Interview - Linda Laxton, managing director, British Wild Flower Plants

Linda Laxton founded British Wild Flower Plants in 1986 from her garden greenhouse. The Norfolk nursery is now the UK's largest grower of native flora, with more than 400 species, and recently supplied the London 2012 Olympic site. The business is peat-free and specialises in plants for green roofs. Laxton will take over as International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS) president in January.

Linda Laxton, managing director, British Wild Flower Plants- image: HW
Linda Laxton, managing director, British Wild Flower Plants- image: HW

Q: Why did you decide to start up British Wild Flower Plants?

A: Back in 1986, I wanted some wild flowers for my garden, but I found it difficult to get hold of them. Often they had the right common name but weren't the right scientific species. So I started growing in my garden, selling at car boot sales and shows.

I went to an exhibition at Stoneleigh and on the second day, National Power, English Waterways and the Highways Agency came up. I got so much work from that day. National Power gave me a three-year contract for its spoil heaps in Yorkshire and I got an order for 100,000 plants for the A54 Derby bypass.

Q: How has the business developed since then?

A: I ran the business for eight years with the kids helping me. For 10 years after moving to the current site, turnover doubled more or less every year. Pretty soon it was up to £100,000. There hasn't been any growth in the past five years because we haven't actively marketed ourselves, but we are looking into expanding a bit again.

For example, we are more proactive with quotes. If somebody called for a quote we left it at that before, but now we chase them. We have updated our website and are making more sales through that. We are doing seeds and are expanding the range. There is a lot of room for expansion. Most of the stuff we do is plugs, which are gone in six weeks. We could grow a lot more than we do.

Q: Why are wild flowers important?

A: A lot of the plants brought in from abroad can't handle the climate. Many native plants have been here for 10,000 years, so they are rock hardy. Insects and animals rely on them, so we have got to keep them going.

For example, Spanish bluebells flower earlier than the native plants, and it is too early for the insects that want to use them. You can't bring flowers in and expect them to flower at the right time.

Our plants are grown from wild collected seeds. I don't buy much and most of the seed I collect myself. We have an area on the nursery to keep all the plants I have collected, so most of the seed we use comes from the nursery. I'm a corporate member of Norfolk Wildlife Trust and I can collect seed from local nature reserves. It's important that you get the proper wild seed.

Q: Do you think peat-free is the way forward for growers?

A: I have been peat-free for 20 years and I was one of the first to do it. It took a lot of tweaking to get it right. It does lock up nitrogen, but every commercial nursery has the facilities to stock liquid feeds. I use peat for germinating a few species of seed but it is about half a palette in a year, which is less than your common gardener.

Peat has been a big issue for 40 years now. I started looking for alternatives back in 1986, but there wasn't anything. What I could find was hopeless. I went to Four Oaks and collected the addresses of companies that could supply me with peat-free and Petersfield was really the only one. Now I go to a number of different companies, including Bulrush and Melcourt, and I give them my mix.

The next thing is going certified organic, which I would like to do. I mostly use biological controls, such as nematodes for vine weevil. I use some fungicides for things such as primroses, which just succumb, but no insecticide at all. Most of the plants I grow are for insects and birds.

Q: Is there a lot of potential in green roofs?

A: When I went to the last international green roof conference I realised that we are so far behind a lot of other countries. In the city of Portland in the USA, every new building has to have a green roof and it's similar in Switzerland and Sweden. There are lots of examples in the UK. There is quite a lot in the Olympics site and there are other examples at the Southbank Centre and City Hall in London. Sedum just dies. You can use anything - it depends on the amount of soil. If we did this to all our cities, think of the carbon we would save.

Q: What do you hope to achieve as IPPS president?

A: I am going to make sure that the committee works as a committee, where each member does something rather than assigning tasks to one person. We need to start working as a team, which is something Abi Rayment started and I want to continue. It's so much easier if you all do things. Also, we need some sort of recruitment drive. We need to get every member to bring someone in and we will particularly try to get young ones in.

CV

1981: Environmental science degree, University of East Anglia

1986: Founder, British Wild Flower Plants

1999: Moved to current Norfolk site

2012: President, International Plant Propagators Society


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