Wednesday, 31 December 2014

...As we greet 2015.

12 months ago I wrote about my resolution to make a conscious effort to enjoy life more. Back then I had no idea that 2014 would be filled with so many twists and turns, good things and bad things. I'm pleased to say that did get to enjoy life more; 2014 was the year I visited more gardens, took more pictures and met more great gardeners, and I certainly enjoyed that!
RHS Rosemoor is always worth a visit
The changing of year seems to be a popular time to make predictions for the coming 12 months. I'm not going to fall into this trap for 2015, except to say that I will certainly be enjoying plants and gardening! I have some strange goals for this year- I want to see Rehderodendron macrocarpum in flower and in fruit (I know, weird!)- and I want to start garden visiting much earlier and see more of the early season displays in Cornish gardens. I don't know why I've missed them in the past; somehow it's always too late before I get to any serious garden visiting.
Cold and frosty morning to close 2014
I feel that this is the right time to thank all those who've supported me during a challenging year. Without the advice of people who've faced their own challenges and won through, my own situation would have been overwhelming. I'm indebted to a lot of people who have shown great kindness and generosity of spirit.

2014 has taught me first hand that a lot can happen in a year, but I certainly hope that 2015 will bring great things to a lot of great people. Happy new year to all, and let's raise a toast to 2015, a year of great gardening.


(If you're looking for a gardener near the Devon/Cornwall border then you can try me at

Monday, 22 December 2014

As we bid farewell to 2014...

Even though the 'round robin' letter is no longer socially approved of in modern times it still seems to be customary to review the year, so here we go.

2014 has been a year that will stay in my mind for a very long time. 12 months ago I was very much aware that life is about more than work, and I was resolute in my need to lose some of the extra weekend work I was doing. A seven day working week all year is not good for anyone, and I've felt much better in myself by working more sensibly and by getting out and getting back in touch with horticulture as a private interest as well as a career. Visiting gardens and horticultural events during the year, from the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia show at RHS Rosemoor back in spring and my trip the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens (which I'm afraid I will still keep calling 'The Hillier Arboretum'), right through to an early December wander around Rosemoor just to see what's happening... being able to recharge my interest and love of horticulture has made life much better.
Rhododendron 'Cinnkeys-Minterne' seen at RHS Rosemoor
This year also saw the first rare plant fair at Tregrehan in Cornwall. Now if you haven't already been to the garden at Tregrehan then I won't spoil it for you; I will simply say that if you like plants you need to visit! The rare plant was almost overwhelming with its range of plants, many of which had simply never been seen for sale anywhere. If a 6ft (2m) evergreen Polygonatum from Vietnam (I think) appeals to you, or maybe the bold foliage of tree-like 'should be hardy' Euphorbia stygiana ssp. santamariae appeals more, Tregrehan's rare plant fair will be the highlight of your year. I am delighted to say that this event will happen in 2015, and will be on Sunday the 31st of May. Best of all, if you do finish your shopping early then you can go for a walk around a world class garden too!
The rare plant fair at Tregrehan
Back in the summer I wrote a piece for the Old Horts book 'How to grow a Gardener'. I wrote about horticultural production and retail, something I have over 10 years experience with. I stand by everything I said in my piece, that horticultural production and retail is a surprisingly challenging part of the industry but is incredibly rewarding for anyone who is passionate about understanding plants, how they work and how they grow in gardens.

It was a sad irony that my copy of the Old Horts book arrived just days after my employer announced that it was shedding jobs and abandoning plant production.

I have to be very careful not to say too much about this process because I signed a contract preventing me from naming or discussing my former employer in the public domain or with any form of media for my entire life. Nonetheless the process was incredibly grim, and watching as a decade of work is dismantled by other people is not a nice experience, especially over an artificially protracted period. That chapter of my life ended on the 7th of November, drawing to a close a full 10 years work for that company.

It was during the final weeks of my employment that I experienced first hand just how great gardeners are. The process of re-homing the more precious plants on the nursery introduced me to some of the great figures of Cornish horticulture, all of whom helped me to keep my sanity during what was possibly the most disheartening time of my horticultural career to date. It was the advice and support of these people that gave me the confidence to move forward.
Poppies at Cliffe, a garden in North Devon
Now I've started a new chapter in my career and I've started my own business doing a mixture of gardening and horticultural consultancy. Although I've had something of a slow start my experience so far has reinforced this as a good decision; I love gardening, and using my skills and knowledge every day is fantastic and has given me renewed passion for learning more and more. I'm feeling incredibly optimistic about the future, and I hope that once my books are filled with happy customers that I will feel the same satisfaction working in gardens that I did when I was working for a nursery.

2015 will bring its own challenges, but I'm really feeling good about the year to come. I would like to take this opportunity to thank a lot of people, the people who've kept me sane and supported me during my bad times, but also the people who I've met at shows and fairs and who have shared their own love of plants and gardens.

Thank you.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Talking shop, but by what name?

I get a great sense of pride from growing plants for other like-minded gardeners. To grow a plant from a cutting/seed/young plant, pot it, train it and nurture it so that it can be enjoyed by someone else is a great achievement; waving goodbye to a trolley full of plants that you've grown is a great feeling! There are many others that feel the same sort of satisfaction in what they grow; these are the people who own, run or work for independent nurseries around the UK.

More experienced gardeners know the benefits of buying from independent nurseries. Typically a diverse and interesting range of plants (often at competitive prices) attracts gardeners to a particular nursery, while the quality of the plants, advice and service that they receive brings them back for more. I don't think there's any major competition between garden centres and nurseries, providing that they aren't trying to compete on each other's strengths. A trip to a nursery is a different experience from a visit to a garden centre, so there should in an ideal world be space for both types of business to exist in the market.
Magnolia figo, not seen in a garden centre!
The question is whether or not the word 'nursery' should mean something specific. I'm not aware of any nurseries calling themselves a 'garden centre', but I do keep coming across garden centres calling themselves nurseries, and it's this that annoys me.

Defining a garden centre is quite easy; a garden centre is a business that sells plants that it hasn't produced itself (i.e. it has bought in from wholesalers), along with a range of other things either to do with gardening or, quite often, things unconnected with gardening.

Defining a nursery is a little more difficult; at its simplest definition a nursery is a business that grows and then sells its own plants (either as a wholesale or retail business), but in truth most nurseries water that down at least a little. The majority of nurseries grow most of the plants they sell but also introduce plants from elsewhere to improve the range for customers, typically adding houseplants or bedding from outside to their own produced range of hardy stock. Some nurseries increasingly fall into buying in plants from elsewhere to replace their own stock, buying in plants that they could and should be growing themselves in order to cut labour costs or to cover up gaps in staffing. My question is simply whether or not there should be a clear definition of 'nursery'?
Plants being grown at a nursery
My motive for asking this question could be put down to protectionism. In my experience nurseries are often special places where the plants are the priority for the business. Although many nurseries now boast a café and a shop selling both gifts and garden tools/products, it is still the plants that are the main draw of the business. The lure of being able to find a special unknown plant and get the best quality advice from people who've grown the plant and have experience with it... that's what gives nurseries their status with gardeners, and it's this status that some garden centres seem to try and capitalise on.

A business that buys in all of its plants to provide greenery around its shop selling exclusive (expensive) giftware and its award winning café isn't a nursery, it's a garden centre. It cannot claim to have the plant range and expertise of a nursery, nor should it try to. Nonetheless the customer sees the word 'nursery' and is led to believe that they are buying plants from a proper nursery, with the benefits that entails.
Old varieties like Cistus 'Enigma' can be found in nurseries  
In the meantime it devalues the good work of independent nurseries who must struggle in the face of the pretenders. Should there be a proper definition of 'nursery', not to penalise businesses who buy their plants in but to protect people who are growing their plants themselves?

I don't think it's reasonable to put a specific percentage on nurseries, but I personally think that a nursery should be a business that grows no less than 70% of what it sells, allowing bedding etc. to be bought in but keeping the business true to its name, and I think that an alternative name like 'plant centre' would be more appropriate for a business that grows a small percentage of plants itself, so isn't a nursery but also isn't a garden centre. The term 'plant centre' tells the customer that plants are a priority for the business (as they would be for any business that grows anything itself), but keeping the word 'nursery' for businesses involved primarily in production.

So what do you think? Add your comments here or on Twitter/Facebook.