There is a plant nursery in Surrey called Morris & Stevens. It is a large, sprawling nursery/garden centre with two or three substantial polytunnels protecting plants from winter wet and frost, and what looks like acres of pot-grown herbaceous perennials sitting on woven ground cover. There are weeds in the pots and elsewhere, muddy patches, piles of discards and empty pots, broken crates and small mountains of logs.
It is a ramshackle nursery and I find visiting it deeply comforting, while exciting and satisfying at the same time. Deeply comforting, because it confirms what I have always suspected: Lea Gardens is not the only ramshackle nursery in the United Kingdom.
Exciting, because there is always treasure to be found. Last November I was able to cross several items off my “badly wanted” list.
Satisfying, because the plants at Morris & Stevens cost a fraction of those to be found in non-ramshackle nurseries or garden centres.
There is a vital difference between a plant nursery and a garden centre. Plant nurseries actually grow the plants they sell, while most garden centres buy them from nurseries, put them on a shelf, double, treble, or, in some cases, quadruple their price, and sell them. Garden centre plants always look pristine and perfect, while Lea Gardens plants, grown entirely out of doors, rarely if ever look pristine and perfect.
It all started as a plant nursery more than thirty years ago, then, as demand increased beyond capacity, it turned for a few years into a combination of nursery/garden centre. Not a good idea, as plants straight out of a southern polytunnel tend not to adjust well to our wonderful Shetland climate. So Lea Gardens headed down the nursery only path again.
Then, four years ago, I simply couldn’t bear the thought of yet another season spent propagating, potting up and potting on, pruning, feeding, top-dressing and repetitive labelling. But, far worse, my garden had become sadly neglected because there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do justice to both. One had to go and the garden won hands down.
And then came WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) and its wonderful volunteers. Over the next three years the garden underwent considerable renovation and expansion and late this winter, I decided it was after all possible to do both. My little lean-to greenhouse and its heated propagator were cranked up in mid February and Lea Gardens went back into production. Now the coldframes and greenhouse shelves are filled with promise once more – long-term promise. Some of the treasures we have raised from our own and exchange seed will take at least a year, in some cases two, three or four to reach flowering size.
And that’s where a good friend of mine keeps shaking his head. Why don’t I just grow what the “punters” want? Bright annuals or short-lived perennials that can be churned out in a matter of months, even weeks and are bound to fly off the shelves?
He’s a business man and he’s right of course. But I don’t like petunias. I wouldn’t enjoy growing them. I’m hooked body and soul on the slow plant movement, plants that take time to mature, plants that are long-lived and become permanent fixtures in the garden. Seeing a much-loved plant appear above ground again after a long, bleak winter is pure joy, and something I couldn’t do without.
Having turned a blind eye to the nursery and surrounding area, the chaos of pots, fertiliser bags, watering buckets and plants – dead and alive – for four years, I suddenly could bear it no longer and embarked on a major face-lift, which is a long-term and highly rewarding project.
I’m finding treasure. All kinds of treasure. Once the grass and weeds are peeled from the compost of a pot, plants miraculously appear, all manner of plants: Trollius, Astilbes, Incarvillea, Bulbinella, lily bulbs, tiny alpines, all clinging on to life in the face of adversity.
Hideous shrubs, starved and straggly, look almost good enough to buy after pruning, re-potting, or where they still fit their vessel, feeding, weeding and top-dressing. Clearing the debris of weeds and broken pots from the sales aisles and replacing them with neat rows of handsome plants, makes me feel like a little girl playing shop.
We’re getting there – a great transformation is taking place, Lea Gardens looks a little less ramshackle now, but will never again be a garden centre. We’ll be a plant nursery with everything grown here and all but the most difficult subjects propagated in situ. There are enough plant shops around the place already. And there won’t be any of those day-glow satellite-dish-sized labels either. The plants will speak for themselves and, what’s more, people can actually see them – in all their glory – in the garden – and not just imprisoned in a pot.
While the gardens’ ramshackleness has somewhat diminished, the gardener looks
rather worse for wear. For the best of a month I’ve spent the cool evenings
potting, trimming, feeding etc., wearing a strange semi-waterproof
bronze-coloured coat, and one of Anna’s childhood hats – bright purple felt with pink flowers. My friend Alex dropped in unannounced and told me I looked like somebody who’d escaped from the secure unit of a mental institution.
I was initially going to call this offering ‘Higgledy-piggledy’, but that word or whatever you call it still has a highly traumatic effect on me. It came up in conversation just after my wedding in 1979 – the context escapes me – and when I asked my mother-in-law what it meant, she answered: “that’s what your house is like…” Just as well she can’t see it in its present state…..
Lea Gardens and nursery are open daily from 2-5pm
And here’s what’s looking good just now: astilbes, purple loosestrife, hostas, various cultivars of “multi-coloured” broom (Cytisus scoparius), Incarvillea delavayi (hardy gloxinia) in bud, Lilium regale in bud (five-year old plants raised from seed), Azalea ‘Blue Danube’ and azaleas from the Glendoick small mammal series, large dragon willows and fuchsia (red and white) in 15 litre pots for instant impact and, last but not least a Hypericum (Rose of Sharon) species new to us.