Charles Williams

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Charles WilliamsCharles is the senior partner of Burncoose Nurseries.

He also owns and runs Caerhays Castle Gardens and Caerhays Estate. Charles’ great grandfather bred the original x williamsii strain of camellias at Caerhays in the 1920s. Caerhays are the holders of The Plant Heritage National  Collection of Magnolias.

Charles is a member of the RHS Rhododendron and Camellia sub committee and has put forward many new magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias for registration and awards.  Charles is the proud recipient of the coveted RHS Victoria Medal of Honour.


This is only partly a piece about lockdown and COVID-19 which we all hope is now a receding, but still very unpleasant, memory. Instead it is intended as a massive and emphatic thank you to our existing, and huge numbers of new customers, who have supported us with their orders during the many weeks of lockdown.

Winning the RHS Virtual Chelsea Plant of the Decade competition with our 2015 entry – Viburnum plicatum ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’ – without all the expense and effort of attending the Chelsea Flower Show itself was a triumph. A triumph, however, entirely due to all your online votes for Kilimanjaro Sunrise and Burncoose. 

We have been incredibly lucky to have been amongst the very few UK businesses which have (so far) come through the pandemic with our business actually growing and expanding. The performance of our management team and staff has helped us make this ‘luck’ with seven day working weeks, developing new procedures and techniques to pack more orders more quickly in the packing sheds, and a superhuman effort to succeed in a crisis. We could not have coped without the family all learning to pack either.

In the past the largest number of orders we have ever coped with in a single month was 2,000. Throughout lockdown we were processing 3,000 orders a month. We quickly realised that we had to limit your online orders to 80 to 120 per day simply to avoid collapsing under the strain.

This, we know, frustrated and delayed those trying to order online. We know also that many of you were equally annoyed by the inability of our reduced office staff to answer your telephone calls more quickly. What we do know, from your customer feedback, was that, in the main, we did manage to process, pack and deliver your orders within our normal timescales even if the courier deliveries were, initially, slower than usual.

Much of lockdown was also spent learning to work from home. We have now completed the nearly 700 online care articles about the individual genuses and species of plants which we sell with photographs of how these plants will grow in your gardens. We now have over 500 videos online giving topical tips and practical garden advice. The number of visitors to our website, in April and May alone, was 675,000 and tens of thousands of people were viewing the site each month for plant advice, and information as well as enjoying our ever expanding and improving in house photographic library of plants.

This all takes our breath away but, the challenge for us is now to persuade all our many new customers to stay with us in the future. We can readily see from Trustpilot comments that some of our competitors in the plant mail order business have not fared so well during the pandemic. We hope that the early September discount offer to all our COVID customers will have done that.

We wonder what might have happened without the arrival of superfast broadband to Burncoose, the exemplary hands on daily management of the website by Forgecom, or our accounts manager who had to deal with a completely new way of doing everything in lockdown.

The prevailing view is that the cashless society and the rise of internet mail order businesses has been brought forward by eight to ten years by the pandemic. This seriously calls into question how much longer we need to continue producing our annual paper catalogue?

The modernisation of the nursery was forced on us by the volume of new orders. Our packing sheds are now nearly paperless and, with new equipment and better layouts, fewer people can pack more of your orders on a production line. While the nursery was shut to the public we have managed an overhaul of the tunnels and pathways in the walled garden and pictorial labelling is now the norm. Progress in the new glasshouse at the sales point in the nursery was, however, stalled by lockdown.

As we move to the new ‘normality’ of business after lockdown the new and ongoing challenge for us as a nursery is to reduce our own carbon footprint and to explain to our customers how planting our trees and shrubs can improve everyone’s overall carbon gain. You can read more about our plans and view a video about all this elsewhere in the catalogue or online. We have much more to do in using only electric vehicles in the nursery, recycling our water, and moving further away from peat use in our potting composts. A new carbon tax on businesses and individuals may well become a reality in the next 10 years and we need to be carbon neutral, or to be generating a demonstrable net carbon gain by 2030, if we possibly can.

Even without the pandemic it has been a strange year for gardeners. Record rainfall and flooding in January and February followed by an eight to ten week lockdown drought from April to early June. Without the major disaster of this unforgettable year we would all have been complaining (as gardeners usually do) about the weather!

Thank you all so much for showing your confidence in our business. This has, in turn, enabled us to expand, and become more confident in what has been a year of ‘fighting to win’.

It is still, of course, quite possible that there is further nastiness and recession to come for all of us.

So, please, stay safe with plants! Emailing us is quicker and more productive than using the telephone.

Yours sincerely

Charles H Williams  VMH 

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