Arreton - Valley of Flowers
by J. D. Whitehead
I MIGHT HAVE CALLED THIS'OUR BLOOMING ISLAND', but few people as yet think of the Isle of Wight when passing a flower shop. A kangaroo reminds us of Australia; coal brings Newcastle to mind; bulbs conjure a vision of Holland and tomatoes a picture of the Channel Islands. It is just as right that cut flowers should become synonymous with this Island.
Why? Well, whenever you buy a bunch of roses or carnations or chrysanthemums it is a very fair bet that they grew in the Arreton valley below Newchurch — the very heart of Wight. Over five million blooms leave the Island each year and that quantity is increasing with each season. Every day consignments go to Covent Garden but despatches also go to the flower shops of Abingdon and Aberdeen, Bangor, Bristol, Birmingham — wherever you chance to put your pin in the gazetteer.
To every flower dealer throughout the country the name of A B Stevensis a household word. You didn't know? Perhaps that is understandable. It is one of the least publicised industries on the Island. British Hovercraft make so much noise that you MUST be aware of them. Britten Norman decorate the heavens with their product at frequent intervals. Plessey garland the skyline with their radar antennae. The waters of the Solent abound in demonstrations of our boat building industries. But A B Stevens create neither noise nor pollution and you have to be in the flower business to realise that they are there at all.
You might well expect that the production of five million blooms every year would mean vast fields of vivid colour. In fact you could search the Arreton Valley from end to and and find no more than the occasional gay cottage garden. But, if you travel on the A 3056 Sandown to Newport road by Hale Common, you will pass the Fighting Cocks Inn and opposite you will notice a row of young conifers doing their best to grow up and hide even a passing glimpse of the glass houses that are the home of this amazing production of perfect beauty in colour and form.
Perfection — that is the underlying truth of this industry. You and I can grow a rose or a carnation or a chrysanth and, with luck feel elated at its beauty. But if the weather isn't right or the pests are busy —well, even the best gardener is dependent upon a certain amount of luck. But luck does not appear on the programme of this organisation. They have ruled out the vagaries of weather — they make their own climatic conditions. They have eradicated every known pest and disease. There is no such phrase as 'well, we'll see what we've got'. For every single square foot which they bed down to carnations they will gather forty blooms each year, every one true to type and perfect in colour, shape and length of stem. If this all sounds too good to be true — like shelling peas — let me assure you that pea growing is a much less certain process. Remember that some fifty years of personal experience and effort and trial and error has gone into the achievement of such expertise.
Mr Norman Warner talking to one of his employees in front of one of the battery of huge greenhouses
It would make me want to shout my prowess from the rooftops. Not A B Stevens Ltd. Even their entrance gates are hidden away from sight up Watery Lane off the Fighting Cocks' corner. Inside the gates is another barrier — a red and white pole that lifts to admit you, once you have been vetted and approved, like the frontier post of some national boundary. Ahead stretches a spotless concrete roadway that merges into the haze of distance and is flanked on the left by the long row of vast 'wide span' glasshouses and margined by an overhead complex of power cables and heating pipes in neatly silver painted lagging.
Beside the car park just inside the barrier is the office block — a single storey building with a striking appearance of luxury explained when, on closer inspection, you find that it is built of solid afromosia. Inside the double glass doors the atmosphere is even more redolent of the success achieved by perfection — gleaming parquet and thick carpets, comfortable chairs and space, air conditioning and desks unencumbered with the litter and chaos of normal industry. Indeed, chaos is obviously as foreign to the offices as pests are to the glasshouses. Everything is under control. There is no guesswork. The chart on the inner office wall, for instance, does not forecast how many cuttings will be planted next year but tells you exactly how many blooms will be despatched in each specified week of the twelve months. You will see that, on any given week — so far ahead that as yet the plants are little more than seeds, 50,000 stems of chrysants will be despatched, each stem with its standard quota of five perfect blooms. There is no doubt that they will be in prime condition and it is not just wishful thinking. You suddenly find yourself coming to grips with a more exact science than the production of aircraft or motor car parts.
It all started some eight years ago when two brothers, Eric and A B Stevens realised that the Isle of Wight offered the finest growing light anywhere in the country. They came to investigate, and promptly purchased forty acres in the flat heart of the Arreton valley. They both had a lifetime of experience in the culture of flowers under glass and therefore had no qualms about sinking the enormous amount of capital required for such a huge project in this most ideal position. They set up two separate units, side by side. Eventually, however, one brother retired and the remaining one amalgamated both units into one complex under the title of 'A B Stevens Ltd, Flower and Plant Division, Newchurch'.
As yet only 8 acres are actually under glass but this does not include the many other buildings that are necessary ancillaries. There are two boiler houses (one from each of the original units, which is a worthwhile duplication), sorting and packing sheds, a generator plant motorised by Rolls Royce to rule out the hazards of dependence upon mains supply, a maintainance building housing timber props and paper and cartons forpacking as well as peat and fertilisers and insecticides. There is even a reservoir, like a small lake, fed by artesian wells. The electricians, plumbers, carpenters and painters all have their own fully equipped departments. Not least in stature (or in fragrance) is the biggest heap of manure I have ever seen — yet even this is not just a pile, its whole 400 tons is stacked with immaculate precision in a perfect rectangle as though it was a mathematically designed monument to the activity of local horseflesh. The office staff, needless to say, have calculated the required consumption for each week of the next twelve months to an exact figure so that, on any date, a specified tonnage of manure will be delivered to a particular glasshouse and there will be no 'left-over'; that would mean retrucking the surplus, involving wasted labour and unnecessary mess.
That was one of the points which struck me most forcibly during my visit, the scrupulous tidyness everywhere throughout the organisation. To me it had seemed natural that any horticultural project should have a certain amount of 'rubbish' and an acceptable level of refuse. Not this one. I even searched for the odd petal or stem or stalk that might have fallen and been left ungarnered and came away unrewarded. Even the carnation in my button hole I had to 'pinch'- from a growing plant while no one was looking.
The wide-span glass-houses are each one hundred yards long and thirty yards wide, and they are totally 'wall supported' with no internal props or posts whatever. Each house covers almost % acre. If I was responsible for them in any way at all I am sure that I should be unable to sleep on stormy nights for fear of that huge expanse of glass shattering under the wind force. I am told, however, that their structure was designed to 'give', and that you can actually see the glass undulating down its length like rollers on the sea when the wind is really blowing. In the eight years during which some of the houses have been standing, only a few isolated panes have broken and the cause of that was proved to have been faulty erection.
Close by the doorway to each house there is a glass partitioned control room massed with dials and gauges and switches where the wizard-in-charge can quickly amend the atmospheric conditions within the house. The Mole system, however, is fully automated and only requires manual attention in case of major weather changes outside, or a change of growing conditions, or of course in case of a breakdown. Daily contact is maintained with the Meterological Office for forecast information, particularly in regard to wind direction. The great vents high in the glass roofs open and close automatically according to the requirements within the houses but a sudden reversal of wind direction could have disastrous results.
The success of any crop and the grower's ability to control growth and have his blooms in condition at a precise date depends upon the maintenance of correct humidity, which involves balancing the combination of water, heat and light. It is this delicate manipulation of the growing environment, coupled with precisely measured plant nutrition and absolutely rigid pest control which makes up the art of perfect culture.
Any garden lover, touring these houses, could be pardoned for a covetous desire to try such sturdy and exotically flowering plants in his own plot. But he would be disappointed, for none of the types grown here are related to any garden varieties. Every one of them has been specially cultivated for the specific purpose of becoming a prime cut flower. In the conditions of a normal garden these plants would prove even less hardy than the more familiar varieties.
There is relatively little 'out of season' period in such conditions. The same humidity can be presented all the year round. Roses are at their best from April to December, growing by natural light. Carnations bloom, also by natural light, throughout the whole year, Chrysanthemums also flourish all the year round (and are actually referred to as 'AYR's'), but they require artificial light in winter and canopied shade in summer.
Unfortunately, my visit to the site was very late in the rose season. Even so I gained ample indication of what the height of the season must look like. Each house is laid out in beds running the whole thirty yards width of the building, each bed about three feet wide and separated from the adjoining one by a narrow pathway. On either side of the house a gravelled main walk runs the whole 100 yards. Hot pipes are laid round every second bed at ground level while every bed has an equally spaced pair of water pipes close above the soil.
To me (a rather less than average gardener) the most fascinating thing was the exact duplication of every one of the plants in each batch of beds. There were hundreds (indeed thousands) of exact copies, with never a weakling or even a chance to say 'now there's a fine plant'. On the other hand, the garden lover does have in his favour the fact that he can see his blooms come to full maturity. Here, in these glasshouses, no rose can ever open to full bloom — what a sight it would be if they could! As it is, at the moment when each bed is ready to burst into its full glory from end to end and shows, at a height of six or seven feet, a miriad of tightly closed conical blooms, it is cut down to the main stems to enable the next crop of small green-mantled buds to shoot up to take their place. It seems astonishing in view of such frequent blooming that a rose bush is good for five years of productive life.
The carnation houses may not be more prolific but they are more colourful, probably because you are able to look down upon the full length of each bed and appreciate the whole mass of bloom. The beds are laid out in the same fashion, and you may gather some idea of the sight it is from the fact that 100,000 carnation blooms are cut every week. Here again the bed that looks most beautiful today will be denuded of every bloom tomorrow and then, in a few days time, the next crop will be showing its proud-tipped buds once more.
In the case of the 'AYR's' the stage by stage advancement of the plants is more noticeable. They start their life in a special 'nursery' house where the humidity is quite oppressive and box upon box of cuttings are arranged over a vast expanse of waist-high staging. Two million cuttings pass through here each year and are then planted out in the 'wide span' houses where, as you walk past bed after bed, the height of the plant increases. Even so it is no haphazard progress; you still cannot find any one plant better or worse than its neighbour. The first five beds, maybe, are newly planted; the next five have grown to about a foot; the next five, perhaps, are showing their first little button-buds; five more beds will have been disbudded, leaving only five blooms to grow on each stem. Beyond that the stems will be ready for sterilization and soil replenishment.
Even the packing shed has its share of interest, to say nothing of, perhaps, the greatest riot of colour. I would never have expected, having seen the identical perfection of the growing blooms, that any sort of grading was necessary. But it seems that even the most perfect rose must be judged according to its length of stem. This grading is done upon a machine with an endless belt which carries troughs into each of which a bloom is placed. As the troughs proceed down the belt track they pass under photoelectric cells which tip the troughs at the correct spot and the receptacle underneath loads up with blooms accurately graded for length of stem from Grade 1 (those with 36in stems) to Grade 6 (which would look magnificent on my piano!)
It is quite difficult to think of an organisation such as this without being tempted to refer to it as a 'factory'. Indeed I was going to end by saying that 'all the blooms leave the factory in cardboard cartons'. Now, having hesitated to so compare industry and horticulture, I realise that it is industry that would suffer by the comparison. Horticulture under such precise conditions as these has become an exact science that no normal factory, turning out nuts and bolts or similar impedimenta, could compete against in standards of perfection.
My sincere thanks to Mr Stevens for allowing me to write this article and to Mr Warner for his very patient explanations and for making my visit so interesting and informative.