Nat Worst

According a quotation attributed to Mark Twain, ‘a banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain’. Based on my experience with NatWest Bank, I am inclined to agree wholeheatedly.

For almost forty years, I have been a loyal NatWest customer  even forgiving them for their disgraceful contribution to the Global Financial Crisis and the irresponsibility of the  former RBS Chief Executive, Fred Goodwin aka ‘Fred The Shred’ and formerly, Sir Fred. I gather the poor soul is existing on his £342,000 a year pension from the bank according to a recent newspaper article. I do hope he gets his bus pass soon. I digress.

I have several deposit accounts as well as collective investment accounts as well as using several of their financial products. When I wanted to use my investments to make a property purchase, I asked for a very moderate increase on my overdraft facility for sixty days following the completion of the sale. This was purely a precautionary step in case of unexpected expenses. A mere formality I thought.

Instead of the instant approval I was expecting on account of my ability to keep a healthy balance on my four accounts and not using my overdraft facility in ten years, I was passed onto the ‘Really Helpful Banking Team’ for interrogation. After a series of questions some of very marginal relevance to my circumstances, My application was rejected. the main sticking point is that my income is not steady, I work for myself and receive fees and not a salary. The government and banks do not understand the nature of small businesses and their contribution to the UK economy funding many things including the RBS bailout.

So NatWest, as I do not meet your lending criteria (despite being very prudent). I regret to inform you that a forty year relationship is about to end as you do not meet the service criteria to qualify for my custom.

Getting the basics right

In one of the best business books that I have ever read, was ‘Marketing Judo’  by the two entrepreneurs who transformed Harry Ramsdens from a single fish and chip shop in Yorkshire to a global brand. John Barnes and Richard Richardson describe the process with disarming candour telling about their successes and failures in a book that is easy to read but is also hard-hitting .

Comparing building a business with the sport of Judo, the authors provide some useful advice based on their extensive experience. The first piece of advice given is to get the basics right. This means making sure that the products or services that you offer meet, or better still, exceed customer expectations. This takes precedence over whizzy sales promotion, social media strategy or any other method to convince customers to do business with you

My youngest daughter has recently bought a house with her partner and understandably sought my assistance with making a new garden. I wanted to include some fruit  trees and saw some being offered by a well known internet supplier with a generous discount. The reasons for the discount were obvious, this was bare rooted stock and needed to be sold on quickly. I placed the order in mid April expecting the trees to be dispatched quickly on account on their perishability.

The order said that the trees would be dispatched within 28 days but I was sure that common sense would prevail and I would receive my order sooner rather than later. I was disappointed that the order took the full month to process and was incomplete. Three of the four trees that I had ordered arrived completely bare rooted without any protection to avoid desiccation. This was despite very warm weather at the time of dispatch. A peach tree had broken dormancy and the foliage had withered completely. It was also clear that the foliage was affected by Peach Leaf Curl. The apples trees, were still dormant and were soaked for 12 hours before planting. To be fair, they are starting to come into bud, I hope that the root system will develop. The order said that he outstanding tree, a Bramley clone 20 would be dispatched with 28 days. I was not impressed.

I felt a little less disappointed when I was notified about the dispatch of the Bramley would be in a couple of days and was pleased to receive a parcel from the courier. I opened the box immediately and to say I was annoyed at what I saw would be an understatement. The photograph above shows the reasons for my annoyance. It would appear that roots were an optional extra for this particular tree . How any supplier could damage its reputation by sending out such poor quality stock is beyond me. How many people had handled the tree from lifting to dispatch and not rejected it? In production nurseries, everybody has responsibility for quality and managers need to make sure that this is understood. As a customer, it is not my job to point out the shortcomings of their quality control.

Garden centres need to maintain a plant offering in winter and early spring or lose out to online retailers.

I am sure that I will upset some garden centre operators but here goes! I was helping a friend establish her garden and one plant I suggested was the cheerful and dependable Lonicera fragrantissima. Now is the time that it is in flower and so picking one up from a garden centre or local nursery should be a doddle. Not so, it was easier to find bird food, cookware, specialist preserves and of courses masses of ‘giftware’, whatever that is.


Chimonanthus praecox – a fragrant and useful winter flowering plant

My quest for this easily produced hardy shrub was unsuccessful despite visiting several branches of two large garden centre groups and about half a dozen retail nurseries. When I asked the staff I received several blank expressions and several suggestions to go and have a look in the climbers. Nobody realised that I was looking for a shrub and not a climber.

The plant sales areas in many centres were almost completely stripped of plants with no suggestion when re-stocking will resume. As a former manager and director of a successful independent garden centre, I am aware of the folly of carrying too much stock in winter and most overwintered stock is unsaleable at the full price in spring. However the process of de-stocking in winter can go too far resulting in lost sales of winter and early spring flowering shrubs and even some perennials. I was unable to see many Sarcoccocca choice plants such as Daphne, Garrya, Chimonanthus and Abeliophyllum. With reduced footfall in winter, sales opportunities will be reduced but surely it is worth having some offering to complement displays of Primula and potted bulbs?

A few years back, I visited Cooling’s excellent retail nursery in Chislehurst, Kent, in early spring. In the coffee shop there were some excellent displays of Helleborus flowers floating in bowls of water and the effect was quite stunning. If the customers won’t go to the plants, try bringing plants to the customers in the coffee shop. Table displays of cut flowering stems of winter flowering plants, especially the fragrant ones such as Chimonanthus, will stimulate sales providing you have the stock.

This is not a cheap shot aimed at garden centres, they operate in a tough market but online retailers are exploiting weaknesses. Having a minimal plant offering in the quieter trading months is handing internet traders an opportunity on a plate.

Why we need to ensure that research is properly funded.

I recently visited the Warwick Crop Centre with The Chartered Institue of Horticulture and was hugely impressed by the work of Dr. Rosemary Collier and her dedicated team. Whilst having a tour of the facility, I noticed a group of cornflowers growing  in a  field of wheat. Dr. Collier told us that the cornflowers were seedlings from a trial in which strips of native plants were sown in field crops to encourage beneficial insects and pollinators.

Unfortunately, a wide headland of native plants did not work as their  beneficial effect of them is soon lost a short way into the field. What was needed was several strips of native plants at intervals. With modern day field scale operations, the idea of wildflower strips could be dismissed as romantic nonsense rather than a sensible solution to the increasing problem of crop protection. However, GPS technology is coming on in leaps and bounds and this could allow all sorts of exciting possibilities including wildflower strips.

Without research, all this could become nothing more than a pipedream. The changed political landscape means that research facilities are fearful for their futures. Food security should be a major concern for our political masters and this should mean much more than buying our food from as many countries as possible. Ignoring the valuable contribution made by research into ensuring that we have a plentiful food supply would be unforgivable


We need more skilled horticulturists to manage our landscapes

I was once asked by a leading grounds maintenance company to provide some pruning courses for their operatives. What had triggered this off was there had been a complaint from their client about the poor quality of pruning. The example quoted was that a Forsythia had been pruned to waist height in September by a hedge trimmer thereby removing all flowering wood and leaving a  badly mutilated plant in its wake. I suspect a member of the public had made a complaint to the council.

The courses were well received by the staff and we applied some basic principles of shrub pruning to a range of plants in a public park. I can remember being appalled by the poor quality of pruning tools made available to staff and I was told that many of the secateurs had been purchased in a pound shop.

The mutilated Forsythia is just one of many instances of badly maintained plants. Near to where I live, council contractors make a regular habit of pruning specimens of Cornus alba to waist height in October. The plants seldom show any winter interest and regular hedge trimmer pruning has left them with a congested mass of dead growth in the centre. The plants have very little ornamental merit so why bother growing them? In the same planting, rootstocks of grafted Elaeagnus have now taken over and compete with elder, sycamore and goat willow. All get the same hedge trimmer pruning.

Now I am acutely aware of the financial pressures faced by local authorities and contractors charged with the maintenance of public areas but can’t we just stop and think? Why are some shrubs ‘pruned’ annually when there is no need? Obviously paths must be kept clear and windows unobstructed but is an annual hack back really necessary? Could some plants be properly pruned every two or three years and show the ornamental value that the designer had intended? I suspect that part of the problem lies with ill-conceived maintenance plans that assume all plants are merely blocks of vegetation that must be treated all the same.

This will require investment in training operatives in plant identification and pruning techniques but it will improve the appearance and longevity of public plantings.  Better maintenance planning and more efficient scheduling could bring about some reduction in costs that could help to pay for  better quality maintenance.





Don’t just be a practitioner- be a Master of Horticulture

As they say in parliament, I will declare my interest. For several years (six I believe) I have been a tutor for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)  Master of Horticulture Award. This has given me a lot of pride and satisfaction being part of a dedicated team of tutors and working with some inspiring students. I joined the team shortly after the RHS made the brave decision to invest in the qualification in terms of marketing and recruitment. The student experience was greatly improved by the introduction of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) that facilitates online  contact between students and the course tutors.

The course has international appeal with students coming from North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. There are several core modules and students are able to follow optional units that reflect their own interest.

One of the key advantages of this three-year course is it enables participants to gain a degree level qualification whilst holding down a job or in some cases running their own businesses. Combining work, family life and study can be challenging at times and you will need to be sufficiently organised and disciplined to balance these. If you are prepared for the challenge, the rewards for successful completion are immense. The status of the Master of Horticulture qualification has never been higher and the opportunities for advancement are excellent.

if you are interested in this course, please click the link below.




Nobody in professional horticulture can be unaware of the issue of Glyphosate. The EU is reviewing its licence and it is going right to the wire. rather like the Brexit debate, the rhetoric is being cranked up and both sides are quoting  lots of  data to further their cause. There is also a lot of nonsense and quite frankly, dodgy science being quoted and this is not serving any purpose.

The debate should be settled on scientific data, some pressure groups are using it as a means of giving Monsanto a good kicking just where it hurts- in the profits. Monsanto are certainly no choir boys when it comes to corporate ethics but if they need holding to account, this is not the best way to do it.

What is not being given enough consideration is the fact that weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Glyphosate. Willowherb, perennial nettle and I am told, dandelion  can sometimes need a second application of the chemical for total control. I can remember reading an article in Horticulture Week about 20 years ago in which the author spelled out the dangers of over-reliance on Glyphosate in that it would lead  to the development of resistant strains of weed. This has certainly happened. There has also been some concern about plant damage caused by Glyphosate, a former curator of the RHS garden at Wisley  told me that he had noticed damage to Sorbus and Viburnum following Glyphosate application even though no foliage had been touched. I have noticed healthy specimens of Viburnum opulus killed outright following Glyphosate use.

Nature cannot be influenced by lobbyists nor pressure groups, like many pesticides Glyphosate use may be limited by resistance as much as legislation. I regretted the withdrawal of Ammonium sulphamate due to high registration costs, this was a useful chemical and I am not aware of any environmental or safety issues surrounding its use as a herbicide. I stand to be corrected.

In amenity horticulture, the Glyphosate issue has stimulated the development of various alternative control measures such as hot water, hot foam and acetic acid. Only time will tell if these alternatives can do the job of replacing Glyphosate  for specialist application such as Japanese Knotweed control but they are welcome developments. For too long, we have had all our eggs in one basket and that is not good.




Wisley is a garden that must have inspired so many horticulturists to work in the industry. I was in London on Friday and stayed over at the weekend to see Wisley and Kew. It was time well spent, the only disappointment was that I was just too late to see the Davidia in flower at Wisley, the floor was showered in bracts but few left on the tree. I have some idea of the frustration that E.H. Wilson suffered when he went in search of the elusive tree in China only to find that the specimen he sought had been cut down just before he found it.

The Embothrium was a worthy consolation. It was nice to see Wisley as a visitor rather than coming to meetings so I could devote my entire attention to the plants.



This is my first blog so go easy on me please! As you can see, I do a lot of different things here, there and everywhere. On Saturday, I am off to Wisley to give a lecture to candidates on the RHS Master of Horticulture (MHort) programme. I tutor two modules for this prestigious qualification, one on operational business management the other on community food growing.

I am awaiting a list of landscapers to inspect for approval and ongoing membership of the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL). I am currently working with Chris Snook (ex Hadlow) on a book about managing a landscape business. It has been eighteen months in the making but we are now making good progress (at last!)

I am just finishing off a report as an expert witness in a civil court case, this has been interesting to say the least!

I have recently signed a contract with the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) to provide training for garden retailers in a new training initiative.

I am hoping that this website and blog will enable me to renew contact with former colleagues and associates in this diverse and ever changing industry.