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Interview with Double H Nurseries from the United Kingdom

Double H is a vibrant family business, focused on providing innovative and beautiful products for their customers. They combine core values and innovative thinking to help them focus on forward thinking, deliver quality products, and subsequently achieve success. The company is expanding with the desire to deliver horticultural products that are grown with passion, presented with pride, and loved by all. 

Established in 1961, Double H continues to be a market leader in indoor plants, delivering over 4.5 million house plants to supermarkets in the United Kingdom. They have invested heavily in the most modern plant production facilities in the UK, and are leading the industry with innovative, sustainable and efficient manufacturing practices (https://www.doubleh.co.uk/).

We spoke with Mark Riley, Quality Manager, and Howard Braime, Growing Crop Manager, about present-day challenges, internet sales, sustainability, and much more….

Can you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Mark: “I am Quality Manager at Double H Nurseries, looking after and responsible for the quality of plants. This includes the plants that are grown at our nursery, but also the plants grown by our contractors both in the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands.” 

Howard: “My name is Howard Braime and my role is Cultivation Manager, which means that I am responsible for growing all the crops on the nursery including the Orchids. Mark and I have both been working for Double H in the region of 30 years.” 

The Orchid team under LED’s that Double H is testing: from left to right Howard Braime, Julianna Mihailova, Dorota Turner, Karen Jamison, Pawel Szwagierek, Malcolm Gregory and Mark Riley.

What is Double H and what do you do?
Howard: “Double H is a family-owned nursery that started in 1961. We grow, sell and deliver houseplants, around 4.5 million every year. Some of the largest leading supermarkets are our customers. The three main crops that we grow are Orchids, Chrysanthemums and foliage plants. Along with these, we grow a variety of seasonal crops at specific times of the year.” 

Mark: “The nursery is owned by the Stevenson family and one of the founders, Hugh Stevenson, still takes an interest in the company. His son Neil Stevenson has been managing director for the last 30 years but has now handed over the business to his nephew, Andy Burton, who is now Managing Director. We have grown the annual turnover up to £35 million over the last 60 years. We were mainly supplying major supermarket customers in the UK until recently, when we started an online business called ‘Love Orchids’, selling to the public, and another online business called ‘The Horti House’ (www.thehortihouse.co.uk), selling Phalaenopsis and foliage plants wholesale to garden centres and florists. 

What is the history of your company?
Howard: “As I mentioned before, Double H was founded in 1961. We have gradually been modernizing the site over the years by building a modern 2 hectare site in 2005, growing 30,000 x 14 cm pot mums a week. In 2007 we built a 1.6 hectare site that grows Phalaenopsis which we then nearly doubled in 2012. We recently built a new warehouse in order to store packaging materials and pack some of our online products. We started to grow African Violets and green foliage plants, then changed to Begonia and Poinsettia in the 2000s along with the pot mums. We then started Roses around 10 years ago but have recently stopped these to go back to growing foliage plants. We started trials on growing half-grown Phalaenopsis around 2002, with success. Because of this success we made the decision to build a purpose-built glasshouse. We also started to import more finished plants of many species to broaden our range for the supermarkets, which also helped increase our turnover.” 

Why have you chosen Phalaenopsis?
Howard: “Phalaenopsis has been one of the most popular houseplants for many years and so our supermarket customers asked us to grow some in the United Kingdom. We then took the opportunity.”

You only sell plants in the UK. How is your sales and distribution organized?
Mark: “We have our own sales team and product development team selling directly to the supermarkets. We tend to deliver plants to the supermarket distribution hubs and make use of transport companies to distribute to the regional depots of the supermarkets. For example, we use the company Gist (https://www.gistworld.com/) to transport our plants to the supermarket depots.”

Last week you started sending small numbers of plants in boxes directly from the nursery to garden centres and florists. Why did you choose to do this?
Howard: “The answer to this is twofold. We felt this was an opportunity to become less reliant on just the supermarket customers and had often been asked by garden centres for our product, but we were not set up to do this. Since Brexit, importing plants in small numbers has become more expensive, so we thought we would fill a gap in the market as we now had a good relationship with courier companies.” 

In early 2020, Brexit became a reality, shortly after which COVID-19 reared its head. Furthermore, energy costs rose dramatically in 2022 as a result of the war in Ukraine, among other things. All in all, you were facing huge changes and challenges that you could not influence yourselves.  

What has changed for you after Brexit and how are you dealing with it?
Howard: “We have had to set up a small depot in the John Pronk facilities, a specialist in complex logistics, to help us import plants from Europe efficiently. Finding labour has also become very difficult.” 

At the time of COVID-19, you created a webshop. Can you tell us more about that?
Mark: “When Covid started we were not sure if the supermarkets would still keep selling plants. Indeed, most stopped taking deliveries in the first week as they struggled to cope with the extra demand for food when the restaurants and takeout restaurants closed. We then very quickly needed to find a home for 38,000 Phalaenopsis a week. We already had the website “loveorchids” as we had launched this at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016. However we only ran this as a blog for helping the public to look after Orchids. So our colleague Andy Burton headed up a team that made use of the chance to start selling on this website very quickly as the supermarkets either stopped taking plants or slowed down for a few weeks.” 

In your opinion, why is the webshop such a success?
Mark: “Obviously Covid kickstarted the website and this helped save the business during the pandemic. The business is still very keen to be in the new wave of online shopping that the public wants now. A big part of the younger working population wants to shop from the comfort of their own home.” 

How is your energy supply regulated?
Howard: “Our main source of heat is from a biomass boiler that was installed in 2016 and burns waste wood. This is regulated by the environment agency that monitors the emissions. We also burn a small amount of gas that is bought ahead for CO2 production and standby heat. We can also burn oil.”

To what extent does the energy crisis in Europe affect you, and have you made changes in your operations as a result?
Howard: “We have stopped growing our 10.5 cm rose crop as we couldn’t see a future in it because we believe it will be very difficult to make this product sustainable.” 

Sustainability is high on your agenda. What does Double H do about sustainability?
Mark: “We have the biomass boiler and are testing some LED lamps on site and hope to install some this year. We are also reducing plastic where possible, growing foliage in peat free composts, and getting ready to do other crops.”

Led with a pink glow in the greenhouse.

What are your goals regarding sustainability? 
Howard: “We hope to be completely peatfree by 2027 and this would include the peat in any plug material. We hope to have a great deal of the site on LED lamps in the next few years. We have some solar panels, but need to increase this area. 
How do you see the future of your business and what are the biggest challenges? 
Howard: “Energy is still one of our biggest challenges when our fixed price contract ends. Labour to grow and pack our crops is also a huge challenge, as is reducing our use of plastic. We believe that growing our crops sustainably is the future and believe our offering of plants grown in the United Kingdom and delivered to supermarkets and garden centres will be sought-after for many years. 
What makes you unique?  
Mark: “Our strong product development team and sales team that is close to the market is very unique, and also being able to offer plants grown in the UK on internet platforms.

What is your experience of cooperation with Anthura?
Mark: “Anthura has proven to be a very reliable supplier of healthy young plants. The plants are even in the trays and consistent in size. This not only applies to the same variety, but also to the size and height between different varieties.” 

Howard: “Our Account Managers Gert and Laura are also very flexible with varieties. If the demands of our customers change, they will always check if the colour mix still meets our demand and, if not, they try to adjust it where possible.” 

White Led of Heliospectra (https://www.heliospectra.com/).