Surrounded by living colours

The Coach Inn landlord Joe Robson, with  Carolyn and Michael Fairbairn.
The Coach Inn landlord Joe Robson, with Carolyn and Michael Fairbairn.

Millions of pounds are spent on summer bedding plants each year by the great gardening public and it’s not difficult to understand why.

After the short, dark days of winter and a typical early spring punctuated by cold weather, we’re ready to break out and celebrate any hint of lasting warmth and brightness.

Hobberlaw Plants Stalls.

Hobberlaw Plants Stalls.

Surrounding ourselves with living colour that will continue for weeks on end seems quite a natural reaction to me.

So our boxes, beds, baskets and a whole range of unusual containers are cleaned out, filled with fresh compost and are ready to receive whatever catches the eye at a favourite garden centre.

In this respect, we are absolutely spoiled for choice.

Whereas in the past it was either raise them yourself from seed, a method costly in time and money, or buy whatever was available in trays, now we have plug plants of every subject and size imaginable – pots of seedlings too.

Add to that, weekly offers in the gardening press, and it is arguably possible to pick up summer bedding bargains at the last minute.

However, if you want a specific display, it pays to place an order well in advance. And for local authorities and suppliers of summer bedding plants, the planning process has to begin the previous autumn.

I caught up last week with a husband-and-wife team who have a growing reputation for supplying good quality plants and creating floral displays for local businesses. Michael and Carolyn Fairbairn, who trade under Hobberlaw Plants and are based at Loaning Head just outside Alnwick, can point with pride to award-winning Northumbria in Bloom displays they have created for several clients.

Organisations with sheltered accommodation, hotels, public houses and private individuals place regular orders for spring and summer displays.

For some of these, the Fairbairns have a full set of back-up containers which they keep at their base. At changeover time, they turn up with one set ready-planted for winter/spring and take away those that have finished summer flowering.

They create approximately 400 summer hanging baskets, insisting that they stay in a large poly-tunnel for two weeks afterwards to perk up, then clients can have them.

Far better this than hanging them to the mercy of cold winds immediately after planting-up.

At the end of a season, several customers return their baskets for winter storage, placing next year’s order in the process.

The Coach Inn, Lesbury, has certainly benefitted from their magical touch. It has won a gold in Northumbria in Bloom’s special awards section for the past two years.

Ideally situated on the coastal tourist route which runs through the village, it’s a high-profile spot, ideal for spring and summer displays.

An enthusiastic new landlord, Joe Robson, was on hand, encouraging Michael and Carolyn as they planted up the containers last week.

Formerly a local farmer, Michael decided to diversify in the direction of horticulture less than a decade ago. He started with bags of compost, buying in bulk and selling to local gardeners.

They erected a poly-tunnel and tried growing a few plants.

He then found an outlet with a stall at the Saturday Market in Alnwick, which continues to flourish.

A second poly-tunnel was necessary as satisfied customers returned to purchase more and their word-of-mouth worked wonders for business.

Then came the move to their present premises at which there are five tunnels, two of them with irrigation systems.

The range of plants he and Carolyn grow for sale has also widened.

It began with annual bedding subjects but now includes perennials such as shrubs, heathers, herbaceous, dwarf conifers, rhododenrons, azaleas and hedging plants.

I occasionally turn up at his Saturday market stall in Alnwick, which has developed somewhat in recent years, to ask how business is going and see what he has for sale.

The plants are well-grown and worthy of display. He grows them all in the same Erin compost that is sold to his customers.

Michael smiles: “They ask if I buy my personal supply by the tonne, but I tell them No, I use the same bags that I sell.”

Michael and Carolyn’s plants are bought in plug form from wholesale suppliers. These they visit in early autumn to see what is new and place orders.

Some customers have fixed ideas about what they want in their containers, others are prepared to try recent introductions.

With 15 or so businesses to service, circa 50 individuals demanding annual displays, sales from their Loaning Head premises and a weekly market presence, I’d say this couple have made their mark on the local plant scene!