The Sharp End: How green was my day

Pricking out and potting on, Dave Waller sings the petunia Wonderwave blues.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'm off to flex my green fingers at Hyde Park's plant nursery. I don't have high hopes. My desk plant, Henry, the only living thing I've ever nurtured, vanished during our last office move. He'd clearly had enough and uprooted. My day starts at 7.30. Early, but it's not so bad strolling across a dewy Hyde Park, with leafless trees silhouetted in the mist. A few straight-backed toffs trot past on horses, in full riding gear. Clearly, popping out to get some milk takes a different form in these parts.

The nursery is 100 metres north of the Serpentine, the park's landmark lake, but it's well hidden by trees. I locate the gate and find myself among a hectare of greenhouses. It's a surreal experience, stumbling on a covert horticultural enterprise in the middle of a huge park, itself an oasis in our bustling capital.

Mike Jones, the nursery's manager, tells me they nurture 1,200 different varieties, producing 500,000 plants a year. As well as supplying the Royal Parks, he has to grow the 12,000 geraniums that brighten the grounds of Buckingham Palace, perhaps the world's most photographed flower beds. And these have to be an exact match for the red of the guards' uniforms. 'Get it wrong and it's the Tower for us,' Mike quips.

We tour the greenhouses and, through row after row of plants, Mike displays an encyclopedic knowledge of Latin names. Some varieties aren't grown anywhere else, the nursery essentially acting as the gene bank. It's a vast logistical exercise, a balancing act that involves holding some plants back, pushing some on and guiding others. 'Thank god for computers,' he says. 'I'd need one hell of a fag packet to write all this on.'

My first job is pinching out, moving from plant to plant to pluck bits off and encourage bushier growth. It's like painting the Forth Bridge, says Mike. Looking at the endless forest stretching off into the distance, I can see the challenge.

My fellow pinchers are a mellow bunch. Molika, like most of Mike's team, was a summer casual who stayed. He's a softly spoken African who 'just likes plants'. He likes Catherine Tate, too. But anything must seem entertaining after a day's pinching. It's hardly taxing work. Backed by Capital Radio, I settle into a rhythm, with Will Smith urging me to 'get jiggy with it'.

At lunch, Mike explains how the work involves a lot of trial and error. You have to improvise solutions, like putting seeds in the fridge to get them to germinate. 'Some things only root in peat compost, others root in peat-free, and some only root in sand.' Is he still talking about plants? Mike used to lodge within the park, and I suggest he's probably seen a few colourful things in his time there. Turns out there have been a couple of murders and a hanging. But as he points out, for 16 years in an open space in the centre of London, things could have been worse.

After lunch, I join Mark and Pepe, two lads in T-shirts and jeans, in the propagation greenhouse. We have to take a tiny shoot from one tray, pricking it out of the soil with a little chopstick, and bed it in another. Over and over and over again. 'There is a mundane side to it,' says Pepe, a reluctant emissary of the dole office eight years ago, after previously holding a stressful role as co-ordinator at the Big Issue. I'm given the petunia Wonderwave Blues, which inspires a song: 'Woke up this mornin' (ba-da-ba-da-bap), pricking little shoots loose (ba-da-ba-da-bap), I got the petunia Wonderwave blues ...'

But the convivial team seems content. Everyone loves plants and enjoys the hypnotic tranquility. Pepe even describes his sense of ownership when he sees the flowers out in the parks. The only problem, it seems, is the pay. Team members earn from £5.74 to £7.16 an hour, depending on experience.

By 2pm, the sun is beating down through the glass. Working in a greenhouse is like - well, working in a greenhouse. After another hour of tedious pinching out, I'm relieved to go and meet Dave, master of the park's hanging baskets, to spend my last hour coming up with fresh ways for flower arrangements.

I'd told several people that I found the work peaceful, and was challenged several times to try it for a fortnight. I won't be doing that. When it hits half-four I'm glad to wander through the gates. Outside, thousands of work-shy slackers are lounging around in the park, rollerblading and buying ice-creams, unaware of the hours dragging slowly on in those enormous greenhouses. The flowers, however, look lovely.

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