A trip to Harrell’s Hardy Plants usually requires a somewhat furtive return and a look of wide-eyed innocence if the plants that have followed me home are spotted. It’s the kind of nursery where it’s hard to leave empty-handed and I rarely do.
Of course, it’s difficult to know whether to describe it as a nursery. Should it be a garden that sells plants or a nursery that just happens to have a garden? Either way, it combines two of my great loves and I frequently find excuses to call in.
You need to know where you are going though, as the nursery is tucked away in the heart of Evesham and the narrow driveway between two houses is far from promising. What lies behind are the sort of plants that mainstream garden centres rarely stock and the beauty of Harrell’s is you can see them both on the sale stands and also growing in the one-acre garden.
The nursery was started by sisters Liz Nicklin and Kate Phillips in 2000 at first as a part-time venture as both were still working, Liz as a hospital matron and Kate as a primary school teacher.
“The nursery is our replacement for a large garden,” laughs Kate. “We’re frustrated mansion-sized gardeners.”
Indeed, the business grew out of their joint passion for propagating: when they ran out of space at home, they progressed first to selling at WI markets and finally to the nursery.
They grow and sell only what interests them – not that this in any way limits their scope. Each has a particular favourite: hemerocallis are top with Liz while Kate has a sizeable collection of salvias and has just started another of baptisia; she already has each of the varieties available in the UK.
Things are sourced at fairs, other gardens or nurseries and used as stock plants. If they can, the sisters will buy several, putting some in the garden and dividing the others or using them for cuttings.
They are attracted to anything unusual: a beautiful double orange crocosmia, variety unknown; the late bell-shaped Campanula ‘Paul Furze’ that has only just come into flower.
As the nursery name suggests, they tend towards those plants that will survive their windswept site on heavy clay soil, though that does not stop them growing a huge range from grasses and dahlias to hostas and erigerons. They have even managed to keep a tender Mandevilla laxa despite a harsh winter that felled a nearby bay tree and rose. The secret, they believe, is the Anemanthele lessoniana (formerly Stipa arundinacea) that grows in front, shielding the roots.
“It’s got its own eiderdown,” says Liz.
Whatever the reason, the scent from the white flowers is, as Kate puts it, intoxicating.
It seems that as a new interest grabs them, so they make a new border in the garden; it’s a running joke between us that every time I visit they have put in something extra and ‘The Last Bed’ proved to be anything but, with a mini orchard and ‘The Berm’, or mound, later additions.
When I went there recently, they had finally removed all the old carpet under the bark paths – it was put there to supress weeds when they took over the derelict site – and were embarking on a sustained campaign against bindweed.
At this time of year, the Grass Bed is one of the highlights but there is something to see everywhere you look: the delicate seedheads of dierama hanging like tiny pearls over a path; a bed of different echinacea, yellow, purple, a pompom of raspberry red; pincushion scabious in varying shades of mauve, the offspring of the original ‘Beaujolais Bonnets’ and ‘Black and White Mix’.
“We’ve got every colour under the sun now,” observes Kate.
Many of their plants are not favoured by the big sellers because they tend to languish in pots.
“You don’t find chicory in a garden centre,” explains Liz, “because it grows too tall and doesn’t look presentable all the time. Diarama takes too long to grow.
“A lot of things we’ve grown almost by default because we’ve seen you’re not able to get them so we’ve got seed or a plant, propagated and then grown more than we need.”
The hemerocallis are a good example of this with Liz raising hundreds from seed sent over by an American breeder every year. Over the years, the sisters have registered several, among them ‘George David’, a strong orange, Nick’s Faith, which is cream with a raspberry rib, ‘Kasia’, which is cream with a peach overlay, and ‘Caroline Taylor’, yellow with white on the midribs.
The garden has had a similar unplanned journey, starting as just a way to trial plants but today as much a garden as any other that opens for the National Gardens Scheme.
“It was originally planted as a stock garden but it just sort of morphed,” says Liz.
“It’s because we can’t help planting plants where they look good together,” adds Kate.
It means it’s inspirational as a source of ideas while the sisters are invaluable when it comes to knowing how to grow the things they sell, many by mail order, and they give their advice freely.
I managed to resist buying anything this time but only because a looming holiday meant I would not be there to care for any new purchase. A return trip is already being planned.
• For more information on Harrell’s Hardy Plants see here
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