The plant centre where I used to work didn't really do propagation. They bought in bags of roots each winter from a couple of specialist growers in Norfolk and the Netherlands, and potted them up, and sometimes if there were pots left over at the end of the season the manager would split them. He would very occasionally take cuttings or sow seeds from a few of the plants in the garden, but essentially it was a retail outfit, and I bit my lip when one customer earnestly told me how she liked buying plants from people who raised them themselves.
Writtle once took us on a visit to the plant production arm of the Nottcutts garden centres, and we stood respectfully looking out over a sea of identical hebe in a vast glasshouse. It was spun off from Nottcutts, and has since gone bust. Bulk plant production is a brutal business. The Hardy Plant Society organised a trip to a nursery near Sudbury that I think might once have been part of the Wyevale chain, but was independent by the time we got there. The tunnels were dilapidated and there were a great many weeds, and some pots of plants that had seen better days, a long time previously. It has gone bust as well.
The Chatto tunnels in comparison were a model of tidy industry, although not as mechanised as the Woodbridge outfit, but they were dealing with a far wider range of plants, some quite rare. We saw the stock beds, from which plants propagated by division are lifted, to be split, potted, and grown on to root into their pots before being sold. We saw pans of seedlings in tunnels protected only by shade netting, and more cossetted pans living on waist high heated benches with an automated overhead misting system, and modular trays of young plants waiting to go into their full sized pots. We saw stem cuttings and root cuttings. We saw plastic covered tunnels of plants busy rooting into their final pots, at which point they could be sent outside and released for sale in the nursery or by mail order. Every one had a bar code so that the computer system knew where they were. We heard how the person in charge of seed sowing kept records of what she had sown, and knew when to go round the garden to collect seeds, and which seed companies they trusted to buy seed from when necessary. It was all gently impressive, in a way that any keen home gardener could grasp. No micropropagation, sterile cabinets, or automated potting machines, but a very sound underlying organisation. They deal with over two thousand species and varieties. Start muddling up the labels and the pots with that lot and you are truly sunk.
I came home with a severe case of polytunnel envy. Imagine the luxury of having a waist high, heated propagating bench with an overhead water supply that would reliably spray your seeds and cuttings with a fine mist of water each time they reached a set level of dryness.
The gardens were looking nice, but the tour had taken well over two hours and despite all the media fuss about the impending heatwave the air still had a nip to it. My friend and I had a quick scoot round, then felt we'd seen as much as we could take in and wanted our lunch.