When Heather Watson walked out of the Bell Street shop on Saturday, more than a few tears were shed by staff and customers. Thirty-three years of growing and selling plants, and she’s off to develop her lovely 3/4 acre Kirk Street garden.
Watson’s was all tomatoes when Heather started in 1983. Three big glasshouses with ten smaller propagating houses. In those days Watson’s supplied the market garden trade sending plants throughout the land. Over 750,000 tomato plants produced by Don, Pat and a handful of staff including Heather. “Three months pricking out tomatoes &慭瀻 capsicums” she remembers. “We worked hard, but laughed a lot. Thinning veg in the glasshouse in summer, the temperature got over 1000” she remembers.
“I used to bike in from the beach to work on my 10-speed. I sped past some college children waiting for the bus. ‘There goes Super Gran’, they said. I got the wobbles, laughing.”
“How has it changed?” I asked. “It’s now a more modern operation, with fork lifts, racks so you don’t have to bend. It’s still a family business, but now it’s cell phones and emails, but you have to move with the times…”
Today the empire has expanded. ‘Young Don’ runs the operation at Lethbridge Road, Te Horo, where they produce over 55 million bedding plants on a semi-automated scale, positioning Watson’s in NZ’s top ten producing nurseries.
In 2013, Watson’s opened a new shop at the Bell Street property. Previously, Heather and faithful dog Lucy had run the tiny shop out of a shed, potting up seedlings when she wasn’t tending the till. “It got to the stage where we had to build a new shop or get out of retail” she recalls.
The shop now supports a growing operation which has diversified to offer a wide range of vegetable seedlings, potted colours, perennials, fruit trees, natives and bagged vegetables.
Heather says customers come from far and wide: Wellington, Whanganui, Masterton, even Hawkes Bay. There was a time when Watson’s supplied Cyclamen to Woolworths stores throughout NZ. Now Woolworths have vanished, florists don’t want potted colour, and cyclamen production has dwindled. The home gardener still wants vegetable plants, and today I saw broccoli, lettuce, leeks, onions, cauliflower, cabbage and more, while the range of garden plants covers the entire spectrum.
What about bagged vegetables? “Well”, said Heather, “with retirement villages everywhere, the demand for bagged growing-on veges is huge. We sell capsicums in bags to grow outside the unit, together with hanging tomato baskets.”
“We call her Mrs Slocombe, from Are You Being Served?” says colleague Adrienne Carpenter. “She’s my walking encyclopaedia, I’m not sure how we’ll cope without Heather. I’ll have a list of questions for her and hope she’ll pop in to answer them”.
Next month, there’s a party for Heather at the Quarter Acre cafe. Lots of reminiscences shared and the odd tear no doubt. Looking towards a future without one of Ōtaki’s favourite daughters as she’s farewelled into retirement.
Eventually older brother Don Watson will hang up his propagating dibber and pass the enterprise on to Young Don. But Watson’s will be here in Ōtaki for the rest of our lives.
An Ōtaki treasure.
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