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More eco-sensible stuff about how we do it

What is this balance about?
Using the Hairy coir pots is not a gimmick to sell a few more plants.  This is just the next step in the development of a long established nursery philosophy in which we try to achieve a sensible balance in life, both at home and at work.  Listed below are a few examples of how we try to strike that balance between the ethical, environmental and commercial interests at the Hairy Pot Plant Company.  We do not claim to grow our plants entirely organically or to have the answer to all environmental or ethical issues, but we are continually developing the nursery to try to do as much as we can within sensible and practical commercial restraints.
Organic clarification
We are sometimes asked whether our plants and herbs are organic.  No, they are not is the simple answer although they are lovely! The pots themselves are made from organically grown coconut trees bound together with latex from organically grown rubber trees, but we are not able to tick the right boxes for the rest of the production. The first hurdle is the compost, it contains 50% peat which is not allowed under organic rules (but having tried many peat free mixes over the past 3 years we have had to return to peat use to overcome watering and shelf life issues).  We also incorporate a non-organic slow release feed to keep the plants growing well.  The eco friendly sub irrigated watering system we use does not make regular liquid feeding a viable option and the range of organic feeds available for potted plant production is too limited for practical long-life quality production.  We are constantly looking at ways of minimising our environmental impact in both our production and marketing efforts and any practical suggestions are always welcome from anyone.  In a nutshell, we believe that the whole thing looks good, does good and is good, but it isn't actually 'organic'.
Site development
The nursery started production in 1984.  As the nursery has expanded we have had to extend the production areas and roadways, but at the same time we have also planted lots of natural windbreaks to help protect us from the worst of the weather.  A combination of a few conifers, poplars and lots of mixed native hedging has seen a dramatic increase in bird populations with flocks of greenfinches, sparrows, chaffinches, wagtails, starlings, robins, wrens and blackbirds.  We also get some less common residents, nesting goldcrests, long-tailed tits, woodpeckers and visiting predators too, including barn & tawny owls, kestrels, sparrow hawks, buzzards and occasionally peregrine falcon and red kite!
Production units
We produce most of our plants under specially designed unheated polythene tunnels. The main features incorporated in each are:
A plastic sheet cover, for plant and people protection, with netting sides to keep temperatures down and ventilation high (Leaf quality is improved (important for our main Spring sales period) but plants are kept hardy).  A profiled trolley path or a gantry system, to aid efficient plant handling.  A water supply with sub-irrigated capillary sand-beds covered with a protective matting cover on a laser levelled floor.
The tunnel covers are replaced every 4-5 years as they degrade in the sunlight, the covers are sometimes reused on site as extra sand-bed lining or they are recycled.  We have over the last 6 years, fitted on all of the tunnels a cover releasing system that means if we need to uncover a crop in the heat of the summer we can reattach it without renewing it.  In the one heated tunnel we use, we minimise our heating oil use by fixing two tunnel covers quite loosely and using a tiny fan to inflate the space between them, creating a very effective insulating layer.

What a fantastic balance these Hairy pots make!  Their production provides valuable employment in an under-developed area, using their local materials of which the coir fibre is waste.  They work brilliantly as a pot, out performing all the main opposition, then you plant the whole thing in the ground so avoiding waste and giving the plant a great start in life.
But like all good things it's not all perfect. There are a few negative aspects we have to balance against them.  There is some energy used to steam treat the coir (to remove any bugs & weed seed) and they have to be brought by ship to us in the UK.
However when you look at the practicalities and benefits, it is still in our view a very positive product.  To grow coconuts here and commercially hand knit pots is beyond our talents!
For the 2010 season we are using a peat reduced mix (50% peat) in all our production.  The compost incorporates a slow release feed, so that we can save time and water not liquid feeding.  We have also added Celcote (a plant derived water retaining compost additive) to improve the water holding capacity of the compost and aid rewetting when dry. This also reduces our nursery water use because we need less after potting to establish the pots on the capillary beds and can have lower water levels in the sand beds to supply the plants ongoing needs.
We did switch over to an entirely peat free mix in the hairy range for the 2008 season but had serious issues with water retention.  We ended up with some very thirsty plants and couldn't get the peat free compost to be moist again so have reluctantly had to abandon our entirely peat free existence for the coming season.  We are working hard to reduce the amount of peat that we use by continuing to trial more peat free mixes with celcote and aim to reduce the peat content further and eventually remove it entirely.
Labels and trays
We use fantastic wooden labels for our hairy pots and can even print barcodes on them for our garden centre sales.   We do use coloured plastic plant labels for some of our plants but are increasing our range of wooden labels all the time.  The marketing trays for the garden centres are reusable wooden trays.
Weed, pest and disease control
We do our best to try to use natural predators, environmental factors and good crop management to minimise the amount of chemical controls we use on our crops.  In fact we don't use any chemical weed control directly on the crops.  By keeping the nursery tidy, free from contaminating weeds and by regularly hand weeding the crops for the odd escapee, we manage to keep ourselves virtually weed free.
We try to minimise the disease problems by careful selection of the plants we grow, trying to maintain strong vigorous plant growth and providing good ventilation.  We do still do some spraying of some susceptible crops to allow them to get established in a healthy state and also where we may get the odd hot-spot problem.
The pests on the nursery do occasionally need some chemical control but we encourage natural predators in the tunnels and the healthy state of the nursery is well illustrated by the large frog and toad populations.  Potentially slugs & snails are our main pest problem, but we get good protection from these from the covers on the sand-beds.  The covers are treated with a simple copper based emulsion, which is actually there to restrict the plant roots from rooting onto the sand below but has the extra benefit of detering slugs and snails who do not like copper and stay off it.
Water use
By investing in sub-irrigated sand-beds from our early years we have found ourselves with a watering system that minimises our water use, grows great plants, reduces labour input and results in very little water run-off from the production areas.  This system works on very simple principles but is expensive to set up and tricky to get right.  The aim is to use a very level site, create a shallow bed of firm sand, and establish in the bed a constantly maintained artificial water table.  The plants sit on the bed and draw water up into the pots through capillary action.  As the water gets used up, the water table falls and is automatically topped back up, using a network of underground drainage pipes, tanks and ball-cocks.  We cover the beds with a thin protective cover which keeps the sand clean, and prevents too much rooting through.  The combination of these beds with the tunnel covers means that our water use is only a third of a more traditional overhead outdoor system.   In fact more water falls on the nursery than we actually use in a year.  Unfortunately it doesn't necessarily fall when or where we want it!

Fertiliser use
We incorporate a slow release feed in the compost, which will keep the plants going on the nursery with a little extra to get it off to a good start after planting as well.  The sub-irrigation and covered tunnels reduce the amount of feed washed away, so we are able to use lower levels of feed in the pots.  
Nursery transportation
We have to use vehicles to move the plants efficiently around the nursery and this was in the past done with tractors and forklifts.  Over the last few years we have moved over to mostly electrical power rather than diesel, initially with second hand milk-floats and now with much lighter and more efficient golf buggies.  They recharge overnight for about 35p and will run all day if needed.  They are easy to drive, quiet, produce no emissions (other than from the power station!) and use no power when stationary. We have built special trailers to tow behind the buggies.
Composting & recycling
Our first priorities are to reduce our consumption of materials and reuse as many things as we can. Failing this, we aim to compost or recycle as much of our waste as possible.  On the nursery we are now able to recycle virtually all of our unwanted plastic pots, trays, bags and tunnel covers to a local specialist plastics recycling company.  Paper, card and glass are easy.  The biggest volume of waste is perhaps surprisingly compost, plants and plant debris, which we separate from other waste and collect on huge compost heaps.  These heaps are cleared once a year and spread onto the fields to be ploughed in.
We are in a very labour intensive industry and the input and effectiveness of our staff is vital to the success of the nursery. We currently employ 25 people (some full and some part-time) and extra agency staff when needed.  We hold Investors in People status and have many long serving, loyal staff, some who have been here from the very early years.  We recently helped start an organisation, with some like-minded nurseries, called SCION, which ethically and legally sources and trains agency labour.  This provides a versatile, trained & mobile work force that can help out where needed at different nurseries at busy times of the year.  It guarantees the workers a fair and legal wage and gives them an opportunity to undertake a broad range of training.  It gives the nurseries versatility, long term cost savings and an assurance, through regular audit checks that the people they are employing on site are not being exploited.

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