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Chelsea countdown: from Dorset, with love

With the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show just around the corner, we've been checking in on the planting for our stand. Dorset Planters has been creating container drama for us, and they were kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes tour. What's life like as a large-scale producer of ready-to-buy planters?
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Chelsea countdown: from Dorset, with love
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Chelsea countdown: from Dorset, with love

At this time of year, preparations for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show can feel a little all-consuming. It’s a highlight of our year, and a time to pull out all the stops. Sometimes preparations start immediately we return from the previous year’s show – like the 2016 show, when our stand showcased giant topiary shears. The topiary on that occasion was designed right after the 2015 show and slow-grown for us in Hampshire for a year.

Preparations for the planting on our stand this year started six months ago, when some of our team were admiring the beautiful containers on sale at RHS Wisley – and noticed the information board explaining that they came from Dorset Planters, just round the corner from our Dorset office! We made contact with the company, and started hatching plans for the planting on our stand at this year’s show, which is now just a week away.

Keeping it local

Happily, as Dorset Planters is right on our doorstep, we’ve been able to watch our planters come together and grow, and we’ve also had a fascinating guided tour of the extensive facilities. The company was only established four years ago, and now Dorset Planters supplies beautiful planted containers and baskets to garden centres all over the UK, from small independent outlets to major chains. If you’ve bought a container arrangement or hanging basket this spring, there’s a good chance it’s come from this sunny little corner of Dorset.

Owner Jody Robinson showed us round and explained how the production process works. Tiny plug plants are used to create the planters, which are then carefully nurtured for weeks in the huge greenhouses as they fill out and start to bloom. Large batches of planters are planted every week, to maintain a constant supply for customers.

It was fascinating to walk round and see the containers at different stages. Some batches had planted-up perimeters around a central gap, giving small plants a chance to grow prior to being crowned with a showstopper centrepiece. A regiment of geranium planters gave off a heady scent in the warmth of the greenhouse.

When the displays take off, there’s a huge difference between containers planted just a week apart. Arriving for work on a Monday can present the Dorset Planters team with a different landscape to the one they left on Friday, with whole sections bursting into bloom.

The business has peak times, as you’d expect, with Mother’s Day, Easter, summer, August Bank Holiday, autumn and Christmas keeping the team busy year-round. Planting for spring starts in earnest in late February, and already Jody was thinking about the cyclamen arriving imminently for autumn planters.

The peat-free challenge

There are many challenges involved in producing a steady supply of container arrangements, whether that’s the weather, the supply of plug plants, or new legislation around eliminating peat. This last raises an interesting point for gardeners. We’re getting more used to thinking about peat-free compost, and there are more peat-free choices on garden centre shelves. Most gardeners care about the environment and about wildlife, and want to have a minimal environmental impact. So far, so good.

However, gardeners using peat-free growing media have probably realised that it takes a little extra TLC to keep peat-free containers looking their best – more watering and more feeding. But with commercial production switching to peat-free in the next few years, the greater need for care and maintenance of peat-free displays has real implications for shelf-life, labour, costs of fertilisers, water resource – and the worry that the containers that gardeners buy are unlikely to be as resilient as those grown with peat. Will every gardener know that they need to nurture their peat-free containers a bit more? It’s a bit of a conundrum, and Dorset Planters is keen to spread the word about what to expect when the switch to peat-free comes into force.

Working to a deadline

Every year at Chelsea we see the garden designers’ worries over whether certain plants will be hitting the peak of perfection during Chelsea week. We hear about fridges, grow lights and industrial heaters being used to try to slow or speed up growth and flowering, to force blooms at the perfect time. Imagine if that’s your whole business!

When Dorset Planters’ containers are ready, there’s a window of roughly three weeks when they’re at their very best, before feeding, weeding and deadheading are required. Tasks which gardeners are happy to do, but which are more costly and time-consuming for garden centres to do en masse. So Dorset Planters has to deliver perfect specimens, at the perfect time – a bit like our planters for Chelsea.

Speaking of which, how are our planters looking? Well, we think they look fabulous! Our planters are packed with Hedera, Osteospermum, Geranium, Petunia, Dianthus and Nepeta and Bacopa, and they’re filling out nicely. We wanted the planting to be wildlife-friendly, so we’re looking forward to welcoming to our stand the butterflies, bees and other pollinators the planters are sure to attract. With another week of growing time to go, we’re confident they’ll give our stand on Main Avenue the wow factor. Do come and visit us, if you're lucky enough to be going along to the world's most famous flower show this year!


With many thanks to Jody at Dorset Planters for creating our Chelsea planters, and for giving us a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at the business.

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