Caitriona Cullen, co-founder Cullen Nurseries, Here, she gives us the low down on how the firsts seeds were planted, how up-skilling has paid dividends and top tips for hedgerow planting.
Here at Cullen Nurseries we are growers and suppliers of native trees and hedging. We supply to farmers, homeowners, commercial business and community groups and we offer nationwide delivery.
Robert is originally from the small town of Hacketstown in Co. Carlow and I am from an even smaller village just across the county border, in Knockananna, Co. Wicklow. I would consider myself very rural and Rob, in my eyes is one of those country townies. Rob’s dad worked in horticulture all his life and Rob’s love and interest in Horticulture was nurtured from a very early age. Although he and his brother Damien grew up in the town they both had a strong love and interest in farming, machinery and a love of the land I suppose. They reared pet lambs in the back yard of their terraced house in the early eighties. It was a loss making exercise by all accounts but they were only kids and it kept them entertained and occupied. I, on the other hand had first hand experience of sheep as I grew up surrounded by them. My Dad always kept about 100 of them and apart from the excitement of shearing day and dipping day I had no affection or love of sheep. The smell and the hard work that went along with sheep turned me off for life. As far as I am concerned, You’re always in the wrong gap with sheep.
Fast forward to 2009 and Robert and I were anxious to get our own roots down. A small holding came to the market, it was half way between both our home places and the soil and ground were ideal for our intentions – a tree nursery. At the time, Robert was landscaping full time, he was landscaping gardens and growing a small amount of trees and hedging to supply into these gardens. He was renting ground to grow the plants and it just made sense that we would buy ground to build a home on and to start the nursery. For the first few years, the nursery grew organically, half an acre at a time, keeping up with the demand for his work and some local sales. Then in 2013, we had more left then we needed so Robert put an advert on Done Deal selling trees.
The following morning the phone rang and it was a lovely man from Knock in Co. Mayo, about 4 hours away but the total order was €600 so it was worth the journey. He left that following Saturday morning with his Dad Peter, a cooler box of sandwiches, lovingly made by his Mam the night before and a flask of tea. There was no need for a picnic as the customers had a fry waiting for them when they arrived in Knock at 8.30am that Saturday morning. They returned home with a full belly and a full pocket and Cullen Nurseries was born.
As regards, diversification, we actually diversified into farming rather than the other way round. We married at the end of 2012. Part of the reason I married Rob was that he wasn’t a farmer, see above comment re sheep!! The ink wasn’t dry on the marriage papers when my Dad suggested that if Rob got a Herd number my Dad would sell him a few cheap cattle! It was cattle rather than sheep and at the time I was working in the beef industry so I agreed! We got a herd number and Bord Bia approval and we were farmers. The herd grew year on year, starting with 3, then 6,9,12,16 and 20. We originally started with heifers and moved into bullocks in 2020. We usually buy in from the mart in April, keep on grass over the Summer and fatten for the factory for March or April the following year. Traditionally we farm Limousin and Charolais but have fattened Aurbrac also. Due to the growing herd we began renting land to farm the cattle. In late 2020 we were lucky enough to be in a position to purchase this plot of land. We liquidated 17 of the cattle in late 2020 to get the purchase of the land across the line so the herd was back down to 3. We will build again over the coming years, like we have done before.
A typical day involves the work of being a Mammy, getting the little people out to school. We have three young boys, Bobby, Rory and Joe. Thankfully, all the boys have an interest in the nursery and help out so much in the Summer months and on school holidays. Depending on the time fo the year, I could be delivering, potting, staking and tying trees or in the office. Robert is in the nursery exclusively lifting trees and sorting orders from November right through to end of the bare root season in March. The end of March and into April is then spent working on the process of lining it. This involves getting the ground ready and lining in the thousands of plants that will be ready for sale over the following 18 months to 2 years. From the end of April onwards, Rob will be out doing landscaping works and has maintenance contracts for grass cutting in football fields, schools and commercial business properties. The farming is done in the evening.
In the Winter months, I would do a lot of deliveries to our customer base all over Ireland. In the height of bare root season there could be at least nine loads a week to be done, so we have someone who drives part time during these months. I also spend a full day a week in the office keeping on top of the admin, the finances, marketing and sales, processing orders out to the yard. I am in the office every evening for an hour, planning routes and deliveries for the following day.
From mid April onwards when all the lining out is finished, I shift my focus to selling my range of potted hedging. I started this business during Covid in response to the demand for gardening products during the pandemic. I looked at the opportunities that existed for me to earn a living whilst being at home with our small family during the lockdown.
The plant liners are usually potted in October and stored in the polytunnel over the Winter ready for dispatch from mid May onwards. There is always ongoing crop maintenance and management throughout the Summer with weeding, staking, tying up and training trees.
Everyday is different dependant on the weather, the time of the year and what needs to be done in the nursery or the office.
Whitethorn hedging would be the biggest seller for us with the farmers. Traditionally farmers made up about 70% of our customer base. However this past year, The end of the GLAS and REPS schemes, the uptake in the gardening during the pandemic and the shift to online sales has seen the homeowner and gardener make up about 50% of our business, farmers would now be about 40% while commercial business and community groups make up about 10%.
Even though there are currently no schemes farmers are still planting. The hedging and trees that were planted a few years ago as part of the various schemes are now mature and the farmer is seeing the benefits of this planting, which encourages them to continue to plant, in smaller numbers granted but there is a still a demand for whitethorn and native hedging. We have seen a massive demand this year for the Native plants such as Guelder Rose, Spindle, Hazel, Crab and Holly.
The plan for the next 5 years is to continue with the expansion and to plant the entire 8 acres of the land we purchased. This will mean renting an additional parcel in order for us to continue to farm. Machinery and infrastructure will be a priority to make sure we can use our time as effectively as possible. In June 2020 we purchased a Kubota ATV and it has been a game changer for trips in and out to the nursery, saving time and making nursery life so much easier. In our line of business there are machines, ploughs, rotovators, lining out machines etc that are only used for a small time window in the year, but having dependable machines in good working order to get the task done as time and cost effectively as possible is paramount. Going forward I will need to increase the amount of polytunnels I have to meet the demand for the potted hedging.
As regards, game changing technology or machinery for sales or production, we haven’t purchased machinery but we have invested our time and resources in upskilling and educating ourselves. I have taken part in a lot of courses, seminars and training events from finance, cash flow, right through to sales and marketing, which has helped us immensely to navigate and manage the expansion of the business. We availed of a trading online voucher from Carlow LEO which enabled us to get online and reach our customers digitally during the pandemic. I cannot praise the Carlow Local Enterprise Office enough for the supports and advice they provide new and growing businesses. I was also very lucky to be chosen for the Acorns 6 programme for my business of the potted hedging. This network of business women in rural Ireland has been such a rewarding experience for me. I have friends and colleagues for life from the programme.
Top Tips for Growing Hedges
- Look at what’s growing in your area, this will give you a real indicator of what thrives in your area.
- The first year is always the slowest. When a hedge is planted it takes time to anchor in and get going. Be patient.
- Keep the area clean and free of weeds. Hedges will thrive when they don’t have competition from weeds.
- Potted hedging can be planted all year round and tend to be more expensive as there is more handling and production costs involved.
- Bare root hedging is usually sold and planted from November through to March.
- The earlier you get your bare root hedging in the better, it draws moisture and nutrients from the ground and stores them for the growing season.
- Hedges, plants, all life needs water. If there comes a dry time, water your trees and hedging to prevent loss.
- Keeping a hedge well trimmed and cut encourages growth and thickness. Hedges should be trimmed annually for best condition.
- After planting it is important to keep your hedge well walked in. As plants are usually planted in Winter months when the weather is less favourable, plants tend to get blown around and move a little after planting. Keeping these plants well walked in will anchor them in for the growth phase.
- General rule of thumb for planting smaller hedging plants is 3 plants per metre for a single row and 5 plants per metre in a staggered row
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