Nursery News

Life at Beth Chatto's: the Nursery in winter


As Beth says in her Garden Notebook:

“All around is my garden and nursery, pulling me like a magnet to go outside and see what is happening. But if the weather is bad you may well be asking what on earth can be done in the depths of winter”.

The answer though, as Beth goes on to explain, is that there is plenty!

In a garden, a lot of the cutting back and tidying is left until the end of winter is in sight. This is so you can enjoy the silhouettes of seedheads against clear blue skies or gaze, hypnotically at the magic of the same plant skeletons coated in frost, sparkling in early morning rays of sunshine. 

However, this is very different in a nursery. If a garden were a painting, then a nursery would be the paintbox. All of the colours separate and organised. Not as pretty as the painting, but essential in order to create it. This is the time of year to take stock (and indeed, stock-take!) re-organise and ensure that every plant is in good health ready to be sold when the next budding gardener comes along, eager to create their own painting.


Right plants, overwintered in the right place

As many of the plants we stock are hardy herbaceous perennials, they are able to stay outside year-round. Once they have been cut right back, the plants go into hibernation and will sit tight until prolonged signs of spring are here. 

Other evergreen or more drought-tolerant grey/silver plants are much more susceptible to perishing with the persistent cold and wet weather. So once tidied up, they are moved into our plastic-covered tunnels. 

Life at Beth Chatto's: the Nursery in winter

Plastic-covered tunnels house the plants which are more susceptible to perishing in winter conditions

Although these structures are not heated and provide no greater warmth for the plants, they do stop them getting excessively wet, as well as protecting from icy winds, and therefore, they stand a much better chance of surviving through the winter.

Those jobs, along with countless others, start in late autumn and will carry on well into the new year. But there are certain other tasks that are always associated with being done in the first few weeks after the Christmas break. 


Seed sowing

One of the most essential is seed sowing. We collect a lot of our seed from the gardens and stock beds, starting as early as April and then continuing when necessary throughout the rest of the year. Some seed has to be sown fresh, but most will be left to dry out and are then cleaned and stored ready for January sowing. 

Our Propagation Manager, Emily, has worked under the guidance of Beth and Garden and Nursery Director, David Ward since she was 16 years old and has the responsibility of this large-scale seed sowing. Each year she will sow close to 500 different varieties of plants, that will go on to be sold in the nursery. 

Seed pans approximately the size of an A5 piece of paper are three-quarters filled with a seed and cutting compost (low in nutrients), levelled, and firmed down lightly. The seed is then scattered as evenly as possible over the surface and covered over with pea-gravel to help keep the seed in place and prevent weed growth. They are then watered and put down outside on top of sand in a netted tunnel. 

Germination time varies depending on the plant, and even though Emily has done this countless times, she always gets excited as the precious seedlings start poking their heads up through the gravel.

Life at Beth Chatto's: the Nursery in winter

Seedlings starting to grow in the seed tunnel


Out on the stock beds

On the more pleasant wintery days, it is a treat to be out on our nursery stock beds, cutting back, weeding, and mulching. We have in the region of 3 acres of stock beds where our mother plants for propagation are planted.

Again, unlike a garden, they are regimentally organised. Neat rows in straight lines with straight paths, all clearly labelled. 

Although this sounds clinical, I find the stock beds to have a real aesthetic beauty. A complete contrast in style to the garden, but with large blocks planted together side-by-side (many grouped by genus name), we are able to determine which are more garden-worthy and deserve a place within our nursery sales area and mail order website listings.

And it is whilst doing these maintenance-type tasks that you also notice the many varieties of plants that you can start to lift, divide, and pot up. 

Perennials that are showing new shoots such as daylilies and Siberian iris shout out at you, but the experience of doing the job tells you not to forget the plants that are starting to come to life below the surface. Summer-flowering bulbs like crocosmia and galtonia will soon be wanting to send out roots and need digging up and potting before they notice their change of environment.

Life at Beth Chatto's: the Nursery in winter

Damp nursery stock beds in mid-summer


Staying warm inside the Propagation House

When winter days are at their coldest then the warmest place to spend a few hours is in the Propagation House. It is essentially a tunnel frame covered with twin-walled polycarbonate. But that combined with the sand-covered heated benches provide just those extra couple of degrees warmth that makes it more comfortable for staff and the many thousands of cuttings that it is home to.

Root cuttings of bears breeches, sea holly and chicories, done a month or so previous, start to show signs of growth. Whilst softwood cuttings tend to be sitting tight and waiting for longer days and slightly warmer temperatures before they grow significant roots, although the warm sand does help considerably.

Life at Beth Chatto's: the Nursery in winter

Cuttings in the Propagation House being warmed by the heated benches


Creating the paint for your borders

So, if you are spending this winter plotting and planning about what to do with your garden borders, wondering what type of picture you want to paint this year, then just remember that we are busy working, in our paintbox, to make sure that you have plenty of paint and an exciting palette to work with. Although as I finish writing this, I remember Beth saying:

“A garden does not stand still, it is not a painting hanging on a wall. It is constantly changing”.

So, when all is said and done, perhaps Beth would not entirely agree with my analogy after all!


Written by Jacob Pettersson, Plantarea Manager


Life at Beth Chatto's: the Nursery in winter


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21st January 2021 IN Nursery News