plant sourcing

Plant sourcing for the pros

When we’re gazing at a medal-winning garden at one of the summer’s many shows, how many of us stop and wonder where they got the plants? Every designer knows that their ideas for a garden are only as good as the plants that go in. It’s something that RHS show gardens are marked on and the sort of detail that can make or break your reputation when it comes to private clients. Yet plant sourcing is like the foundations in a house: essential but rarely thought about once the structure is finished.

plant sourcing
Plants from one designer’s order

In the Cotswolds, Genus Plant Sourcing has turned finding the right plant in the best condition into a thriving business. Their well-oiled machine underpins the work of garden designers, landscapers and architects across the region and beyond.

Boss Matt Coles and his number two Pippa Haines hunt down everything from tiny bulbs to huge trees and everything in between.

Shopping lists and show stars

When we meet at their base just outside Cheltenham, they have just taken delivery of plants that will eventually have a starring role at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham.

plant sourcing
Geraniums are one of the many plants they source

Sumptuous ‘Bowl of Beauty’ peonies, starry astrantia, sedum, calamagrostis and cirsium are all waiting on Dutch trolleys.

They will be used by Herefordshire designer Olivia Kirk for a garden she is creating with landscaper Andrew Ball of Big Fish Landscapes in a new contest at the show this year.

plant sourcing
Big Fish Landscape’s BBC Gardeners’ World Live entry

Run by the Association of Professional Landscapers, it features gardens that show what can be achieved in a small space for a specific budget and will be judged as much for the construction as for the design.

Andrew, who is also Herefordshire-based, and Olivia are building a £25,000 family entertaining space with an eye-catching water wall.

Olivia, a Chelsea medal winner, is a long-time client of Genus and, like other show designers, picked out the individual plants she wanted on trips to their suppliers rather than relying on what’s sent in, vital when the condition, size and even shape can affect the marks awarded. It’s more time consuming for the Genus team but something Pippa enjoys.

plant sourcing
Olivia’s 2014 Fresh garden for Cheltenham charity WellChild won silver gilt

“I like working on the show gardens,” says Pippa. “It’s a challenge and I like working one-to-one.”

Each customer is given a copy of the firm’s catalogue – a list of the plants they can supply – to help them make their choices. It covers commonly seen things and some more unusual varieties and has sections for herbaceous, shrubs, climbers and even aquatic plants.

Then their ‘shopping list’ is sent out to all firm’s suppliers to see who can supply and in what quantity. It’s not uncommon for an order to be sourced at several different nurseries, especially if large numbers of a particular variety are needed.

Often, clients are sent photographs of plants, particularly large, specimen trees, to make sure it’s exactly what they want.

Sometimes, the firm will be asked by a landscaper to draw up a planting plan and find the plants.

plant sourcing
Box topiary waiting to be delivered

Genus Plant Sourcing deal with growers all over the country, having found them through word-of-mouth, online research or even, in the case of one grower, by spotting their van and following it back to the nursery.

Only commercial, wholesale growers are used and each has been personally vetted by the Genus team.

Some suppliers are abroad: they deal with Dutch and Italian firms, often for things like box and bay, with a lorry-load from Holland every fortnight, made up of items for several clients. This ‘group ordering’ allows designers to get just one or two things from wholesalers.

Snags and changing fashions

Once the plants are delivered – or collected by the Genus team – from their growers, they are sorted into individual orders at the Cheltenham site.

Of course, it’s not always easy to find rare plants and every few weeks the ‘snagging list’ lands on Pippa’s desk. These are plants that their regular growers can’t supply and, having checked the client is determined to have that particular variety, Pippa begins painstaking research to find the right thing.

“We always strive to find what people want,” she says. “We don’t like to have to sub plants.”

plant sourcing
Roses brighten up the firm’s base

One of the biggest plant sourcing job they’ve had was for a hornbeam for a London garden. It was so large it needed an artic lorry to move it and the road had to be closed to allow a crane to hoist it into position. At the other end of the scale, designers will ask for quantities of bulbs.

With garden shows acting like the catwalks of London or Paris, plant fashions soon start to influence requests to the firm with Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ and ‘Invincibelle Spirit®’ hydrangea – a pink form of the white ‘Annabelle’ – both suddenly becoming popular.

Meanwhile, hard winters a few years ago have resulted in the popularity of ceanothus and escallonia tumbling.

“Plants definitely go in fashions,” observes Pippa, adding “I can look at a list and know who it’s from. People do tend to use the same plants.”

BBC Gardeners’ World Live runs from June 16-19 at the NEC Birmingham and includes show gardens, a display of ‘beautiful borders’, a rose festival, gardeners’ advice centre and nurseries from across the country in the floral marquee.

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