With hefty tree-planting targets to meet, the need for young trees across the UK is sky-rocketing. Helping to meet this demand is British Hardwood Tree Nursery, a family-run company that puts hassle-free ordering and good advice at the heart of its business. Forestry Journal spoke to managing director Andrew Henderson to learn the whole story.

THE UK needs more trees. It may be a message the forestry industry and environmental campaigners have been pushing for decades, but as climate change continues to make its presence felt, governments, companies and the public at large have all begun to sing from the same hymn sheet.

According to the Committee on Climate Change, the UK must commit to planting 30,000 to 50,000 ha per year until 2050 to reach net zero. And while governments are developing their own strategies and setting their own targets, landowners, estates, farmers, and private individuals across all regions are taking the initiative to invest in the planting of forestry for the future.

Helping to meet this surging demand for trees head-on is British Hardwood Tree Nursery, a leading specialist wholesale supplier of bare root plants and accessories.

Now in the full flow of its 31st ‘bare-root season’, British Hardwood Tree Nursery remains a family-run business. Founded in 1989 by the late John Henderson, BHT started out as a small nursery in the Lincolnshire Wolds, run and managed by John and his son, Andrew – now managing director – with vital support from Sue Henderson, John’s wife, in those early years.

Forestry Journal: Field-grown alder.Field-grown alder.

Andrew recalls: “I helped out part time to start with. My father and I were hands-on with all aspects of planting, growing, lifting, picking, packing, dealing with orders and generally managing a business. I know it was at that point it really hit home how important plant welfare and great customer service was to running a successful nursery business.

“We were growing and selling bare-root seedlings and transplants and some feathered trees, gradually building up a strong local client base. It was hard work, but for me it was an incredibly valuable time to learn from my father’s experience as a farmer and nurseryman.

“Being small and nimble meant that any ideas we had to improve efficiency could be put into practice straight away. I remember my father and I designing a rig for the back of the tractor so I could sit on it and plant or lift seedlings while he drove. Simple things like that made a huge difference and that stuck with me. Today I actively encourage my team here at BHT to offer up any ideas that can make a difference, however small they might seem, and always make a point of acting quickly on those ideas.”

The company name and logo has real meaning. Andrew explained: “It was my father who named the company. He was keen to communicate that we sold UK-grown plant stock. It is something I am proud to say we still focus the majority of our efforts on today. He also designed our first company logo – a sketch of an oak tree. Last year, for our 30th anniversary, we took the opportunity to update it – using three oak leaves as a nod to his original design.”

Forestry Journal: Andrew and Zoe Henderson.Andrew and Zoe Henderson.

Andrew hadn’t always planned to be part of the family business, initially training as a chartered surveyor. However, the office location and suit-and-tie uniform didn’t appeal long term. In 1996, when the opportunity arose to support his father full time, he didn’t hesitate to make what would become a career-defining decision.

Andrew’s lack of hesitation could have been down to a chance meeting as a teenager with head forester Bob Holdane at Brocklesby Estate in Lincolnshire.

READ MORE: Uncertainty for plant nurseries ahead of looming Brexit deadline

Andrew said: “My grandfather took me with him to visit Bob and I remember being fascinated by the tales he was telling about the work he did on the estate. I suppose that never went away. At the time, although I was intrigued, I didn’t take it any further because I was heading off to university in Southampton. I do remember him saying that you work in the industry ‘for the love of it, not to make any money’. At the time that may have been true, but nowadays the growth in this sector means that, provided you have the right structure, you can do something you love and have a sustainable business.”

Forestry Journal: Field-grown hawthorn.Field-grown hawthorn.

After his father retired due to ill health in 1998, Andrew suddenly found himself at the helm. He was, however, well placed to navigate the next few years managing the business, because of the experience he had gained working for his father.

It was during this period that BHT expanded to offer self-grown and contract-grown plants and associated planting accessories. The business serviced increasingly larger planting schemes, eventually using its own woodland planting teams.

Andrew said: “While it was a challenge managing multiple teams, I was able to gain more valuable experience at the so-called coal-face – including marking out woodland, planting out hedges, installing plant protection and heeling in plants for storage until ready for planting out. I’ve passed this knowledge on to my team, meaning when they give advice to clients it is based on actual experience, not guesswork.”

At the turn of the century, Andrew relocated the business to the current site, purchasing 6.5 acres of rural farmland. “This permanent base has enabled us to invest in warehousing and gradually build staffing around a focused business model,” he said. “We have grown from having just one small 1,500 sq ft warehouse to having six warehouses with mezzanines and over 25,000 sq ft of storage space for our range of planting accessories and to manage the picking and packing of plant orders. We’ve grown the team from two to 15, with the focus on managing plant welfare and delivering great customer service.

Forestry Journal: British Hardwood Tree Nursery’s head office and warehouse premises.British Hardwood Tree Nursery’s head office and warehouse premises.

“We now specialise in the supply only of contract-grown bare-root and cell-grown plants and associated planting accessories. Working with a select group of nurseries which contract grow our plant stock for us means we can be confident of delivering not only great quality plants but also the right range of plants for our clients.

“As with any business, focus is really important. Delivering the right mix of plants and accessories for our customers means we save them time and money by not having to shop around. Principally trade customers, they include famers and landowners, forestry contractors, landscapers, charitable organisations, landscape architects, specifiers, carbon offset companies and also private individuals. Understanding what your customers want, listening to them and being prepared to always go the extra mile makes a difference and has stood us in good stead over the years – it’s the best piece of advice my father ever gave me and I’d recommend it to anyone.”

Despite the challenging times we live in, the forestry sector is in growth. As investment in planting schemes increases, Andrew explains the important roles bare-root plants and plant protection play.

“The most cost-effective way to plant out a large scheme is to use bare-root plants, also known as whips,” he said. “Whips are typically one or two years old. Being lightweight and small, they are easy to move around a planting site. More importantly, because they are dormant, they can be happily lifted and planted out without any detrimental effect to the plant’ welfare.”

The ‘bare-root season’ is typically triggered once the first frosts hit – usually early to mid November – and runs right through to late March, early April, depending when the weather starts to heat up. So, planting out can safely happen from mid November right through December, January, February and most of March.

Forestry Journal: Founder of BHT, the late John Henderson.Founder of BHT, the late John Henderson.

“The most expensive part of any planting scheme is plant failure – due to pests or climate. Revisiting a site to replace failed plants can be costly and time consuming. This is where plant protection can prove to be your greatest ally. Whether it is protecting against rabbits, deer or even small rodents like voles who like to nibble away at a newly planted whip, plant protection such as tubes or mesh guards helps to shield plants from pests while also providing a mini microclimate. All in all, they can help give young plants the best possible chance of success as they establish themselves.

“I’ve witnessed first-hand what a difference plant protection can make when I managed large planting schemes, which is why I’m proud to say we are an approved Tubex distributor – one of only five in the UK. We hold a wide range in stock, meaning we are able to fulfil customer orders quickly.

“Our industry is no different to others in that customers look for reassurance when they are buying. We are an approved supplier of plant material in accordance with the Forest Reproductive Material Regulations (FRM) and can issue supplier documentation where required, and we are authorised by DEFRA to issue full plant passports, having annual inspections for both accreditations. We are certified under the Woodland Trust’s UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown Assurance scheme, a member of the HTA, and work closely with Confor, Grown in Britain, the NPS and a variety of farmers’ buying groups.

“This autumn I am also pleased to say, following a rigorous inspection, we gained FSC CoC certification. This means clients looking for chain-of-custody traceability and Forestry Stewardship Council reassurance on sustainability can confidently buy their square-sawn tree stakes from us.

“The process to gain FSC CoC certification is a prime example of where teamwork played a key role. All parts of the business were involved in designing the systems and processes required to fulfil the criteria, and it’s thanks to the team effort at BHT that we gained this important accreditation.”

It continues to be a family affair at BHT with Zoe, Andrew’s wife, playing a key role within the business – responsible for HR and training. With a background in farming and agriculture, training and HR, Zoe has an in-depth understanding not only of what BHT customers are looking for, but also of what skills are required to meet their needs. Andrew said: “On-going staff training is a key part of our business; not something we do just once a year. Having well-trained staff, experts in their roles, means we are more likely to be able to deliver what our customers want first time, every time.”  Andrew’s mother Sue is still a regular visitor to BHT HQ and even son Oliver pitches in with packing during school holidays.

Forestry Journal: Hawthorn bundles.Hawthorn bundles.

While the last two decades have been frustratingly lacklustre for planting (particularly in England and Wales), Andrew said that demand is currently heading in only one direction and looks likely to stay that way.

“I believe people have fully awakened to the fact that tree planting is the thing to do,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of corporate enquiries as well, from companies looking at offsetting carbon through tree planting. It’s all very positive.

“I’m working very closely with our contract growers on future demand. Understandably, over the last few years they’ve been hesitant to grow larger numbers, because there hasn’t been the stability in the marketplace. The Countryside Stewardship grant scheme has been quite bureaucratic and put people off wanting to get involved. If we can get stability in the grant structure within the marketplace, we can be confident that the nursery sector and the growers will be very quick to commit to growing the stock.”

With our government now recognising the importance of tree planting, aiming to simplify the system and get more first-timers from the world of agriculture investing in trees, BHT is well positioned to be the first port of call for many new entrants. Anticipating this, Andrew is maintaining his focus on systems and processes, ensuring all avenues are met, including e-commerce, investing in and launching a new website during the company’s 30th anniversary year.

There is no doubt that British Hardwood Tree Nursery has come a long way from its humble beginnings 31 years ago.  

“I’m very proud of everything we’ve achieved over all these years,” Andrew said. “It’s only through time, experience and knowledge of our marketplace that we have grown to be so successful. The team we have is fantastic. Making a successful business is all about getting the right people and we’ve certainly got the right people here. We are well placed to help service the surge in demand for trees throughout the UK.”


Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link: https://www.forestryjournal.co.uk/subscribe/

Thanks – and stay safe.