The National Vegetable Society visit to Eric Wall Ltd.

Eric Wall Ltd is a family owned business.  Eric Wall established the company with his business partner Hugh Stevenson, in 1977.  Eric and Hugh started out together with one hectare of glass in 1977.  Fast-forward to 2016, and Eric Wall Ltd currently operate just less than ten and a half hectares of glass in Barnham, which is near Chichester, in West Sussex; they also operate a small site of just over one hectare of glass, which can be found just outside Deal, in Kent.  Currently, Eric Wall Ltd are making plans to install another glasshouse on their Barnham site.

The company’s namesake, Eric Wall, is now 82.  Eric is as sharp as ever, he is still very much involved in the business, which for the past fifteen to twenty years, has been run by Eric’s son, Chris Wall.

F1 hybrid, grafted cherry tomato plants grown as cordons, pictured inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
F1 hybrid, grafted cherry tomato plants grown as cordons, pictured inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

On a warm, sunny afternoon in June 2016, members of the National Vegetable Society Surrey District Association enjoyed a special visit to Eric Wall Ltd – commercial tomato growers in West Sussex.  Paul Faulkner and Gavin Booth, who work for Eric Wall Ltd, took the National Vegetable Society members on a tour of Eric Wall Ltd’s nursery, where we found out about the methods and techniques Eric Wall Ltd use to grow their tomatoes.

Paul Faulkner from Eric Wall Ltd gave the National Vegetable Society Members an interesting and informative tour of the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd's Barnham site, in Chichester, West Sussex.
Paul Faulkner from Eric Wall Ltd gave the National Vegetable Society Members an interesting and informative tour of the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd’s Barnham site, in Chichester, West Sussex.

Grafted F1 hybrid tomato plants

Eric Wall Ltd’s tomato plants are all grafted plants, using F1 hybrid plants.  Previously Eric Wall propagated all their own plants, but since finding that they can get a far longer growing season by growing commercially propagated, grafted plants, all of their tomato plants are now purchased from Plant Raisers in Hull.

Cherry tomatoes ripening inside one of the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Cherry tomatoes ripening inside one of the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

Using Rockwool as a growing medium

Plant Raisers graft the tomato plants onto specially selected rootstocks, which will ensure the plants have the maximum vigour, and the longest growing period.  Eric Wall Ltd’s tomato plants are all grown above ground, in Rockwool, a man-made material that’s best known for its use as insulation and sound-proofing.  Rockwool is a very absorbent material.  When it arrives at the nursery it is also initially sterile, so there’s no risk of introducing any weed seeds, pests or pathogens to the crops.  Rockwool provides a stable environment for plant growth; it is used as successful growing medium for hydroponic growers.

When placing their order with their propagator, sometimes Eric Wall Ltd will request a five week old plant, other times they will request a seven week old plant – their choice of plant depends on their required turnaround, and the tomato varieties they need to plant first.

When the tomato plants arrive at Eric Wall Ltd from their propagator in December, the plants are usually about 8”-10” high.  The tomato plants arrive in solid cubes of Rockwool.  The tomatoes are then planted into trays of Rockwool in mid-December at Eric Wall Ltd’s nursery, just as the shortest day approaches, after which the light levels start extending, which naturally encourages the plants to grow.  The cotyledon leaf is pinched out, at an early stage, which encourages the plant to produce two stems, both of which will produce tomatoes.

Early on in the tomato plant's life, the cotyledon leaf is pinched out, this action encourages the grafted F1 tomato plants to produce two shoots, both of which will produce tomatoes, and will be grown using the cordon growing method.
Early on in the tomato plant’s life, the cotyledon leaf is pinched out, this action encourages the grafted F1 tomato plants to produce two shoots, both of which will produce tomatoes, and will be grown using the cordon growing method.

Though they use some of the same methods as organic growers, Eric Wall Ltd are not organic growers.  To be certified as organic, one of the nine approved organic control bodies, the best known being the Soil Association, need to assess all aspects of a farmer’s food manufacturing and production, animal welfare, wildlife conservation, storage, product packaging and sales.  Crucially, as well as complying with the restrictions on the types of fertilisers and pesticides that can be used on the crops, a requirement for organic growing is the crops must be grown in the ground.  As Eric Wall Ltd grow their plants in Rockwool, they cannot be classed as organic growers.  Eric Wall Ltd choose to grow in Rockwool, as the growing medium arrives in a sterile state – so there’s no risk of introducing any pests, diseases or pathogens to their crop.  The roots of the tomatoes easily fix into the Rockwool, which is very absorbent and readily retains water.  Eric Wall Ltd only grow tomatoes, so by growing their crops in Rockwool, they avoid the need for crop rotation, which would naturally be impossible for a farm growing only one crop.

A closer look at the cherry tomato plants growing inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd. In this picture you can see the F1 hybrid, grafted plants, which are grown as double cordons, in Rockwool, an absorbent material, best known for it's use in sound-proofing and insulation.
A closer look at the cherry tomato plants growing inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd. In this picture you can see the F1 hybrid, grafted plants, which are grown as double cordons, in Rockwool, an absorbent material, best known for it’s use in sound-proofing and insulation.

Fertiliser

Eric Wall Ltd feed their tomatoes plants using a drip-fed irrigation system, via pipettes, which drip small amounts of liquid fertiliser throughout the day onto the Rockwool and roots of the tomato plants.  The feed starts being given to the tomato plants about an hour after sunrise, and stops an hour before sunset.  During this time, the plants are given small amounts of feed on a regular basis.  Eric Wall Ltd’s tomato growers are able to collect the run-off from the feed in troughs, which are like hanging gutters.  The troughs are sloped towards the end of the nursery, so the run-off from the fertiliser can be analysed, and the growers can ensure the plants are receiving all the nutrients they require for healthy, long-term growth, and the maximum harvest.

A closer look at the base of the cherry tomato plants, growing inside the glasshouses, at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex. The tomato plants are fertilised using a drip feed irrigation system, which operates during daylight hours.
A closer look at the base of the cherry tomato plants, growing inside the glasshouses, at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex. The tomato plants are fertilised using a drip feed irrigation system, which operates during daylight hours.
At Eric Wall Ltd, the F1 hybrid, grafted, tomato plants receive fertiliser via a liquid feed which is drip fed slowly over the course of the day, starting an hour after sunrise, and finishing an hour before sunset.
At Eric Wall Ltd, the F1 hybrid, grafted, tomato plants receive fertiliser via a liquid feed which is drip fed slowly over the course of the day, starting an hour after sunrise, and finishing an hour before sunset.
Eric Wall Ltd's tomato growers are able to collect the run-off from the feed in troughs, which are like hanging gutters. The run off can then be analysed and the growers can ensure the plants are receiving all the nutrients they require. Eric Wall Ltd grow a number of different tomato varieties at their nursery in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Eric Wall Ltd’s tomato growers are able to collect the run-off from the feed in troughs, which are like hanging gutters. The run off can then be analysed and the growers can ensure the plants are receiving all the nutrients they require. Eric Wall Ltd grow a number of different tomato varieties at their nursery in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

Integrated Pest Management

To control pests inside their glasshouse, Eric Wall Ltd use IPM (Integrated Pest Management).  Eric Wall Ltd don’t spray their crops, as although the spraying pesticides would kill the pests, it would also kill their pollinators and any beneficial insects inside their glasshouses.  Instead they use Biological Controls – an effective pest control method that works by introducing natural predators to the glasshouses to control pests such as aphids, glasshouse whitefly, leaf minors, red spider mite etc.

The three most common natural predators Eric Wall Ltd use are Macrolophus, a non-flying insect, which effectively controls whitefly.  Macrolophus will also consume moths such as Tuta absoluta, which is a serious pest of tomato crops, and when these pests are under control it will consume spider mites, aphids and other pests.  To specifically target red spider mite, Eric Wall Ltd employs Phytoseiulus persimilis, which is the natural predator of this pest.  They also use Encarsia formosa, a predatory wasp, to control glasshouse white fly, which is also known by its scientific name of Trialeurodes vaporariorum.

The detritus of cut tomato leaves are intentionally left on the ground when they are newly cut, to allow any beneficial insects time to crawl back onto the actively growing tomato plants. Rows of cherry tomatoes growing inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
The detritus of cut tomato leaves are intentionally left on the ground when they are newly cut, to allow any beneficial insects time to crawl back onto the actively growing tomato plants. Rows of cherry tomatoes growing inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

Tomato pollination

It’s important for Eric Wall Ltd to achieve 100% pollination of their tomatoes to maximise their harvest.  At the time of our visit, inside the glasshouse we visited, there were twenty, to twenty-two beehives.  Each hive can contain up to 200-250 bees. Eric Wall Ltd use native British bees to pollinate their tomatoes.

Eric Wall Ltd use hives of native British bees to pollinate their tomato plants. This is a close up of their demonstration hive, pictured at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Eric Wall Ltd use hives of native British bees to pollinate their tomato plants. This is a close up of their demonstration hive, pictured at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Eric Wall Ltd pollinate their tomato crops using hives of British bees. Their tomato plants are specially grafted using F1 hyrbid tomatoes. Eric Wall Ltd grow a number of different tomato varieties at their nursery in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Eric Wall Ltd pollinate their tomato crops using hives of British bees. Their tomato plants are specially grafted using F1 hyrbid tomatoes. Eric Wall Ltd grow a number of different tomato varieties at their nursery in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

Eric Wall Ltd are a seasonal business, they start picking their tomatoes in March, and usually finish harvesting their crop in the second or third week in November, depending on the weather conditions.  Eric Wall Ltd were hitting their peak production when we visited, this highly productive period lasts from May through to July.

At the end of the growing season, the manufacturer arrives to collect the Rockwool from Eric Wall Ltd.  The used Rockwool is then broken down, so it can be re-used again and recycled.

Paul Faulkner from Eric Wall Ltd, is pictured showing the National Vegetable Society members Eric Wall Ltd's growing crop of cordon grown, cherry tomatoes.
Paul Faulkner from Eric Wall Ltd, is pictured showing the National Vegetable Society members Eric Wall Ltd’s growing crop of cordon grown, cherry tomatoes.

One of the loveliest things about Eric Wall Ltd (apart from their tomatoes of course!) is the company’s ethics towards the environment.  Eric Wall Ltd are keen to encourage biodiversity, they have created a variety of spaces and environments for wildlife to live alongside their glasshouses on the site of their nursery.

What’s also notable is the responsible and caring way Eric Wall Ltd look after, and reward their staff.  Naturally any company that looks after their staff well is rewarded high levels of staff retention, and happy, hard-working, highly skilled, workers who really know, and understand their craft.  There are employees working at Eric Wall Ltd today, that joined the company in 1977, when Eric Wall Ltd was founded.  Even the ‘seasonal’ workers at Eric Wall Ltd usually come back each year, and spend an average of seven years of service working at the company.  Once a member of staff has worked at Eric Wall Ltd for a year, they become eligible for Eric Wall Ltd’s company profit share scheme.  The company recognises that they are paying more than their competitors for their staff, but they feel that this is highly advantageous for them.  Maintaining and fostering the skill of their workforce is worth the extra investment, and is reflected in the quality of the tomatoes Eric Wall Ltd produce.

A closer look at the layering method Eric Wall Ltd use to train their tomato plants, inside their glasshouses at their site in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
A closer look at the layering method Eric Wall Ltd use to train their tomato plants, inside their glasshouses at their site in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
A closer look at the layering technique Eric Wall Ltd use to train their tomato plants, inside their glasshouses, at their site in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
A closer look at the layering technique Eric Wall Ltd use to train their tomato plants, inside their glasshouses, at their site in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Cherry tomatoes ripening inside one of the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Cherry tomatoes ripening inside one of the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd, in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

LEAF – Linking Environment And Farming

LEAF – which stands for Linking Environment And Farming, is an organisation that works to inspire and recognise sustainable farming, that benefits both the local environment and community.  In May 2015, Eric Wall Ltd were thrilled to be recognised by LEAF, when they were awarded LEAF Demonstration Farm status  a first for the glasshouse growing industry.

Eric Wall Ltd collect the rainwater that falls onto their glasshouses.  They store the rainwater in a reservoir, and then use the collected rainwater to irrigate the crops.  Reed beds have been planted in and around the reservoir, to encourage wildlife, such as swans and ducks, which nest on the reed beds.  

Eric Wall Ltd has plans to create a small wetland area to encourage more wildlife, such as frogs, toads and newts.  As part of this on-going work, a quarterly wildlife and environmental report is produced for Eric Wall Ltd by Michael Le Masurier, which records the wildlife and floral activity on Eric Wall Ltd’s site, and looks to identify any improvements or adjustments that could be made.

At Eric Wall Ltd to encourage biodiversity, they have set up bee and bug hotels, installed a variety of different nest boxes for different bird species across the site, created a wild flower meadow bank, and other wild flower areas, as well as planting trees on their site.  Michael Le Masurier carries out butterfly, moth, and other surveys on the site where their nursery is based, to monitor the effect of their improvements.

A meadow bank at Eric Wall Ltd. This is one of the areas Eric Wall Ltd have designed to create habitats for wildlife and encourage biodiversity in the areas surrounding their glasshouses.
A meadow bank at Eric Wall Ltd. This is one of the areas Eric Wall Ltd have designed to create habitats for wildlife and encourage biodiversity in the areas surrounding their glasshouses.

Over the years that Eric Wall Ltd have been in business, there have been many changes, they have gone from supplying wholesale markets, to supplying the supermarkets, which are now 98% of their business. Eric Wall Ltd also supplies local restaurants and farm shops with tomatoes.

Eric Wall Ltd supply Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Asda with tomatoes.  Look out for their name on the packs of tomatoes you buy – if you wish to purchase Eric Wall Ltd’s tomatoes, look for a label that shows that the tomatoes were supplied by Chris Wall.

Rows of cherry tomatoes growing inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.
Rows of cherry tomatoes growing inside the glasshouses at Eric Wall Ltd in Barnham, Chichester, West Sussex.

Links and articles that may interest you……

To visit Eric Wall Ltd’s website, please click here.

To visit the National Vegetable Society’s website, please click here.

To visit LEAF’s website, please click here.

To read about beautiful, edible plants, please click here.

For tips on how to save money while gardening, please click here.

To read about terrariums and bottle gardens, please click here.

For gardening advice and lovely ideas of what you could do in your garden, or at your allotment from mid-August to mid-September, please click here.

For information on beautiful gardens to visit in Surrey, Hampshire and West Sussex, please click here.

For tips on how to protect your plants from slugs and snails, please click here.

For information on how to help hedgehogs, please click here.

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