Leeds has followed Birmingham and Edinburgh in pumping capital funds into its nursery to increase efficiency and income. But why are these local authorities bucking the trend and investing rather than closing their nurseries?
Leeds City Council is building an efficient 100% glasshouse called The Arium to replace Red Hall nursery, a 50% glass and 50% polytunnel facility built in 1956 on a 2.7ha site in a different part of the city. Construction is expected to be completed by July with operations moving over from Red Hall at an appropriate time in the growing cycle.
The Arium will produce the same amount of plant material as the old nursery - two million bedding plants and 250,000 edibles a year - both for display beds in city parks as well as for sale to other councils and the public. It features a £95,000 automated potting line, an ebb-and-flow watering system for 50% of the growing area, computer-controlled thermal and shade screens and a faster purposebuilt germination room.
The city's parks department brings in £250,000 annually from the sale of surplus stock to the public and In Bloom groups, and expects to grow that to £340,000 by the end of the 2017-18 financial year once in the new nursery. The Arium will feature a visitor centre and retail area.
Red Hall recorded 9,605 plant sale transactions in 2016-17 and expects that to rise to 13,600 in the new facility, and then to 20,000 by 2018-19.
Overall by 2018-19 the nursery expects to earn £483,000 from retail sales alone.
Leeds City Council chief officer for parks and countryside Sean Flesher says: "The nursery is hugely popular with members of the public in Leeds. We've got over 50 friends of parks groups and over 50 In Bloom groups who visit it. It's where people come to get inspired. It's always been a very public attraction but we want to develop it and build on it."
Nottingham City Council is another authority that has commercialised its nursery production, as part of a plan led by head of parks and open spaces Eddie Curry to become completely self-sufficient, an aim the department is on track to achieve in 2020.
"We've always had a nursery, we've always produced our own plants but over the last four years we've decreased the stock grown for ourselves and replaced that with stock grown for outside,"
says Curry. "We supply pretty much all the neighbouring authorities around Nottinghamshire and authorities in north-west England, about six authorities in all. It's a considerable amount of our business. We grow more for outside customers than we do for ourselves."
Birmingham has also chosen this route. In 2013 councillors agreed to borrow £1.5m to fund the refurbishment of Cofton Park Nursery, built in the 1970s, one of three in the city that produces bedding plants and displays for the local authority's parks, cemeteries, traffic islands and council buildings as well as for external clients.
The thinking was that modernisation would save £43,400 per year - £20,000 in fuel costs alone - and, with profits brought in by the facility, the loan could be paid back in 25 years.
At the time head of parks, now assistant director of waste management, Darren Share said the investment showed that horticulture was an area the city wanted to be recognised in and was a massive vote of confidence in the parks team. Share told councillors he would save money growing in-house rather than buying in and bring in £250,000 extra revenue a year by 2019.
The Royal Parks' super nursery in Hyde Park, due to open around August this year, also aims to save money - some £200,000 a year. Replacing a dilapidated 1960s nursery, the 8,000sq m glasshouse will feature a rainwater recovery system, LED lighting and existing boilers fitted with new flues to ensure maximum energy efficiency. It will have 40% more production space than the previous nursery in almost the same floorspace, allowing The Royal Parks to grow 98% of its plants in-house.
In Leeds, the new site will include a sowing and germination room, potting line, storage and rainwater-harvesting system. The facility will bring in income but also provide space for community activities, which allows it to link up with other council objectives.
"We have edible display beds in most of our community parks," says Flesher. "They look attractive but also encourage people to grow their own and eat healthily as part of our 'Feed Leeds' campaign, which we run with a range of partners including charities and In Bloom groups." The nursery grows a range of "low-cost edibles" such as lettuce, tomatoes and ornamental kale.
The visitor centre will also host school groups and provide a place for people to come and learn about horticulture. Crucially, the new site Whinmoor Grange, on council land formerly rented to an agricultural tenant, is on the edge of the Northern Quadrant, a new 12,000-home district being built by the council on the edge of the city that features a new linear country park linking the district to existing green spaces, Temple Newsam and Roundhay Parks. A new orbital road is also being constructed nearby. Flesher says the nursery's proximity to green space will encourage visitors.
Community events are also important in Nottingham, where Curry says he is keen to keep hold of the department's assets. "We have a full programme of community open days, we open up the nursery, with stalls and food-growing events around peak times in the horticultural calendar, when the bedding season starts, for example. We also do quite a lot for local schools. We have a tropical house, which we use as an education resource."
In Edinburgh, too, the community aspect is a key part of its 12-staff nursery operation. Head of parks, open spaces and cemeteries David Jamieson says his nursery has been used for horticultural therapy and by people with learning difficulties for years, and is an important training facility for the city parks service apprenticeship schemes.
"I think the reality is if you don't adapt you are going to be hard-pressed," he adds. "There's more of a need to have a justification for having a plant nursery or it could be argued that provision could be provided by someone else. Those that have survived, and there are not many, are those that have adapted. They either go fully commercial or they are somewhere between a service and a business, like us. If we didn't grow plants ourselves we'd have to go out and purchase them. We offset the costs we would've made if we didn't have a nursery. Overall that makes it viable."
Parks consultant Peter Neal says this mixed approach makes a lot of sense. "It's been a trend to close or to centralise nursery provision or to outsource it," he points out. "Often those depots are now being sold off and you do see those sites being lost. You can rework your nurseries to offer a far broader social benefit along with producing your plant stock for the year. If you can get your business plan right, it makes a lot of sense."
Jamieson says he has to argue the point about the viability of his nursery about every two years. "We came under a lot of pressure five or six years ago to close our nursery. We resisted. We would have to buy in the plants." Instead Jamieson cut costs, focusing on herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees that require less heat to grow.
As well as growing plants for retail sale and for surrounding local authorities, about 25-30% of the bedding plants grown in The Arium in Leeds will be for sponsored spaces around the city, roundabouts, flowerbeds and so on. Although the new nursery will have more automation, Flesher, who oversees a £27m annual budget - only £7m of which comes from council coffers - and 4,000ha of green space including 63 community parks and five major city parks, is able to retain his 14 staff by redeploying some of them in more front-facing roles.
The Arium will also sell a range of ancillary items usually found in a garden centre - tools, growing media and environmental garden accessories, such as bird boxes - and have a 100-cover cafe, an outside planteria that can be temporarily covered during winter and a sandpit play area for children.
Neal says it makes sense to diversify and commercialise that side of the service if possible. Cafes increase the user base and there is an opportunity for community activities as well as potential for training, he explains. "The National Trust does that wonderfully - plant provision, plant production and also garden produce tied up with great cafes, gift shops, etc. There are good examples to learn from in associated sectors. It's public service for commercial benefit."
Plant sales have always been popular in Edinburgh's nursery, where they have held four or five a year. But in recent years Jamieson's department has increased the size of these fivefold. Plant sales now bring in a third of the nursery's running costs. "We don't advertise them much because we are always sold out. People flood into the nursery because the quality is superb and the value for money is excellent. But we are more or less at capacity and parking is a limiting factor."
Jamieson adds that the garden centre route is not for his department. "We did think about becoming a garden centre but it would've required a huge investment. We felt that it wasn't our core business. We didn't feel that we had the expertise to run a commercial garden centre and the competition in and around Edinburgh is very stiff. We are niche and it seems to work for us."
The nursery does not grow for other local authorities but does supply non-council sites in the city, including private retail areas and land owned by the Scottish Government. The city has a number of sponsored sites paid for by landscape companies, which build and maintain a public green space after agreeing on the design with Jamieson's team and display their marketing within it.
LEEDS NURSERY-GENERATED INCOME
Annual income from plant sales to the public and In Bloom groups:
Red Hall: £250,000 (2016-17)
The Arium: £340,000 (2017-18)
Annual public sale transactions:
Red Hall: 9,605 (2016-17)
The Arium: 13,600 (2017-18)
The Arium (forecast): 20,000 (2018-19)
Annual "garden centre" income (2017-18):
Plants: £483,000 (70%)
Cafe and ancilliary items: £207,000 (30%)