With Apple Day approaching, I’ve been out to Snowshill Manor to find out about their heritage apples.
It’sthe names as much as the flavour and sense of history that appeals to me about heritage apples. ‘Hoary Morning’, ‘Cat’s Head’, ‘Cow Apple’, somehow, they all seem so much more interesting than a mere ‘Granny Smith’.
Yet, few, if any, ever find their way to supermarket shelves and often the only chance you’ll have to sample them is at a specialist event.
Snowshill Manor has been growing heritage apples for many years; collector Charles Wade is known to have had an orchard at the Cotswold manor and it was replanted with more than 50 different apples between 1994 and 2001.
“There aren’t any lists so apples that were interesting, unusual, old and rare were chosen,” explains Vicky Cody, who runs the garden at the National Trust property.
The result is an eclectic mix of eaters and cookers with some from the Gloucestershire area and others from further afield.
Among the local varieties are the wonderfully named ‘Cow Apple’, so called because the seedling was found growing in a cow pat on a Gloucestershire farm. It’s a general purpose apple that is particularly good for mincemeat as it keeps moist when in the jar.
Then there’s ‘Severn Bank’ a sharp-flavoured Gloucester apple that was first recorded in 1884; ‘Gloucester Royal’, a sweet eating variety from 1930; and ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, another local fruit dating from around 1700, with a peardrop flavour.
“If you like a russet, it’s got that sharp flavour. It’s delicious,” says Vicky.
Another with an unusual flavour is ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, which as the name suggests has a hint of pineapple. ‘Egremont Russet’, which was first recorded in 1872, has a rich, nutty flavour, while ‘Devonshire Quarrendon’ has a slight taste of strawberry.
One of the oldest varieties grown at Snowshill is ‘Court Pendu Platt, which is believed to be Roman in origin and first recorded in about 1613. Meanwhile, ‘Flower of Kent’ is said to be the apple that gave Newton the idea of gravity.
A more recent variety is ‘Discovery’, an August fruiting apple and one that I grow. It has superb flavour and intense white flesh but doesn’t keep and needs eating fresh-picked.
And you shouldn’t go by looks alone. ‘Jenny Lind’ doesn’t seem very appealing but has a fabulous flavour.
“I was very surprised when I tried it. She’s a beauty.”
When it comes to growing, Vicky says heritage apples are no more difficult than modern varieties. She recommends planting in October or November or waiting until February or March.
Dig a good-sized hole and put in some well-rotted manure or good compost. Firm the tree in well and add a short stake, set at an angle, allowing the top of the tree to move slightly in the wind, which will encourage better roots.
“As it grows, keep checking the tree tie to make sure it’s not rubbing.”
You’re unlikely to get a crop until the tree is a few years old but then you can enjoy your own taste of history.
• During October, Snowshill Manor displays fruit from its heritage apples in the old cow byre and there is fruit for sale.
There are also weekend demonstrations of crafts, including making bee skeps and candle-making.
“Rosa ‘Mutabilis’,” says James Alexander-Sinclair decisively when I ask for his favourite plant. He then adds that yesterday it was Salvia confertiflora while last week it was tulips that had stolen his heart. It is, of course, an impossible question for any gardener – my own choice changes like the weather – but it’s something I like to throw into the mix as you can learn a lot by the way people react.
James’ answer, given with barely a pause yet far from predictable, shows why he is in demand as a writer, compere and speaker while the gentle ridicule is typical of someone who doesn’t take himself or his achievements too seriously.
Despite his position as a noted designer, award-winning writer, RHS council member and judge, he describes his career as a “collection of fortuitous trippings” that has seen him fall into first landscaping, then garden design followed by writing and broadcasting; he’s a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, presented Small Town Gardens and was a judge on the TheGreat Chelsea Garden Challenge.
It could have been so different if he’d followed up on early success as a waiter or selling trousers, or changed his mind about estate agency as a career.
“It was really what people used to do when they didn’t have any qualifications or any particular idea of where they were going.”
Instead, a plea from his sister to get off the sofa and “dig the garden or do something useful” saw him turning over her tiny London garden and the realisation that it “was fun”.
Teaching himself how to pave, put up fence panels and lay turf, James started his own landscape business. Design came about when he decided “there must be an easier way to earn a living than through heavy lifting”.
As with the landscaping, he is largely a self-taught designer although his father sent him on a course at the Inchbald School of Design when he was starting out: “I didn’t turn up for most of it – which was unfortunate – because I had other things to do.”
His writing started because of ‘old rectory syndrome’: “Somebody would ring me up and say ‘Can you come and look at my garden?’ and I would say ‘Marvellous’ and it would be The Old Rectory and I would go ‘Oh God, not another one.’ I wanted to do something else.”
Broadcasting followed, giving him a career that embraces just a few of what he describes as the tentacles of gardening, a profession that can range from landscaping and photography to scientific research and raising plants.
“It’s nice to be busy in as many of those different spheres as I can possibly manage.”
This opportunity is something he believes should make gardening an attractive career for school-leavers.
“Gardening when I started was considered the last refuge of the unemployable and it isn’t any more.
“It has enormous breadth to it and is something that can provide somebody not only with a satisfying life but also with a satisfying living.”
And he dislikes the idea that because it’s a popular hobby people underestimate the worth of professionals.
When to comes to designing, James works by three guiding principles: what the house looks like; what the views are; who’s going to live in it.
“It’s a matter of making sure you’re making gardens that are not only appropriate for the place but also for the people.
“You’re making a garden for people to use, to love and to enjoy and to make their lives better and happier so it has to work with the way that they live.”
It was this sense of fun that came to the fore in his BBC Radio 2 garden for Zoe Ball at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where water in weathered steel troughs vibrated to the bass beat of music.
The five gardens celebrating the 50th anniversary of the radio station were a last minute addition by the RHS when show garden numbers fell short, thanks in part to post-Brexit referendum jitters. They proved popular with the public, partly James believes due to their size, and gardening on that scale is something that is likely to be repeated at the show.
Yet, he believes there’s still a place for the “great big theatrical experience” of Chelsea.
“Chelsea always throws up something that’s exciting,” he says. “You go to Chelsea and you will be entertained, gobsmacked and educated. You will leave there inspired by something.”
As for his own Oxfordshire garden, it’s constantly evolving: “It’s a work in progress and always will be because that’s the way gardening is. Nobody in the world has got a finished garden.”
• Allomorphic in Stroud is hosting a lunch and audience with James Alexander-Sinclair on Friday November 10, followed by a talk in Painswick on garden design hosted by Painswick Gardening Club. Tickets are £45 for the lunch and talk, limited to 24 places. Tickets for the talk only are £15. For details and to book, see the Allomorphic website.
In some ways, it’s apt that the road to Pan-Global Plants should be somewhat unnerving. A turning through imposing gates leads quickly into a winding, narrow track through trees. There’s a sense of exploration that’s fitting for the route to a nursery founded on unusual plants from across the world.
Pan-Global Plants was started by Nick Macer in 1997 and moved to its current site in a one-acre 19th century walled garden in Frampton-on-Severn 16 years ago.
“It was literally a pigsty,” he recalls. “It had Gloucester Old Spots here.”
Today, it’s a thriving nursery with rows of tempting plants, polytunnels stuffed with even more and paths, partly obscured by huge clumps of bamboo or tall perennials, leading out into permanent planting.
“I don’t have time to garden so it’s a little like a wilderness area with a few interesting bits in it,” Nick says with a smile.
He describes his ethos as providing the “beautiful, unusual and interesting in equal measures” and admits he gets “stressed” by the fact people can be put off by the term rare.
“I get a number of people who come in saying ‘We couldn’t grow it, we’d need specialist knowledge’. People think rare and unusual means difficult to grow.
“There are literally thousands of rare plants that are hardy and easy to grow, as well as many more that are more of a challenge.”
The nursery covers everything from herbaceous, shrubs and trees to ferns, hardy exotics and bamboo with annuals and alpines among the few things not covered.
His stock is constantly changing with around 200 to 300 new things every year. In the past, he collected some of that in the wild but complex legislation means he now limits himself to what he calls plant exploring.
“There’s still stuff to be discovered, looked at, photographed and documented.”
So, what did I discover? Well, the first thing to catch my eye was a beautiful range of hydrangeas, a mass of soft pinks and dusky reds. In particular, H. macrophylla ‘Merveille Sanguine’, which grows in a pot by the suitably colonial-style office. It has stunning rich flowers in red and purple hues against leaves that were taking on dark tints.
It’s only drawback, Nick tells me, is that the flowers fade to an unattractive brown.
I’ve always loved the quirky fruits of the spindle tree and those on Euonymus phellomanus were stunning – a combination of pink and red rather than the pink and orange more commonly seen.
And how about Desmodium elegans for some late summer colour?
The range of tulbaghia are also worth a closer look with flowers in shades of lavender and purple.
Nick believes gardeners should be more adventurous when it comes to choosing plants and came up with some ideas for interesting varieties to add something different to a border.
Hydrangea aspera ‘Bellevue’ is a new form that he thinks deserves to be grown more widely. It makes a large shrub up to 4m tall with hairy leaves and a lacecap bloom of white flowers around the central rich mauve-blue.
Unusual philadelphus are another suggestion. One is a new cultivar that he has named ‘Casa Azul’, which was found as a seedling at Pan-Global Plants.
“I dug it up and grew it on as I thought it had to be something interesting as the only philadelphus I had were interesting Mexican species.”
The resulting plant has a weeping form, dainty foliage and cup-like white flowers with a soft purple basal blotch that give off a particularly sweet scent.
And for something exotic, why not try Hedychium, or ginger lily? With their colourful blooms and large leaves, they look as though they will need TLC but are actually tough.
“People don’t think they’re hardy whereas some are totally bone hardy, even in the worst winters” explains Nick, adding that four different types in the nursery garden came through the harsh winter of 2010 completely unscathed.
He recommends planting them with contrasting foliage, such as ferns, or using them as statement plants on their own.
“They add a really exotic touch to a garden.”
• Pan-Global Plants is open from February 1 to October 31 and from November 1 to January 31 by appointment. The nursery also runs a mail order service. For more information, visit the website.
• Nick Macer is the guest speaker at Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary lecture on Friday October 6, 2017. He will talk about plant-hunting in ‘Plants From Around the World’ at Balcarras School, Cheltenham. Tickets cost £6 and are available on the door or in advance: contact Yvonne Gregory on firstname.lastname@example.org
• Read my conversation with Nick about design, Gardeners’ World and why gardeners get a raw deal here.
Garden shows always take me a long time to explore and the Malvern Autumn Show is one of the slowest. Not only are there interesting plants to hunt out, being my ‘local’ event, there are growers and designers to chat to about the past season and their future plans.
Aside from admiring the giant veg and apple displays at this year’s show, I discovered several plants for my growing plant wish list, heard about exciting developments at one of my favourite nurseries and picked up ideas for displaying flowers from my new cutting bed.
But one of the most interesting conversations concerned the show itself. I’ve long been critical of the way the Malvern Autumn Show is laid out and felt that the gardening was being sidelined, opinions I put to Head of Shows Diana Walton in a recent interview. She told me then that moving the RHS Flower Show out of the halls – commonly referred to as the cow sheds – was one of the changes being considered in a revamp of the event.
That move has now been confirmed by Nina Acton, Shows Development Executive, who told me: “There will be a floral marquee for next year.”
Shifting the plant displays into marquee with more natural light and a less claustrophobic feel is something that will be welcomed by exhibitors and visitors alike. It will be interesting to see what other changes are made.
One of the first growers I bumped into was Malvern stalwart Medwyn Williams whose display of perfectly grown and presented veg is always a show highlight.
This year, it won the coveted Best Exhibit in the RHS Flower Show award – something he’s achieved countless times before.
“I never get fed up with it though,” he assured me. “I’m pleased for the team.”
It had, he said, been a “funny season” with high temperatures in May and June that had affected plants later on.
“But we are very solid people who can take on all challenges and veg have an uncanny way of getting over things.”
It takes a team of six three days to assemble the intricate display as none of it is done before arriving at the showground.
“It’s the best bit for me,” said Medwyn. “Creating something from good quality veg is a joy.”
In comparison to Medwyn’s decades in the business, Julia Mitchell of Greenjjam is the new kid on the block, although her penstemon displays are fast becoming a regular at shows across the country.
Greenjjam is currently based in Evesham but there are plans to move to a bigger site over winter. More exciting, she told me about plans to launch ‘The White Nursery’ at next year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival.
It will run alongside the existing business and will stock white or predominately white-flowered trees, shrubs, climbers and perennials.
“I just think white is beautiful,” she explained.
The award for most innovative exhibit was given to C&K Jones for their striking display of roses.
The Malvern Autumn Show is late in the season for roses and makes putting on a display challenging. This design by Rachel Jones, who runs the nursery with her husband, Keith, used individual blooms rather than whole bushes and highlighted the different uses of roses, including as edible petals on a ‘petal pizza’.
It was only the second outing for the idea, as the design was first tried out at the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show.
“I didn’t know whether the judges and the public would like it but we’ve had a very good response from them both,” said Rachel.
With talks from top florists, including Jonathan Moseley, the area devoted to British flower growers and florists is one of my favourite parts of the Malvern Autumn Show.
One of the driving forces is putting flowers together in a more natural way and the display by Freddie’s Flowers with a bloom-filled wheelbarrow was just one example this year.
Freddie’s Flowers offers a slightly different take on the usual floristry service with customers receiving a weekly box of mainly British-grown blooms and instructions on how to arrange them, either in a leaflet or via a how-to-do-online video.
The other display idea that I spotted was Vale Garden Flowers’ interpretation of glass jars for showing off simple flowers. Hydrangea heads, Daucus carota and feverfew looked stunning in milk bottle-style jars hung from a rustic wooden frame. Simple and effective.
I’m a sucker for a heuchera and there were lots at Malvern with spectacular displays by specialist nurseries Heucheraholics and Plantagogo.
Although it had finished flowering, H. “Megan’ caught my eye on the Heucheraholics stand thanks to its beautiful marbled green and silver foliage.
Bred by the nursery and named for owner Sean Atkinson’s mother, it has unusually large flowers for a heuchera, which often have rather dainty flower spikes. Light pink in colour, they have a yellow centre with white inside the throat and appear from April onwards; the plant on the stand had only just finished blooming.
Another pink-flowered heuchera that’s on my wish list is H. ‘Paris’, which I saw on the Plantagogo stand.
Again, it blooms for months, starting in spring and often lasting until November and has beautifully marked foliage, while the flowers have an almost two-tone quality.
I must have been in a pink mood because it was another pink flower that drew me towards Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants’ stand.
Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’ is a hardy cousin of the more familiar annual snapdragon. With flowers not unlike those of a penstemon, this antirrhinum should be treated in the same way and cut back in spring after the last frosts.
It likes any reasonable soil in sun or part-shade and will flower from early June through to the autumn.
In sharp contrast to all that pink was Kniphofia ‘Mango Popsicle’ on Hayloft Plants’ stand. Teamed with bronze carex and Salvia ‘Burning Embers’, the dainty orange ‘poker’ almost glowed.
The beauty of the ‘popsicle’ range of dwarf kniphofias, explained James Edmonds from Hayloft, is that not only are the flowers smaller and the plants shorter, they have fine leaves rather than the more usual strappy foliage, which can make an ugly clump for long stretches of the year. This makes them easier to bring further forward in planting schemes.
Plants will reach around 2ft-high and flower from late July through to October.
My final plant spot was a delicate pennisetum on Newent Plant Centre’s display. ‘Karley Rose’ has the typical fluffy pennisetum flowers but with a delicate rose blush and forms a neat clump of around 3ft tall.
Setting it off on the stand was a wooden fence, made at a Herefordshire centre that helps ex-service personnel suffering from PTSD.
Ahead of his Cheltenham lecture, Nick Macer talks about design, Gardeners’ World and why gardeners deserve better
Britain may be a nation of gardeners but as far as Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants is concerned we’re all being short-changed.
Uninspiring stock at garden centres, dull planting schemes and the dumbing down of gardening programmes, all are targets for his criticism.
We meet at his Gloucestershire nursery and talk surrounded by the rare and unusual plants that make his business a popular destination for serious gardeners.
Yet he’s keen to dispel the idea that he puts rarity ahead of good design. For him, the two are equally important.
“I’m interested in gardens that are not just beautiful but interesting,” he says. “I think if a garden is beautiful but it has no interesting botany in it, it’s missing the link.”
Likewise, he dislikes what he describes as plant nutters’ gardens where collecting is more important than design.
“You don’t often walk into a plantsman’s garden and get that emotional response to the drop-dead, gorgeous piece of artistry that are the best gardens.”
Partly, he believes, dull gardens are due to the limited range on offer at garden centres and the fact that most people are unaware of the diversity of available plants.
“Generally, people buy in a garden centre rather than in a proper, interesting nursery run by interesting people.”
Nick, who grew up in Stroud, got into horticulture almost by accident. By his own admission, he was a “rebellious youth” who more or less dropped out of school at 14 and ended up working with a local landscaping company just to earn some money.
“During that time, I suddenly wanted to start learning what all the trees were,” he recalls, “and I became absolutely obsessed.
“From that point on I’ve been learning and I’m still learning. In this game, you learn until you’re dead. It goes on and on, it’s wonderful.”
An arboriculture course followed with his year in industry spent at Hillier Arboretum and Westonbirt.
“Before working there I used to visit Westonbirt for four or five hours at a time and stand and identify everything I could. I used to go there really excited and come away feeling sick of it because I was doing too much.”
Next was a job running Cowley Manor garden, including working with Noel Kingsbury on a perennial planting scheme, before he decided to set up a nursery, first at Painswick Rococo Garden and, for the past 16 years at Frampton-on-Severn.
He travels the world every year on plant-hunting expeditions, but says regulations have put a stop to seed collection. Instead, he gets new plants from other collectors and nursery owners.
Last year, he did a stint as a presenter on Gardeners’ World, which, although he enjoyed, he’s unlikely to repeat: “My angle horticulturally is not Gardeners’ World’s angle.”
He’s critical of what he perceives as a “dumbing down” with “everyone treated as a newcomer”.
“I like to think I’m at the cutting edge of horticulture here. I know it’s for everyone but I don’t think there’s enough education in Gardeners’ World.
“People that are just starting out should at least have the opportunity to go to a higher grade.”
Meanwhile, he’s exploring the idea of making his own gardening programmes. One thing’s for certain, they will be far from run-of-the-mill.
• Nick Macer is the guest speaker at Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary lecture on Friday October 6, 2017. He will talk about planthunting in ‘Plants From Around the World’ at Balcarras School, Cheltenham. Tickets cost £6 and can be bought on the door or in advance: contact Yvonne Gregory on email@example.com
• For more information on Pan-Global Plants, visit the website