I’ve always loved traditional nurseries, the sort where plants are arranged haphazardly, labels are handwritten and there’s not a Christmas decoration in sight. They are often the best place to discover something different and are second to none when it comes to giving out advice.
Yet, these small-scale specialist growers find life tough against the competition of big garden centres and new nurseries are rare.
One recent Gloucestershire arrival that’s bucking the trend is Tortworth Plants, which was started in 2013 by business partners Tim Hancock and Rebecca Flint.
They have set up on land owned by Tortworth Estate, which has turned semi-derelict farm buildings, including a milking parlour, into a potting shed and office. Other work has seen drainage put in and nursery beds constructed.
“It was just a wet, muddy field,” recalls Tim.
“It was a complete mess but we could see the potential,” adds Rebecca.
The pair, who met while working at a big wholesale nursery, specialise in herbaceous perennials and alpines along with a few herbs and, while many of their plants are familiar, the varieties they offer are not.
One that was still full of flower when I visited was Salvia x jamensis ‘Nachtvlinder’, which was covered in deep purple-pink blooms. Equally striking was Crocosmia ‘Harlequin’ with vibrant, yellow flowers sporting orange and red outer petals.
Other unusual varieties include Penstemon ‘Jeanette’, which has pure white flowers, Erysimum ‘Red Jep’ with deep purple-red blooms and E. ‘Fragrant Star, which has variegated foliage with scented, yellow flowers. There’s a red sea thrift, Armeria pseudarmeria ‘Ballerina Red’ and Sanguisorba ‘Lilac Squirrel’, whose flowers look like a squirrel’s tail.
They grow several different leucanthemum, or Shasta daisies, such as ‘Banana Cream’, a good stocky grower with similar colouring but not as tall as the more familiar ‘Broadway Lights’. Then there’s ‘Engelina’, with shaggy, double flowers, and ‘Victorian Secret’, a creamy double.
Primulas are another staple with ‘Port and Lemon’, which has a sulphur yellow flower and Primula belarina ‘Valentine’ a deep red.
New plants are often sourced at rare plant fairs and the nursery also supplies larger retailers, who sometimes suggest different things to grow.
They produce their stock from seed and cuttings, buying in only some plug plants to grow on and produce around 1,000 different lines a year. All are raised in open beds and unheated polytunnels.
“We like to grow everything outside really so it’s good and tough,” explains Tim.
It would be easy to believe that winter was a quiet time at the nursery but nothing is further from the truth. When we met, they were busy cleaning up pots, removing dying foliage from the herbaceous perennials and planning what they would need for next year’s round of rare plant fairs, flower shows and farmers’ markets, something that isn’t always easy to judge.
“You find you take something one week and sell out so the next time you take a few more and don’t sell one,” says Rebecca.
Winter is also a busy time for work with landscape contractors, who either buy plants from the nursery’s stock, or get Tim and Rebecca to source things for them.
With some things, such as cyclamen, taking years to reach flowering size, running a nursery is never a get-rich-quick enterprise but it does have its advantages.
As Tim says: “We’re outside working in the fresh air and on a nice summer day nothing could be better.”
• Tortworth Plants, near Wotton-under-Edge, is open to the public but visitors are advised to ring before travelling. They also offer a mail order service. For more information, visit www.tortworthplants.co.uk