Chelmsford Council capitalises on growing its own

Producing bedding plants on site for some 20 years, Chelmsford City Council Parks Department is now one of just three in Essex producing its plants in-house for civic displays. The department holds 13 Green Flag Awards – the international quality mark for outstanding parks and green spaces.

The Council’s small production team grows in excess of 60,000 bedding plants for its striking summer and winter schemes. “Growing your own offers many advantages,” explains Andy Eaves, quality control officer. “It gives us greater adaptability and control as it isn’t set in stone when plants are going to be delivered.

“We have the luxury of growing what we want and adjusting planting dates, as necessary, to work around the weather – such as avoiding late frosts. This year the temperature has been all over the place – all of a sudden a frost can catch you unawares.

“Producing slightly more than we initially need means there are spares available to slot in. For instance, if there is theft or vandalism of plants or, indeed, in one off situations – this year a duck built a nest in one of the troughs! With spares on hand we can replace plants quickly.”

As parks and horticultural officer Mike Keen explains; “While keeping to many tried and tested varieties, to keep it interesting for the team and the public we vary the plants and planting schemes every year.”

The plants are used to create striking displays on Chelmsford’s main roundabouts, while the city centre streets are strewn with colourful baskets and self-watering Amberol troughs and tubs. Central Parks, such as Bell Meadow, Hyland Estate and Admiral Park, and other public spaces feature traditional seasonal annual bedding plant displays.

On site production is 70% from plugs, supplied predominantly by Thomson and Morgan for choice and price competitiveness, and 30% from seeds – such as Tagetes, Lobelia and Antirrhinum.

Key summer lines include Begonias and geraniums; Geranium Maverick Red, Salmon and Quicksilver plus Black Velvet Mix and Begonia Whopper (red and pink mix) play a key role in summer bedding displays this year, alongside Heleotrope Marine, Cineraria Maritima, Zinnia Zahara Sunburst, Lobelia Mrs Clibran, Tumbelina petunias and the striking Pennisetum Blackjack grass.

Spring displayed featured several tulip cultivars including West Point, Red Princess, Red Shine and Queen of the Night, interplanted with Polyanthus Piano Mixed, Bellis Robella Salmon Pink and Cineraria Silver Dust.

With the necessary in-house skills and onsite facilities, non-winter hardy perennial specimens, such as bananas, Cordyline and Cannas, are overwintered and reused. Larger clump forming perennials are divided up in autumn while semi-ripe cuttings are taken, to be used the following season.

“More expensive plants, such as Canna, are bought in and grown on in to specimen plants,” explains Andy Eaves. “This improves sustainability and cost effectiveness. Some of our Photinia marble standards are 15 years old.”

Sustainability is one of eight criteria at the heart of the Green Flag Awards. In 2016 both Hylands Estate and Admirals Park received the prestigious award.

“While of course council budgets are tight, growing our own enables us to be resourceful and make improvements year on year,” he says. “Last year we made improvements to Chelmer Park. Sports orientated it was predominantly green so we’ve added two colourful new shrub beds.”

The Council’s two traditional glasshouses were installed some 20 years ago with a multi span polytunnel added five years later. Alongside the original and fully operational under bench hot water heating system, the traditional raised beds employ capillary matting requiring crops to be hand watered. The facilities are skillfully maintained by the team, with the Mayer potting machine testament to this – still going strong after twenty years.

While at first glance the facilities may appear dated compared to many larger commercial nurseries, this small experienced team produces an impressive array of plants of a similar high quality.

“We’ve always mixed our own growing media,” says Andy Eaves. “Having trialed material from different suppliers, and taking in to account performance and price, we settled on two custom ICL mixes, supplied in 75l bags, which are practical for feeding in to the potting machine.”

In his twenty years working at the Council nursery he has always relied on Osmocote. “It has consistently delivered and the different longevities, up to 18 months, are very useful. In summer months our mix contains Osmocote Standard High K, with a 5-6 month longevity. In the autumn, the polyanthus and primroses don’t require so much feed and we switch to Levington M1 potting.

“Featuring Double Coating Technology, Osmocote Exact High K optimises the release of new raw materials matching the demand of the plant,” explains Stuart Gammage, ICL’s technical area sales manager. “With an ideal nitrogen to potassium ratio, combined with low phosphorus, it encourages compact growth by reducing stretching. Optimising EC in the first few weeks after potting, plant roots develop well and with a full trace element package − including improved iron release − Osmocote Exact High K delivers excellent leaf shine and colour.”

Stuart pops in regularly to review progress and offer advice to the team. “He is a great asset,” says Andy. “An experienced nurseryman, his advice is invaluable – he helps keep us on our toes!”