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What the hottest summer on record means for plant nurseries

We discover how the sudden spike in temperature is affecting Palmstead, Johnsons of Whixley and Provender

With the UK on the brink of setting a record for the hottest summer in over 40 years, paired with significantly below average rainfall, plant resilience is being tested. Pro Landscaper speaks with Palmstead Nurseries and Provender Nurseries to discover the affect this heat is having on the upkeep of plants, and how nurseries are economising water usage.

Professional nurseries commonly stock all manner of plants for 12 months of the year to satisfy demand, presenting a challenge to the industry, as it must adapt to maintain a variety of stock in all types of extreme weather.

Liz Hughes of Provender Nurseries summarises the issue faced with this year’s adverse weather: “It has been two complete opposites, with a 40˚C swing in temperatures in only 4 months.” To handle this contrast, she explains Provender’s implementation of: “Technology, equipment and knowledge, delivering water efficiently and effectively to where it’s needed. We use drip irrigation, reducing evaporation rates and the overhead irrigation is used at night when evaporation rates are at their lowest to minimise wastage.”

When asked where the nursery obtains its water supply if not the mains, Nick explains: “Since we don’t use the mains for irrigation, we have a winter extraction license from of the local stream that is full enough for usage post-Christmas until the end of February. Concerning though, as extraction licenses are going through an Environment Agency overhaul, growers are likely to be penalized.”

Other water harvesting methods are available as Palmstead use surplus irrigation from 70% of their growing beds and virtually all roof structures, glasshouses and tunnels. All this leads to their reservoirs holding approximately 55m litres, usually plentifully satisfying their plants demand.

“It would be foolish to say we are not concerned,” Nick tells Pro Landscaper. “However, we are taking positive and active measures to see where we can economise on our water usage, including: trimming foliage to reduce plant demand, measuring use more closely, and topping up with mains overnight – though its only 30m³ per night and our usage is close to 4,500m3 a day in this heat.”

With plants ability to dry out rapidly in the hottest daily temperature average for the past 40 years of over 21˚C, group managing director of Johnsons of Whixley, Graham Richardson says: “We are irrigating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but are just about coping. The warm weather in fact gave us a great spike in plant sales which was much needed after the extended wet winter.”

Quality nurseries ensure plants go out to customers well saturated, as there is often not as much water on sites. “Aftercare is where problems often arise,” Liz tells us. “Especially in this heat, we see it as essential to advise our customers on the benefits of mulch, the use of water timers and drip irrigation.”

Continuing on the matter of issues out on site, Graham adds: “The amenity sector soon began to suffer from the effects of heat and drought, ground conditions became too dry to sustain life and contractors had insufficient margin headroom to accommodate any post-planting irrigation.

“Since the beginning of July, forecast despatch is approximately 25% down across all channels to market.”

On the bright side, there are some benefits to the hottest summer in recent memory. “Some plants are positively thriving. Magnolias seem to be putting on a second flush here on site and in many gardens,” says Liz.

At Johnsons of Whixley, life seems pretty good as Graham says: “We invested in five fridge freezers to keep our staff cool with ice lollies. So far they’ve munched their way through nearly 4,000!”

Nursery staff are also at the forefront of owner’s minds. Liz tells us: “We supply all of our staff working outside or on transport with sun hats, sun cream, plenty of drinking water and we have just introduced an afternoon break during the hot weather.”

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