We are privileged to start the New Year with an exclusive interview to mark the 100th Anniversary for Johnsons of Whixley.
Johnsons of Whixley was founded in June 1921, and here we discuss the fantastic century of 'Green' history with Chairman and Horticulturist John Richardson and his Granddaughter and Marketing Manager, Eleanor Richardson, pictured below.
Eleanor & John
'The obvious question, to begin with, is, how and why did Eric Johnson decide to launch this nursery?'
'Eric Johnson was at Leeds University studying chemistry when war broke out. He was a member of the University Army Cadet Core and shortly after the start of the war he volunteered to join the army aged 19 and was engaged as an officer. He saw service in France, Holland, and Belgium and on four occasions he was the only member of his platoon to survive German attacks. This led him to question why he continued to survive and was the reason why he felt unable to return to University after the war, he would have been with young people at least five years his junior, which he was unable to face'.
'Due to a long-term interest in growing plants, Mr Johnson (above) joined the Sheffield nursery firm of Fisher, Son & Sibray as an apprentice for three years. During this time, he met the future Mrs Johnson who lived in Harrogate, and whose father owned a series of malt kilns at various railheads throughout North Yorkshire. When they married in 1921, they were allowed to live in the maltster's cottage at Cattal Station, on the Harrogate-York rail line'.
Whixley Land Acquired
'Mr Johnson was allowed to develop the 2-acre garden surrounding the malt kiln to produce a range of vegetables, fruit and garden plants, which he sold either direct from the nursery or through the local markets'. 'As time progressed, in 1947 Mr Johnson bought the 10.5 acres of land in Whixley, which we still retain, together with the traditional Yorkshire house, still on the site, and now owned by a family member'.
'The nursery was run on very traditional lines, mostly worked by hand but now concentrating on nursery stock, with no fruit or vegetables. This was the case when I bought the business in May 1964, which at that time was 10.5 acres in total plus the house and 11 full-time staff. Turn-over in the year before the purchase was £30,500'.
Planting shrubs in 1966.
'Was Johnsons one of the very first growers of trees and plant material in the U.K.'?
'Definitely not, the first U.K. nurseries were established in the 15th century, and our land at Newlands was owned in the past by Backhouse & Sons, who had 200 acres of nursery land which was worked with horses. They also had their own local railway siding at the station'.
Has the nursery occupied the same location for the entire century of growing?
'We started with a total of 10.5 acres at Whixley, located between Harrogate and York. This expanded quite quickly as we became a wholesale business with customers over an increasing area. We now have over 200 acres in the local area'.
Hoeing Whixley Roses in the mid-1960's
Can you pinpoint certain moments during these 100 years that resulted in significant changes? And developments for the nursery?
'In the late 1960's there was a significant change in the industry as garden centres were developed across the country, supported by the ease of growing shrubs and trees in black polythene bags, and these were quickly replaced by rigid black plastic pots'.
'The public quickly established the idea of summer gardening now that there was no 'closed season' for planting'. 'Contractors and local authorities still felt that container-grown plants were too expensive and continued to buy bare-root plants but only in the winter months'.
Polythene Tunnel Houses
'At the same time, production of clear polythene sheets in various thicknesses were introduced, and very quickly led to the development of polythene tunnel houses and promoted a wide range of plants which needed a little more growing protection and also enabled the first attempts at year-round propagation and production. This development has benefited all sectors of horticulture'.
Lorry being loaded in Boskoop, Holland
Which varieties that you propagate have been on your 'availability list' for the most extended period?
'The most frequently asked for plants over generations must have been hedge plants such as beech, thorn hornbeam etc., which have been grown for 500 years to use as field markings and animal enclosures. The seed is collected in the autumn and subjected to a period of cold winter treatment before being sown in the following spring. In recent years the number of plants grown from seed has increased, but not as much as the increase in plants propagated vegetatively, in order to develop the continued expansion of 'new' varieties continually in demand by the public'.
'With the continued expansion of plants in demand, it is now relatively common for species requiring specific propagation techniques to be grown by a specialist to order, with some significant growers not undertaking propagation at all'.
'Roses and fruit trees have always been high on any propagators list, but over the last 30 years, demand has fallen to such an extent that propagation is now in the hands of a few companies'.
A tunnel full of plants
What organizations do you supply to and what types of projects?
'We now supply more than six million plants and trees annually and have enjoyed working with organizations over the years including The Department of Transport, the National Trust, Commonwealth Games, Royal Parks, Hotels, Retail & City Parks, Hospitals, Holiday Parks & Resorts and thousands of Landscapers, Gardeners, Property Developers, Garden Designers and over 500 Garden '.
'We are incredibly proud to have been involved with Projects, including The Forth Road Bridge, Royal Parks, The Athletes Village and Commonwealth Games, to name a few.'
What challenges does Brexit present to the company?
We will have to have stock inspected and a phytosanitary certificate issued before dispatch, adding additional cost and time into the dispatch process. We are often asked for the stock by our clients that will have to be procured in the E.U. In terms of Plant Health inspections this could mean an inspection in the E.U. prior to collection, a review on arrival in Great Britain, an inspection before dispatch from Great Britain and an inspection on arrival in Northern Ireland – four inspections in one week'.
'This is all very new to us, and we don't yet know what the full impact of Brexit will have on us'.
Forth Road Bridge
Do you see continued growth for the nursery, as you head into your 101st year this coming June?
'2020 brought unforeseen challenges from Covid-19 to a break-in that destroyed thousands of saleable plants and Brexit. Despite the challenges, we had our second-best year in history with a turnover of 13.2 million, 495 new customers, 5.6 million plants sold and over 11,000 deliveries throughout the U.K. and Northern Ireland.
As a third-generation family business member, I hope to see the company grow and expand to fourth, fifth, sixth generations and beyond. Whilst working with family can be difficult, the positives outweigh the negatives. Me, my brothers and cousins are incredibly proud of our heritage and to be a part of the family business. We look forward to working through further challenges and helping the company 'grow' this year and beyond'.
Donaldsons Landscaping Edinburgh
Can horticulture provide solutions to the well-being and mental health of the public, during Covid-19?
'2020 was the year that the public found a new love for gardening and home improvements. Our Garden Centre Sales department had its best year ever, and companies like 'Notonthehighstreet' saw a 230% increase in garden-related searches in August alone'.
'Gardening is great for the mind from reducing the level of cortisol and stress to soil containing antidepressant microbes that can help make you feel happier. Gardening helps provide Vitamin D and boosts serotonin levels. Research has even found that gardening lowers the risk of cognitive decline, perhaps that's why my Grandpa, at 83 years young, is still working a four-day week and is on the 'ball' more than most'.
Johnsons wholesale cash & carry
Are there any special events scheduled for the actual 100th Anniversary day in June?
We plan to have a party for staff and their partners; whether this can go ahead, we will have to wait and see. To mark our centenary, we have created branded bygone calendars, our own centenary wine and biscuits.
Tel: 01423 330234.