Quality key to Watson’s Gardens relationship with Woodhaven Gardens

Otaki’s Watson’s Garden has been growing vegetable seedlings for Woodhaven Gardens – which is the largest market garden operation in the lower North Island by some margin – since Woodhaven was a fledgling operation nearly 40 years ago.

Seedling quality is what underpins the relationship between the two enterprises, as well as constant, two-way communication over the years.

Don Watson | Watson's Garden

Don Watson | Watson’s Garden

Current owner Don Watson says his father, also Don, start at the Bell Street nursery in 1956 as a nursery-hand doing cut flowers, cyclamens and the like.

“In 1966 he and my mother, Pat, leased that business and bought it in 1972 to create Watson’s Garden Ltd. They grew flowers, vegetable seedlings, hothouse tomatoes and capsicums in season. I left school in ’86 to work in the nursery with my parents, when we were increasingly doing cell-tray production of vegetable seedlings for customers like Woodhaven and others.”

“We bought a seeding machine for the cell-trays, which were grown on the ground in polyhouses so there was a lot of physical work. It was very labour intensive, we touch each tray 14 times as it moved from the seeding shed, to the polyhouses and outside to harden up.

“As this aspect of the business grew, we needed more polyhouses and realised we really needed to get the trays off the ground – especially when John Clarke from Woodhaven said we’re going to be stepping up, can you keep up with the demand ?

Trays of vegetable seedlings | Watson's Garden

Trays of vegetable seedlings | Watson’s Garden

“With some help from Gavin Lambert in Bulls, we designed a frame to suit both the trays and the polyhouses. At that time, we were doing about 1,500 trays a week with about 16 staff. Each galvanised steel frame holds 12 trays, which are now slightly raised off the ground and are much easier to move. The frames changed our business – we went from touching each tray 14 times down to 6 times, but we didn’t realise it would be easier for John as well in terms of transport. John’s truck used to take 84 trays, but with the way the frames could be staked, they could carny 420 at a time.”

As Woodhaven’s operation expanded, so did vegetable seedling production for the Watsons. Out of space in Bell Street, they purchased 8 hectares south of Otaki River to develop a new nursery. About 60% of the site is currently in vegetable seedling production, with seven 100-metre long tunnel houses, a germination shed, and a seeding shed with the latest seeding machine purchased just last year. The investment in frames, which now number around 8,000 was also significant. Watson’s Garden also grows annuals for the local council and other nurseries, and runs a garden shop on their original Bell Street site.

“The quality of the end crop starts with the seedling,” Don says. “Many things can impact quality – weather, seed quality and seed order delays. Weed suppression is another big thing – they can hold pests and diseases, and add to pressure times. Every day we walk right round the whole site; every crop has different requirements at different times of year and it changes every day.

“John’s focus is always quality and ours is n the same. He’s grown from like six trays a week to thousands of trays a week. We’re doing around 50 million seedlings a year now with Woodhaven our largest customer and 10-15 smaller growers.”

Don has a strong working relationship with Fruitfed Supplies area sales manager Donna Daken. “We buy all our chemicals and most of our fertilisers off Donna. Our relationship with Donna is really good. If she doesn’t know the answer, she’s very resourceful in finding us an answer. If there’s a problem of any sort, she’s our first go-to. She’s a valuable tool for all the growers around here – she’s not one to just read information out of a book, anyone can do that.”

From the Woodhaven side, production manager Adam Jory says Watson’s Garden produces all of the vegetable seedlings the 14 transplanted crops.

“Woodhaven started almost as a lifestyle choice for John and his parents and it’s grown into the farm we have today. The relationship with Watson’s has existed the whole way, starting with very small numbers 38-39 years ago and now it’s thousands of trays a week.

“Watson’s store our seed for us, a lot from Fruitfed. That’s all done on a just-in-time stock management system stored in controlled temperature in Otaki. We give them a sowing guide, roughly for a year ahead, but we’re constantly tweaking that every 3-4 months to match demand to production. They also manage our trial programme for us, for new varieties, so that is also important.”

Adam highlights the fact that Watson’s Garden essentially grow a vegetable crop for Woodhaven for around a third of the crop’s lifecycle. “Like if a lettuce crop is going to grow for 12 weeks, they grow it for the first 3-4 weeks. If they get their bit right, our job is easier. If they don’t, it’s not easy for us – that’s where the relationship and trust comes into it.

“Don and his team is passionate about quality. Karen Silva, head of production, and her agronomy team liaise with Watsons daily. We don’t have enough hours in the week, depending on the weather, to get everything done. They’re pretty much available to us 24/7 to go pick up plants when we need to, sometimes very early in the morning, or late in the evening, sometimes on a Sunday to make the planting opportunity. One of our agronomists goes down on a weekly basis to gauge where we are, to see if there are any issues, so we can work through these together. They also email each week with what’s ready to plant and quantities of what they’ve sown. As you can appreciate, the logistics of getting the right variety ready at the right time, spraying, harvesting, etc. are pretty complex, so this detailed information is all part of our workflow.”

Adam says the introduction of the racking system at Watson’s about a decade ago shows how the businesses have grown together. “We used to have plant trays in a single layer on a flat-bed truck. With the racking system, we can transport 94 racks at a time, allowing us to moving thousands of trays per week.”

Red cabbage awaiting transport | Watson's Garden

Red cabbage awaiting transport | Watson’s Garden

Adam also appreciates the support of Fruitfed’s Donna Daken. “We give Donna a seed estimation each year, split by month. It’s Donna’s job to make sure the company can procure that seed for us, that the seed is of good quality, and she’ll organise the shipping to Watsons so they’ve got it in time. She’ll also advise if any issues, which is really important to our overall production schedule.”

Donna says her key role in the Woodhaven-Watson’s chain is to put in forward orders for seed requirements sometimes up to a year in advance.

“Fruitfed places orders with our key vegetable seed suppliers and when the seed arrives, we check that it’s all there as ordered and germination percentages are all current.

“I regularly communicate with seed suppliers, Karen at Woodhaven and Watson’s when there is an issue. This is extremely important if seeds going to be late arriving into the country as this can have a serious knock-on effect for Woodhaven. Consider the potential loss of income if they don’t have the varieties they’re expecting to harvest, especially in the cooler months.

“Woodhaven chooses their own varieties, but one of my jobs is to help them find potential new material to look at. So, vegetable seed reps and I help organise new variety seed for Woodhaven to trial and see how it grows in the field in Horowhenua.”

You can find this article in the May 2017 edition of Fruitfed Facts News.