Making greener production pay

Gavin McEwan looks at how adopting an eco-friendly approach to growing has helped Lowaters Nursery to save money as well as the environment.

In these days of rising costs of everything from fuel to waste disposal, nurseries that closely monitor their environmental impact are helping to save the planet while saving themselves a great deal of unnecessary expense.

This has been the lesson at Hampshire perennial grower Lowaters Nursery, which has become only the second UK grower to achieve ISO 14000 - the international specification for environmental management systems (EMS).

Nursery manager Charles Carr says: "Almost all the improvements we've made have either reduced inputs or reduced waste. Making savings wasn't the original aim, but by reducing the amount that we send to landfill by more than 50 per cent, we still see savings as Landfill Tax goes up."

The nursery was able to make the changes thanks to an initiative from the HTA, which secured funding for a pilot using money from the same Landfill Tax. This originally involved four nurseries and four garden centres. Like Lowaters, Norfolk-based Darby Nursery Stock has gone on to gain ISO certification.

Several other nurseries are following suit, including Johnsons of Whixley, John Wood and Bransford Webbs. "Lots of people are doing it now that there's a template," says Carr. "The HTA can give you a kit which will get you up and running."

Getting started

At Lowaters, environmental consultancy White Young Green carried out a six-stage process from assessment to installing procedures for continuous improvement. It also provided a doorstep-size binder of guidance notes and numerous software templates.

ISO accreditation is awarded by an external auditor following a full-day inspection that includes spot checks and staff interviews. Accreditation lasts for three years.

"It's quite tough," says Carr. "They told us it would take a year with one day a week given over to it. It's been more like two years, and a lot of time and effort."

A typical objective might take the form of "reduce heating oil use by five per cent over three years". This is accompanied by a rationale, a means for achieving it, and monthly figures displayed on a graph showing the success or otherwise of the measure.

"When you record this, along with your diesel and electricity use, and your waste streams, you can calculate your carbon footprint," says Carr. "But the consultants appreciated that in horticulture we are proactive, hands-on people, though not so good at recording things."

As the company's environmental supervisor, Pete Voysey ensures day-to-day compliance with legislation and with the company's environmental policy, which it publishes on its website.

He says that the EMS took him about three months to fully understand. "After that it's just following procedures. But the paperwork side is fairly intensive, and it's hard not to let it slip, especially in the busy months of March to May."

Voysey also has a watching brief on environmental legislation, oversees the company's BOPP accreditation and keeps an eye on health and safety issues on the nursery. "Some areas, such as spraying, are affected by all three," he adds.

All staff can access policy documents on the firm's intranet, and also post suggestions, which they can then track. "However, most would rather do that verbally than by filling in a form," says Voysey.

To keep staff informed of issues and developments, he writes a monthly staff EMS newsletter. "At first it was an effort to get staff involved, but the newsletter helps," says Carr. "It's something everyone has strong opinions on. They get the message at school, from the media and their life outside work - things like separating waste."

As a result, recycling on the site has become almost an automatic process. A baler is used to compact cardboard and plastic for recycling, which is stored onsite until enough is accumulated to justify a collection from a local recycling company.

A separate unit gathers waste that cannot be efficiently recycled, including waste paper. "It takes months before it needs emptying," says Carr.

Saving in action

Substantial energy savings have been achieved. Consisting of 1.5ha of glass on its main site, and specialising in early crops, the company has been a heavy user of heating oil. Carr says: "We used to use a lot just keeping the glasshouses above zero in winter. Now with new thermostats, temperature is much more accurately controlled. We have seen our expenditure on oil reduce."

One 170m-long glasshouse on the main site has been split into four separate zones, each controlled by a different thermostat accurate to one-tenth of a degree. Each of these cost around £250. Carr adds: "That's quite cheap compared to the cost of oil."

The company has bought a more fuel-efficient lorry for local deliveries, but it continues to rely on a haulier for wider deliveries.

A new TomTech climate computer costing £10,000 now controls the boiler as well as ventilation and humidity control. "It's a sizeable capital investment," says Carr. "But it means we don't have to rely on things being done manually, especially at the weekend."

Reducing consumption

The biggest electricity saving has come from reduced use of humidostats, he adds. "They absolutely burn electricity, so we turn them on only when they're really needed. There have been a lot of other little things - turning off lights and radios, consolidating plants - but it all adds up."

Careful control of growing conditions has brought other savings, Carr adds. "If environmental conditions suit diseases, you need to spray more. If you keep the conditions right, you need less chemicals and less water - it's all linked together."

Water use has been made more efficient by switching all growing areas to irrigation through Efford sandbeds, rather than by spraying, saving both water and labour.

Currently the nursery depends on mains water, but plans for the site include capturing runoff from roofs in a lagoon. "We will never be self-sufficient in water, but we can use less," says Carr. "A lagoon would be fantastic, but it's an expense. Horticulture doesn't generate vast capital reserves."

The main nursery already has a pond, but while this attenuates rainwater, its main beneficiary is aquatic wildlife. Trees, hedges and grassland also dot the site. "We could concentrate the site more, but have chosen not to," says Carr.

Improvements to the glasshouses have not stopped swallows accessing nesting sites, and rabbits, weasels and even deer are not uncommon sights. "Deer love Convolvulus cneorum - they will browse that and leave everything else," Carr adds.

Being able to put "environmentally friendly" on its labels has its benefits says company sales manager James Plant. "Garden centre customers are interested in the environmental angle, and that's when garden centres become interested. It sets you apart from the competition."

This dovetails well with being a British company growing most of its own plants, according to Carr. He says: "Being locally grown is part of the whole package."

He admits that there is still "a huge amount" that the firm could do. "We have looked at things such as biomass and solar panels, though the expense of setting these up wouldn't be justifiable. You pick the low-hanging fruit first."

Adapting to market conditions

In its 40-year history Lowaters has never been slow to adapt to changing market conditions. Originally established in the 1960s as a strawberry grower, the company went through growing rhubarb and tomatoes before settling on producing ornamental crops.

It was among the first to adopt the Efford sandbeds, which are still in use on the nursery today, and was a pioneer in UK Hebe production.

While these crops could be grown in the open, Lowaters' production under glass in an area of high winter light and mild temperatures allows the company to provide well-developed plants early in the season.

Owner Ian Ashton is a director of the HDC and sits on the HTA's ornamentals committee, and was a founder member of plant marketing group PlantNet UK. Ashton and nursery manager Charles Carr also helped establish plant breeders' rights agency ProVaR.

The nursery employs lean management techniques and is accredited to the BOPP scheme. It recently developed its own branding under the name Garden Beauty. The name is being applied to varieties of Hebe and lavender by the company. "The picture labels and branding are working well - it's a point of difference," says Carr.

Sales manager James Plant adds: "We do small batches, so you don't then find them in every garden centre."

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