Newsletter No.6: 6th July 2010

I was complaining about the cold (!) in May’s newsletter – I remember getting the coldest I have ever been on a cricket pitch that week – but it has carried on just as dry. I’ve been worried about the customers who bought plants or seeds from us over the last 9 months, so wrote to them asking how things were going. It seems the only worries generally have been with later spring sowings. In all likelihood these will be fine. We’re suggesting folk have a look at how things are doing in September, after a bit of rain.
That’s certainly been true at our demo meadow at Sparkford. We sowed two mixes there last autumn. A really nice mix sourced locally, just perennials and grasses, looks to be struggling at first glance but I think will be fine. The other side of the meadow, where we used a nurse of cornfield annuals (I know, it’s cheating), has looked amazing:Archie's Meadow
We’ve been busy on the meadow front, also hosting a couple of courses for gardeners and landscape professionals, tutored by Sue Everett and Andrew George. Attendance was good, and I’m looking forward to next year’s already. I’ve been blogging furiously about meadows as well, which has kept me on my toes and, I think, shunted some traffic onto the website as well as perhaps offering folk an interesting resource.
My efforts on marketing elsewhere have been mixed. I still can’t make head nor tail of Twitter and I don’t think I’m using Facebook very effectively – I am currently running a “targeted” advert, which has had 2,702 impressions as I write but no clicks! At least that means it’s free… I’m pleased with our recent corporate videos though (including more meadow stuff!) and press coverage continues to be helpful.
In terms of product development, we have now listed the Mazzards we will be selling from this autumn, and I am pleased to have extended our range of native bulbs, courtesy of the excellent Shipton Bulbs in Wales. Right now I’m working on improving our lavenders and trying to SEO the herbaceous side of the site a bit better. We are involved in another nice seed project, this time with the British Beekeeper’s Association’s “Adopt a Hive” scheme. The seed promotion we supplied for Flowerworld’s bouquets for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is now in Morrisons, which is nice.
That apart it seems to be a pretty quiet time of year. I’m off to Hampton Court for a bit of inspiration.

Newsletter No.5: 13th May 2010

This cold dry weather is a nightmare, but I suppose at least it’s given me time to sit down and write a newsletter. I’ve been a very busy boy over the last month, so much to catch up on.

We ran our first course in April, which seems to have been a great success. Tutored by Hugh Roberts of Environments for People we all learnt how to build a wildlife pond, now sitting in front of me. Thanks to Hugh and to our wetland plant supplier Gower Wildflowers. The pond’s already populated by a selection of interesting looking invertebrae, and the swallows are collecting mud from it as I write. All very rewarding. Next off are our meadow days, run by Sue Everett, on the 11th and 12th June.

I flogged up to Sheffield last week to go to an intriguing workshop on Green Roofs and Living Walls, which is an area we’re keen to get more involved with. We already have a relationship with a consultant, and supply generic native seed and plug mixes for green roofs, but hope to do a lot more in future to encourage folk to plant native plants rather than just use the sedum mats they have done in the past. Green Roofs in particular seem to me to be a fantastic and practical way to encourage biodiversity in urban areas – among other advantages!Green roof in Sheffield

I also hope we can do more work with seeds, where we are starting to supply end business customers directly. After a successful trial we are supplying the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA Enterprises Ltd.) with two native seed mixes particularly helpful for bees, which I have high hopes for. We’re also supplying Flowerworld with the seed for a 50,000 sachet promotion at Morrisons to promote the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Our other bee related news is that we’re expanding our range of plants and exotic trees for bees as a result of some suggestions from Andy Willis at the BBKA Spring Convention and Norman Carreck at the Laboratory for Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. They’ll be supplied by R.V.Roger and available from this autumn.

We are seeing the first fruits of our work with designers, sourcing native plants for some very exciting schemes. We’re both promoting those currently working with habitat creation in mind, and encouraging others to think about it more.

As to life here, Kingsley the new ram has been a success and the mad Runner Ducks are laying again, albeit mostly not in their Duck house. My bees are happy too, and I’ve set up a couple of bait hives for them. Mike the gardener’s grand veg plot looks great and our various mini-meadows look promising too – if only it would rain!

Poll Dorset in the orchard

Post Kingsley moment in the orchard

Newsletter No.4: 7th March 2010

Spring arrives

Spring is springing

At last we have bees on the crocuses and frogspawn in the ponds. The Cherry Plums are our first fruit trees in blossom and aren’t quite there yet, but Spring is definitely springing. Even the Runner Ducks seem to have got the message and look like they might start laying again. I’m in a panic today because of the reseeding work we have to do in a new annual wildflower area, which still needs chain harrowing – the downside of using pigs as rotavators, I suppose…

Wetland plants have been the big feature on my blog recently, following the recent DEFRA led campaign to increase people’s awareness of some of the really nasty invasive non-natives you can still buy. I’ve been amazed to discover how difficult it is for folk to find decent native plants, and how easy it is to buy the thugs – either by design or accident. Yuk. I’ve fallen on my feet somewhat with our own supplier, Gower Wildflowers, who are top quality people selling top quality plants.

Developments on the website have been encouraging. Visitor numbers continue to build and all the metrics I’m supposed to be looking at are improving. I’ve been generating some traffic into the site via Facebook (I feel 30 years younger 🙂 etc.), where we now have an embryonic page. Another garden designer who I’m much taken with has found his way onto the site; Phil Brown is a high class landscape architect whose ethos I thoroughly approve of. I hope we can shunt some work his way.

I’m getting my show schedule sorted out for this year. I think I’ll do Archie’s eco area at the Bath and West Show and the plant fair at Cottesbrooke Hall with my corporate hat on in June, and the Malvern Spring Show, Chelsea, and Gamefair as a punter. Things kick off with the Spring Bee Convention at Stoneleigh in April – always interesting. Not forgetting of course my Bullbeggar Cider sales engagements at the Yarlington and Lamyatt fetes…

In the meantime we are working on some exciting projects which I’m sworn to secrecy about, but I’ve got everything crossed one or two might just come off.

Newsletter No.3: 11th February 2010

Runner Ducks in the Snow

Confused Runner Ducks

I’ve spent the last couple of months shackled to my computer, which I suppose has had the merit of keeping me in from the cold. The website’s heading in the right direction in terms of visitors but we need to get a better conversion rate (i.e. the number of visitors who actually buy anything), which is what I’ve been concentrating on recently. I’ve joined some entertaining and helpful social networking sites (not what you think!) like Over the Gate and gardenersclick , and my blog is doing well too despite being rather ernest, with jollier highlights including Runner Ducks in the snow and the Santa Chocolate Fondue sale.

Not a Large Black Pig

Not a Large Black Pig

I’ve found myself blogging about food recently, which I suppose just shows how closely connected a lot of gardening / conservation / food production issues are. I’ve been particularly pleased that we’ve done relatively well with fruit trees over the last few months, and I’m delighted that one of our suppliers, RV Roger, will be offering Perry Pear trees for us from this autumn.

I can’t wait until the Spring to see how our meadow areas are doing. The sheep are now grazing less precious bits of pasture at home and I keep telling myself it’s too early to look for the first signs of Yellow Rattle. I’m really excited by our meadow projects this year – not only our own here, but also the demo areas on Archie’s farm on the A303 – to say nothing about the courses we’re running. And talking of farming folk, every time I turn the TV on I see Monty Don telling wannabe smallholders to buy Large Black Pigs – hurrah!

We’re beginning to be asked to source plants for some larger scale projects, including meadows, which is hugely encouraging. These are species not necessarily advertised on the website, but the service is one we’re delighted to provide. It’s helpful for the client to have just one point of contact, and to be confident in the quality of the plants provided.

I’ve got to say again how indebted I’ve been to all sorts of folk, from bloggers and journalists to customers to suppliers – thank you all very much for your help.

Newsletter No.2: 8th December 2009

Somerset seems to be disappearing underwater as I write the second of our updates; after a record-breaking November, December seems determined to be even wetter. At least the three-now-not-so-little pigs are happy, turning large areas of the orchard into a mudbath ready for sowing annual wildflowers in the Spring.

I’m very excited about our launch of a series of one day courses for next year, specifically aimed at gardeners, landscapers, designers and small landowners. They will be led by tutors who are leaders in their fields; Sue Everett (meadows), Kevin Croucher (orchards), David Holland (ponds), and Pete Grainger (hedgelaying). We’re offering vouchers for the courses, which would make excellent Christmas presents. We’re also helping one of our suppliers, Herbiseed, launch a new course for contractors on native planting.

The website continues to attract media interest, which is very helpful. This month it was a finalist in the Garden Media Guild awards – along with the RHS, Chelsea, Gardener’s World and another BBC site. A fiver well spent… We continue to tweak it and add content, including podcasts from our suppliers. According to Alexa we’re about 24,000th in terms of traffic in the U.K. now – a triumph! My Blog also continues to pull the punters in, although goodness knows why…

One of the innovations on the site is an automatic subscription service to this mailing. If that’s not how you’re reading this but you would like to see it that way in future, just fill in the form on our home page or subscribe to it from here.

Lastly, a massive thanks to all our suppliers and supporters for their help and perseverance in 2009. What a long strange trip it’s been – and I fancy it will get stranger. As ever, if you think we’re getting anything wrong (or right) en route do please let me know.

Newsletter No.1: 11th November 2009

This is the first brief newsletter for Habitat Aid’s friends and partners to let you know how we’re getting on as we finish our first 6 months of trading, and to tell you about developments in the business.

Traffic on the website continues to build nicely; Alexa now ranks us around 40,000th in the UK (hurrah!). Our Blog has been good fun, and the odd waif and stray comes across that too. We’ve had a lot of good media coverage which I’m sure has helped.

As we had expected, our conversion rate is low – in other words, although we’re already attracting a surprisingly good number of visitors to the site, a relatively small number are actually shopping. We expect this to improve over time once people become more familiar with the brand, although it is also a symptom of folk using the site as an information source, which is in itself a good thing. Although it’s still very early days, it has also been very pleasing to actually start writing cheques for charities.

We’re continuing to bring new products to the market and come up with new initiatives. We recently launched some historic herb collections with Arne Herbs, which I’m very pleased with, and have added Perrie Hale nursery in Devon to our list of suppliers as well. We are also beginning to interview suppliers and charities to talk about their organizations (and products where applicable) for audio links on the site.

We have expanded our consultancy network to include Biocensus, an ecological consultancy in Bath, and Andrew George, a well known designer who specializes in creating landscapes for butterflies. We will be facilitating a number of courses with expert tutors for landowners and professionals in 2010/11. If you would like to be involved, or might be interested in attending, please let me know. In the meantime we’re also working at our demo projects, which touch wood are looking fine. I’m particularly excited about the meadow at Archie’s farm, which is greening up nicely.

As ever, if you have any ideas for projects, partners, or products for us to look at or help with please do let me know. Thanks for your help and support.