We absolutely LOVE Herbal Haven our most wonderful go to Plant nursery for medical herb plugs -They are a specialist herb nursery growing over one hundred and fifty varieties of culinary, medicinal and aromatic herbs in the hilliest part of Essex, close to Saffron Walden, UK.
Their aim is to grow quality healthy herbs whilst working in harmony with the surrounding countryside and wildlife. The herbs are grown naturally and seasonally to produce strong plants that will grow on happily in your garden or home. Here is a blog that they wrote for us –
Herbal Haven Blog
It is really difficult to know how to begin describing the running a herb nursery, or any plant nursery come to that. There is no beginning or end, it is more like a journey with rolling hills, sometimes you are struggling up them, other times jogging down – but the general effect is constant motion.
In horticulture the busiest times are referred to as ‘the season’ and this is generally spring and summer when for us, herb sales are the highest. If you can imagine that this is the only time you can make your income for the whole year it gives you an idea of how ragged we are by the end. There are no weekends off, non-essentials fall by the wayside, housework, holidays, social life, paperwork that doesn’t require immediate attention, broken things– the red trolley with the puncture was testament to this. The tyre was eventually removed and taken for repair and that’s where it stayed for three months, inconvenient at times only having three trolleys – but not impossible. Looking back at it now, I wonder why it is was so hard to call in at the local garage and collect the tyre, but I know sitting here on a cold Sunday afternoon with some time on my hands , that it was because it was never important enough to put on a list. Running a herb nursery is all about planning ahead and lots of lists.
A large part of our sales come from the one hundred or so shows we attend each year and even though it means long weekend hours, we love getting out and about meeting customers and other stall holders. Many of these events are booked in the autumn prior to them happening the next summer. They all have different deadlines for booking, deposits and payments and although most send out booking forms there are a handful that simply open applications leaving it for you to remember and check. It takes a dedicated spreadsheet to keep track of applications and confirmations plus a handy A4 dossier for each month for information on arrival times, risk assessments and locations.
We run four faithful vans to transport all the herbs to the various shows. Lucky for us we are blessed with a mobile mechanic who takes a lot of stresses and strains out of this with a monthly visit, but there always incidents that can never be planned for, punctures for example – no fun sitting on the side of the M25 on a Sunday evening on the way back from a show. Or even N, (for nameless) who phoned one late afternoon to say he had made it to the show with the herbs but minus the roof of the van after he went under a low bridge –he commented that he took my lack of response as indication I wasn’t very pleased. Never a dull moment….
Plant sales online!
We sell an ever-increasing amount of herbs on the internet. Theresa is queen of all things internet and produces long picking lists from the orders, for herself and one other. Theresa returns from the tunnels with trolleys full of herbs, which are labelled, sorted and packed. It is a speedy process as all the plants need to go into the boxes the day they are sent – the less time spent in a box and with no natural light, the better. Good job Theresa is queen of speed too! There is plenty of background organising to keep the process running smoothly, from making sure there are plenty of supplies, to booking the parcels in on the courier’s website. It all runs pretty smoothly until that odd parcel goes astray…. It is a time consuming business chasing up couriers.
The growing of the herbs is the pulsing heart of the nursery, without it there would be no need for anything else. It is the bit I love best and for all the long hours and hard work, there are still enough moments in time to marvel at these amazing plants, from the opening of the first sky blue chicory flowers in summer, to watching the bees gorge themselves on thyme nectar or the simple pleasure of releasing the scent of lemon verbena with your hand as you pass by..
The growing of the herbs takes up a large proportion of time and there is never a clipboard far from my hand. I have had to try and practise mindfulness where this is concerned as I have lost too much time wandering aimlessly looking for it after I have casually put it down to complete some task. Our aim is to try and keep as many of our 150 varieties available during the season as possible. This means there needs to be regular cuttings taken, seeds sown and plants potted up. The seeds and cuttings are produced in trays that hold 104 cells and once they are big enough they need to be potted on into the 9cm pots they will be sold in. Before sale they need to root down into these pots and put on top growth. There is a ‘shelf life’ to these herbs once they are ready for sale. They can, in fact, live in these 9cm pots for months, but there is a limit to the amount of time they look good enough for sale in them. A pot bound plant looks slightly stunted and lacks a certain vibrancy which is obvious to see when sold next to younger plants. This means there is a fine line between over producing and making sure we don’t sell out of any varieties.
It is impossible to design a spreadsheet for this process, there are too many variables –top trump being the weather (from seed sowing to a saleable plant takes a lot longer in February/March say than in July), the type and amount of herbs people buy from week to week, the failure of a seed variety to germinate, pests like mice that get into the tunnel and can eat all the seeds from the trays that have just been sown, pigeons tucking into salad crops (nobody want to buy salad rocket with beak shapes notches taken from all of the leaves), slugs, snails, rabbits, caterpillars etc – you get the picture. The day to day growing is organised instinctively after years of practise and experience and with the help of a daily list, which will be implemented within the next week with a view to sales about six weeks ahead.
Seasonal Aspects of Growing
Some aspects of the growing are planned much more rigidly by the seasons. Wild garlic for example is planted in November every year, ready for sale from March onwards. Herb seeds such as sweet cicely, that likes a period of vernalisation (cold weather) in order to germinate, are planted in trays outside in the autumn. ‘Stock’ plants (essentially large mummy plants that the cuttings are taken from) are cut back in the autumn and the tender ones are brought into the tunnel that has some some heat. As a lot of the wild and medicinal herbs, for example Echinacea, meadowsweet, elecampane, mullein and goats rue germinate better from fresh seed we have a lot of these as ‘stock’ plants – the seeds of which are collected in late summer and sown straight away or dried ready for use next year.
We are a small nursery with a little band of people. Sometimes this changes as our work is seasonal, other times it stays the same for several years. Alongside the growing, the people are often one of the most interesting and diverse aspects of the nursery. I have a long list of fond memorable occasions, some which I couldn’t possibly commit to paper, but some like ‘G’ causing a bit of an incident after his cat, who accompanied him everywhere, disappeared at a show and was eventually found by security, in the sunken garden of the large estate where the show was held, unable to get out. The organisers of the show were not especially pleased as they has a ‘no dog’ policy – which was amended to a ‘no pets’ policy the following year.
The skills I have learnt over the years extend well beyond the growing of herbs into PAYE, social media and websites, basic van mechanics, watering systems, carpentry, accounting and most importantly organisation and planning. There are times during the season, when the hours in the day are simply not long enough, the list of items that need attention is bigger than you can manage, when keeping moving is the only option because you simply can’t keep awake sat down in front of the computer or when it rains all day, But nothing can beat the promise of a quiet summer sunrise when the world is still asleep and the tunnels are bursting with green life, of finding a newt nestled under a tray of tarragon, or watching the first comma butterfly of the year settle on a purple head of Echinacea, or heading into London with a van full of herbs before the city begins to stir….