try growing lavenders that previously would have seemed too great a challenge or of which they had little or no knowledge. The end result is a heightened profile for the specialist nursery and increased sales.
The creation of a brand image is of the utmost importance in a world where first impressions can make or break a business. Whether advertising, designing a catalogue, or web site, or displaying plants in a garden setting and plants for sale on the retail nursery, it is imperative that a theme runs through the entire business. User friendliness is a key aspect in presentation. The customer needs to be drawn into the experience, to feel relaxed and yet informed, without being confronted by a barrage of complex details.
A balancing act, of some dexterity, needs to be performed to cope with the logistics of moving the nursery forward, by taking advantage of all opportunities to increase awareness and hopefully, profitability. In order to achieve this it may be necessary to take the lavenders to potential customers. This can be achieved through mail order and by exhibiting at flower shows.
The catalogue, web site and exhibiting, act as important advertisements in themselves, as to the quality and range of lavenders on offer. Advertising is often the interface between business and potential customers. Identifying the potential customer is a prerequisite of effective advertising. Returns on a broad untargeted approach may be considerable, but can be a costly exercise for the specialist nursery. It is often better to target the right consumer group. In the case of mail order, advertising in national gardening magazines is cost effective. High enquiry returns and subsequent orders can flow for moderate cost. This may also allow for sufficient funds to be available for one-off advertising opportunities specifically applicable to lavenders. The advertising base can be broadened to encompass bespoke plant labelling carrying the company logo, name and contact number and also carrier bags with similar information. Both have a dual function and keep the brand image in front of the consumer.
With business flowing from mail order, flower shows and from the retail nursery it is essential that all these strands can be interwoven effectively. This is one of the key functions of nursery management.
Caring for lavenders in the garden
Providing care advice to the gardener is always welcome and good policy. Once established lavenders thrive on neglect except for their annual prune, which is the subject of great confusion and is explained in some detail.
Lavenders require well-drained neutral to alkaline soil, although Lavandula stoechas subsp. stoechas (which always grows in acid soil in the wild) and to a lesser extent L. x intermedia, can thrive in a slightly acid soil. In heavy soil adding grit at the rate of 25 kg/m2 when planting will improve drainage as will planting on a slight mound. Wet soil in winter can have a particularly deleterious effect on half-hardy and frost-hardy lavenders and it is this additional wet soil, rather than just a frost, that is more likely to kill these plants.
Plant lavenders in a sunny position or at least where they are in the sun for most of the day. Do not grow them under a leaf canopy. Tender, half hardy and dwarf lavenders are ideal for 30–40 cm terracotta pots and look particularly impressive as patio plants.
Space lavenders 45–90cm between plants for informal plantings, depending on their eventual size. Planting in groups of three is very effective. For hedging, dwarf lavenders to 60 cm are best planted 30–40cm apart. Tall lavenders over 60cm may be planted 40–45cm apart. For a formal hedge use the same lavender.
Planting in the garden
Ensure the soil and site are as described above. Moisten the plant compost, but do not waterlog. Dig a hole and add a dusting of bone meal to the hole and the soil removed from it and mix together. Fill the hole with water and allow to drain away. Place the plant in the hole and fill to the level of compost around the plant stem. In dry conditions water the soil around the plant, but do not over water. Be attentive to lavenders in the first few weeks after planting, especially if the weather is dry as the compost in which the plant was originally potted will dry out very quickly.
Planting in pots
Use a mix of one-third each of a soilless compost, John Innes No. 2 or 3 and coarse grit. For feeding, add slow release fertiliser at the recommended rate. One application should last all season.
This should be unnecessary after establishment, except plants in pots!
Little feeding is required, although a sprinkling of potash 35 g/m2 or rose fertiliser 60 g/m2 around the base of plants in spring will encourage more prolific flowering and improved flower colour. Adding bulky manures may well lead to sappy growth and few flowers.
To use lavender for drying and pot-pourri, harvest just as the flowers are opening and hang upside down in bunches in a dry dark room.
Tender and half-hardy lavenders (and frost-hardy lavenders grown in pots) should be kept under glass in light, airy conditions. These plants need very little water from November to February. Wait until the pot is noticeably lighter or even until plants start to droop and then water only on top of the compost. Never water over the foliage in winter. These plants suffer in still, moist air.
This is often the most misunderstood aspect of growing lavender and needs some clarification. It is a very important task that demands a strong constitution, because generally the harder lavenders are pruned, the longer they will last. They require different treatment according to hardiness.
Hardy lavenders which normally flower just once, may have a weak second bloom after pruning. To keep them in shape they should be pruned to just 22cm immediately after flowering. It is particularly important to be severe with the tall growing lavenders, even if you have to sacrifice some late flowers. If there is a reasonable number of small shoots visible below where you cut they will grow strongly even from old wood, but if there are no shoots below the cut lavender will die. If pruned at the correct time new growth should leave lavenders overwintering as leafy hummocks.
It is possible to save old gnarled lavender, which has much bare wood topped with a mass of growth. Prune to within 10 cm of the bare wood to see if this encourages shoots to sprout further down the plant. If it does, then when next pruned do the same again, until the new growth starts at ground level.
Frost hardy lavenders, typically have ‘ears’ and because they flower from spring to autumn it is difficult to know when to prune. A general guide is to prune hard to 22cm immediately after the first flowering. Dead-head for the rest of the flowering period, with possibly just a light trim in early September.
Half-hardy and tender lavenders are the toothed and trident-headed lavenders that flower almost continuously. Generally, dead-head throughout the year with the occasional severe prune, as outlined above, to keep especially the more vigorous forms in shape. After a severe pruning keep the compost quite dry until a moderate flush of new growth appears.
Selections from the book: “Lavender: The genus Lavandula”. Edited by Maria Lis-Balchin. Series “Medicinal and aromatic plants – industrial profiles”. 2002.