Interview - Andrew Halksworth, owner, Tendercare Nurseries

Tendercare was founded by Andrew and Angela Halksworth in 1989 to provide larger plants for garden designers and landscape architects. It has two sites, at Denham in Uxbridge, Middlesex, and at Hall Barn in Buckinghamshire. The company grows more than 100,000 mature and specimen trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants and also has a consultancy, design and planting service.

Andrew Halksworth, owner, Tendercare Nurseries - image: HW
Andrew Halksworth, owner, Tendercare Nurseries - image: HW

Q: How did the development at Hall Barn come about?

A: In late 1989, we realised that we needed another site to grow rather than sell from. We took it on in 1993. It's the walled garden within the 1,000-acre (400ha) private estate of Hall Barn, built during the 17th and 18th centuries. When we took it over it was semi-derelict and we invested to convert it into a commercial production nursery. We now grow trained fruit, a wider range of climbers on trellis and canes to 4m than available anywhere, unusual evergreens and an increasingly interesting range of hydrangeas and ferns. We use the same bio-organic feed processes here as at Denham.

Q: Can you explain what these bio-organic processes are?

A: We wanted green credentials across the business from vehicles with LPG or biodiesel to recycling materials and to growing as organically as possible. We took the decision to stop using inorganic fertilisers 12 months ago. We are now trying to go peat-free, which is the next stage.

Q: How long will it take to become totally peat-free?

A: For our big stock it is almost there. We started looking three years ago, but the green waste compost available was not a good enough quality. For container production it is very important that we can control air fill/porosity in the compost for one or two seasons, so we're going to use a mix that is commercially available.

Q: What have you been doing with Laverstoke Park?

A: It's an organic farm, relatively local to us, and a fantastic business. (Founder) Jody Scheckter collects green waste and is trying to produce a suitable product. We talked to him about how to get compost for container growing. We need to think about pH and salt content - we don't want a rogue batch.

Q: What are garden designers looking for today?

A: Inspirational plants to use to produce new effects and combinations. In public spaces, landscape architects are experimenting more and there are some very interesting schemes appearing.

Q: What is the predominant style at the moment?

A: Very understated - almost a corporate style. In the past three or four Chelsea Flower Shows there have been two or three of this style.

Q: What design developments would you like to see?

A: I'd like to see a different kind of texture using woody and evergreens, herbaceous and edible plants for a different, sustainable look.

Q: Who would you say are your main customers?

A: We work with private estates, garden designers, landscape architects, architects and garden build contractors - people at the high end of the domestic and commercial market. Local authorities have been quite a significant market for us, too.

Q: Is financial pressure on local authorities affecting you?

A: An alternative style is evolving using less bedding - the City of London is quite avant garde and has left behind the Victorian style and gone modern, but for some local authorities there is still a way to go with that.

Q: How have the past two cold winters affected business?

A: I don't think anyone has taken on board what happened last winter - the whole idea of hardiness has gone awry. We've been using olives and bays like we're a Mediterranean country. The result is that people are now looking more sensibly at what is going to work in the UK in a wide range of conditions.

Q: Have you had any interesting customers recently?

A: David Howard, the former Highgrove head gardener, has been in. He is presenting a series of four gardening programmes on the BBC this autumn about restoring a Victorian walled garden.

Q: How do you feel about people copying the Tendercare business model?

A: You need good people around you and it takes a huge investment in stock and time to develop a strong customer base to survive in a niche market.

Q: How difficult is it to secure financing now?

A: Ten years ago horticulture was quite well supported by banks. As soon as hard times came in the early 2000s, banks got cold feet. I think banks have had a poor attitude to horticulture generally for a few years.

CV

Mid-late 1970s: Studied architecture, University College London; postgraduate study of ecological landscape design and maintenance, Wye College

1980s: Landscape architect, local authorities and George Wimpey

1989: Co-founder, Tendercare


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