The small, close-knit team at Seiont Nurseries in Northwest Wales produces plugs and liners of shrubs, perennials and ferns for sale throughout the UK. Managing Director Neil Alcock shares insights into some of his challenges, in particular related to the company’s focus on launching new, rare and unusual varieties for the retail market.

Seiont Nurseries was founded in Caernarfon, in Northwest Wales, in 1978 as a small retail grower. Neil Alcock originally joined as a trainee in 1987 and has been there ever since. “By 1990 I was heading up all propagation and production,” he recalls. “In 2015, when the then-owner decided to retire, we were bought by Lovania Nurseries, who were one of our biggest customers. That’s when I was made Managing Director.”
Alcock’s progression through the company is illustrative of the strong focus on employee training and development. “We have a small, close-knit team of just 13 employees all year round,” he says. “We don’t make use of seasonal labor. Instead, we cope with peaks by ensuring that people are not only specialized in their core job but are also multiskilled and interchangeable. This also helps us to keep the work interesting and varied, so that staff turnover remains as low as possible.” Seiont’s commitment to ongoing horticulture training and continuing professional development gained official recognition when it secured second place in the EU-funded Tyfu Cymru Award in 2020.

From around the world

The nursery’s activities revolve around the propagation and raising of shrubs and perennial plants, including ferns. The company uses both cuttings from its own mother stock and tissue culture that is imported from laboratories all around the world – including from Israel, Indonesia, Uganda and Colombia. For its ferns, Seiont has been sourcing them as small plugs from Vitro Plus for many years.
“New and rare introductions are our speciality, and we were working with a local fern expert to select unusual varieties from his collection,” explains the managing director. “Initially, Vitro Plus made trial quantities for us and helped us to explore the commercial possibilities. Since then, we have developed and launched several new varieties together, including Blechnum Volcano and Dryopteris Jurassic Gold, and we now buy almost all of our ferns from them.”

Ferns: a lifestyle plant

There has been huge growth in the popularity of ferns over the past 20 years as a ‘lifestyle’ plant, according to Alcock. “Ferns are one of our key crops, and we currently have about 35 varieties of them. Another of our biggest crops is Heuchera, with around 40 varieties. We have around 400 varieties in total which, if I’m honest, is too many and I’m constantly trying to reduce the range so I can increase volumes. But because we are so focused on new and unusual varieties, it can be hard to decide which ones to keep,” he admits.
The customer portfolio ranges from smaller retailers who raise young plants themselves, to the biggest plant finishers who supply garden center chains and DIY stores, as well as the nation’s major specialized online retailers such as Crocus and Hayloft. As a downside of Seiont supplying so many new varieties, retail customers sometimes struggled to find suitable photographic images to use in their own promotions. “Therefore, we recently started partnering with a plant information company called Joy of Plants to offer customers a database of images of all our plants. This helps retailers to build awareness of our new varieties through interactive booths at garden centers as well as through online platforms, which in turn helps to drive long-term sales,” explains Alcock.

Pandemic-driven sales spike

The company has enjoyed steady growth, and saw an extra spike in sales in 2021 when the lockdowns ended and garden centers reopened. “This allowed people to unleash their pent-up demand to go shopping and make their homes and gardens look pretty, especially against the backdrop of working from home and staycations. Things have settled back down this year, but we’re still ahead of pre-COVID figures,” he states.

Export is bouncing back

“We used to sell 18% of our products in the EU, but Brexit initially wiped out our export business because customers weren’t prepared to pay the extra shipment costs per unit,” he continues. “However, business is now gradually bouncing back and some customers in France have already started placing orders for next year.”
Brexit has also had some impact on the company’s importing activities “Thankfully, the deliveries from our suppliers on the continent haven’t been affected; imports are still being waved through. However, we have had to reduce our number of suppliers so that we can bring in bigger loads and better absorb the extra costs per unit. We source pre-made plugs from a long-standing partner in France, called Fertil. We’ve been working together happily with them for decades and nothing can equal their tech and research. And besides Vitro Plus in the Netherlands, we also work closely with another Dutch supplier – GP Plants. They wean a lot of soft perennials for us.”

Propagation under glass

At the heart of the operation is a 3,500 m² Dutch Venlo propagation glasshouse. Alcock: “Everything is controlled by a Priva climate computer, including the vents and shading. We use the Growmaster nursery software to measure our performance and track losses all the way through a batch, which can range in size from 3,000 to 50,000 units.”
“Each year, we sell around half a million plugs directly as plugs, and raise the rest for retail. We transfer these into 9 cm pots (P9s) and grow them to the necessary size in 40,000 m² of polythene tunnels. One tunnel has frost protection and the rest are hardy. We have a mix of single spans and multi spans and different types of sheeting – clear or white, depending on the crops. All our ferns are grown under white polythene,” he continues.

Surprisingly dry climate

Wales has a reputation for being wet, but the mountains of Snowdonia help to draw much of the rain away from Caernarfon so the climate is actually surprisingly dry. The greenhouse is fitted with a thermal screen from Hortec for use on hot or sunny days, and a diffuse coating from CoolGlass is applied to the glass for the summer period. “Thanks to being just a mile and a half from the coast, there is not too much frost in winter and our kerosene-based hot water circulation system works fine to ensure that the propagation beds don’t drop below 16⁰C,” states Alcock. “We weren’t big enough to warrant a biomass system at the time. Things are different now, of course, but we have other priorities to take care of first.”

Plans for LED plus fogging

One of those priorities is to install LED lights combined with a new fogging unit. “The misting units that we use for cuttings aren’t ideal for weaning tissue culture; it’s too wet. So we plan to move the tissue culture to a different part of the greenhouse and install a fogging unit for two bays of benches,” he adds. “The LEDs will also make a big difference by enabling us to cope with the lack of light in the autumn/winter. We’re in the process of finalizing the budget, but I believe this will allow us to double our propagation performance in those areas as it will reduce the growing time by up to 12 weeks. Besides that, being able to wean year-round rather than just at certain times will enable us to make better use of our full-time staff in quieter periods so it will also save us labor costs.”

Reduced reliance on chemicals

Like all growers, Alcock is keen to keep pests and diseases under control: “We have to watch out for leaf spot, and red spider mite is a common predator in ferns. We’ve succeeded in reducing our reliance on full-on chemicals over the years, and our first line of defense nowadays is a cultural/biological approach. We manage to keep most of our crops clean for the first six or seven months using biostimulants. Then we introduce soft chemicals if necessary.”

The path to peat-free

“In terms of other sustainability initiatives, we have lots of ideas and procedures but they are not formalized in a policy. From this autumn onwards, we will therefore be evaluating what we’re already doing and developing a roadmap as the basis for further improvements,” reveals Alcock. “When it comes to sustainability, the challenge is always to balance it with profitability – to absorb legislative changes without your efficiency suffering – so as a business we try to anticipate what is likely to be enforced next.” In that context, he believes that the UK peat ban is no longer a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’. “Therefore, we’re proud to be one of the first nurseries of our size to go largely peat-free. In fact, our P9s have been peat-free for the past 12 years. It will be more difficult to achieve 100% peat-free in propagation. We’ve already run various trials without commercial success, so we’re currently at around 40% peat. But we’re not giving up and new trials are currently in progress,” he concludes.

Text: Lynn Radford, images: Seiont Nurseries