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Hunting out the planthunter: a chat with Nick Macer

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.

Nick Macer
Salvia dombeyi is one of the many unusual plants Nick stocks at Pan-Global Plants

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.”

cheltenham horticultural society
Nick Macer

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 Macer
You’re unlikely to find Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’ in a garden centre

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.”

Nick Macer
Trees were Nick’s first love and an Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ is a feature at the nursery

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.

Nick Macer
Nick collected the seed for Agave ovatifolia in Mexico

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.

Nick Macer
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is grown for its beautiful foliage

“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 must be bought in advance; contact Yvonne Gregory on yvonnetgregory@yahoo.co.uk

For more information on Pan-Global Plants, visit the website

Looking up at Colesbourne Park

Like most visitors, my trips to Colesbourne Park are generally spent with eyes firmly cast downwards. The garden is well known for its snowdrop collection and in January and February little else gets a look-in. Yet, at this time of year, with the snowdrops still safely underground, it pays to look up. Only then can you appreciate Colesbourne’s other collection: its trees.

Colesbourne Park
It’s easy to miss what’s above your head

Champion trees, endangered species, the unusual and rare, the Colesbourne collection covers all these and more. Indeed, the garden works with Kew and others to offer a home to special trees, such as the coffin tree, Taiwania cryptomerioides, which is endangered in the wild.

“We play our part in conservation as a host to endangered trees,” explains Head Gardener Arthur Cole. “We’ve got a bit of a world view here.”

The garden is also trialling the Lutece elm, the result of a breeding programme to find something resistant to Dutch elm disease.

Colesbourne Park
Colchicums are found throughout the garden

“When we planted it 10 years ago, it was one of only three in the whole country,” comments Sir Henry Elwes, the current owner of Colesbourne Park. “I think it may be the tree of the future.”

The arboretum was started by his great grandfather, Victorian planthunter Henry John Elwes with a Wellingtonia the first tree to be planted. It’s a collection that is still being added to, although Sir Henry concedes that he is running out of space.

As we walk around the garden, he points out some of the more unusual trees. There’s the cut-leaf beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, with finely cut foliage quite unlike the commonly seen beech.

Colesbourne Park
The tilia is taking on a pink tinge

A beautiful lime, Tilia henryana, that’s getting tinges of pink on its foliage, was planted to mark Sir Henry’s 75 birthday and a Dawn Redwood marked his 21st.

The Serbian spruce, he tells me, can get to 100ft-tall but remains slender, like a giant rocket pointing skywards. Already, his tree is beginning to tower over others nearby.

Then there’s a champion weeping birch that at 100 years old is 40 years older than most birch, and the Thuja plicata ‘Zebrina’ named for its zebra-like striped foliage.

Colesbourne Park
Sir Henry Elwes

Meanwhile, the unusual cut-leaf hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Heterophylla’, was found on the estate and has what Sir Henry describes as “nettle-like” foliage.

Colesbourne Park
The nettle-like foliage of the cut-leaf hazel

One of the rarest trees is a Californian nutmeg, which produces seed on average once every 15 years.

“They’re devils to germinate,” says Sir Henry. “We had 120 seeds one year and only three germinated.”

Colesbourne Park
The Spring Garden has a blanket of cyclamen in autumn

He’s had more success with other trees and several are ‘second generation’, including a Siberian elm raised from cuttings when the original tree fell down.

“Every arboretum has its celebrity, its film star and this is one of them,” says Arthur, pointing to a large oriental plane. Walk under its twisted branches and it’s easy to see why. Moss covers some of the beautifully marked bark and the branches curve and turn, creating a living sculpture.

Colesbourne Park
There’s a sculptural element to the Oriental plane

Like many of Colesbourne’s trees, it also has a great back story having been grown from a cutting taken from a tree on an Emperor of China’s tomb by Henry John Elwes in 1902.

Similarly, a Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, was collected as a seedling in North Japan and transported back in a cigarette tin on the Trans-Siberian railway. Records show it as planted 20 yards from the Ice House in 1901 where it is still growing.

Colesbourne Park
The Ice House

Elsewhere, a foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa, was given to Henry John by planthunter Ernest Wilson. The original blew down about 20 years ago but two root suckers have now grown into fine trees.

And Arthur points out some Irish yews with pride; all Irish yews can be traced back to a tree given to his ancestor in Northern Ireland in the early 18th century.

Colesbourne Park
Colesbourne Park has several Irish yews

It is stories such as these that make the trees at Colesbourne more than just a botanical collection and a guided tour so entertaining.

Colesbourne Park Arboretum is open on September 16, 17, 22, 23 and October 21 and 22, 2017, from 12.30pm to 4.30pm. Entry is £7.50 for adults, children under 16 enter free. Free guided tours by Sir Henry Elwes and Head Gardener Arthur Cole start at 1.30pm and continue throughout the afternoon. For more information, visit the website.

Looking ahead to the Malvern Autumn Show 2017

The Malvern Autumn Show has a new boss who tells me about this year’s event and why she’s excited about the future.

For many years, my gardening life has been bookended by the Malvern shows. No matter how many seeds I have already sown, the Malvern Spring Festival marks the beginning of the growing season for me while the Malvern Autumn Show is the tipping point, a time to take stock and plan for the year ahead.

The two-day autumn show is very different to the spring festival with an eclectic mix of food, flowers and family entertainment. Harvest is always a major theme and there are displays of giant veg, orchard fruit and contests for the longest runner bean or largest pumpkin.

Malvern Autumn Show

In the past, there have been show gardens and the perception that the horticultural side had a stronger presence. Talking to other regular visitors and exhibitors, I know I’m not the only one wondering if the gardening is being sidelined in favour of cookery, animals and shopping.

Diana Walton, who took over as Head of Shows in January, is well aware of the concerns and is keen to stress that the fears are unfounded. Horticulture, she says, is “immensely important”.

“We know we have a section of the visitors who are coming purely for the horticulture and we must keep the strength and the quality in that area.”

Malvern Autumn Show
The nursery exhibits are a highlight

However, the other features are valuable: “We are offering an event that we constantly hear people tell us is their favourite of the year because they come and they can see a bit of everything.”

This year, she has ‘tweaked’ some aspects, mainly the layout to make movement around the show easier, and it will be next year that more obvious changes are implemented.

“There are certainly plans afoot to freshen the show up next year. This year’s project was spring and next year’s project is autumn.”

Malvern Autumn Show
Cut flowers are one of the popular contests

Drawing the various gardening elements together into one area of the showground is one possibility while the RHS Flower Show, currently in the ‘tin sheds’, or permanent halls, may also move, with a marquee not ruled out.

“The position of the RHS Flower Show is under consideration,” says Diana. “I think perhaps it’s time for a little bit of a change all around the show.

In the meantime, there are several new features at this year’s event: garden writer Alys Fowler and Jamie Butterworth, from wholesale nursery Hortus Loci, make their Malvern debuts and there will be a ‘Power of Pollinators’ display with nurseries offering pollen-rich plants, exhibits from bee-keepers and the chance to find out more about pollen with the help of scientists from the University of Worcester.

Malvern Autumn Show
Alys Fowler will be speaking at the show. © Ming de Nasty

Designer Mark Eveleigh’s permanent Tree House Garden, which won RHS silver at the Malvern Spring Festival, will be used for interactive talks for children and the National Vegetable Society returns with its national championship, held at Malvern every five years. Meanwhile, the Autumn Theatre will have masses of dahlias in a display by Jon Wheatley.

Despite being a newcomer to the Head of Shows role, Diana feels at home on the Three Counties showground as her uncle was chief executive for many years and she spent a lot of her childhood there.

“I was literally brought up on the showground, it was my playground,” she says with a smile.

Malvern Autumn Show
Dahlias will decorate the Autumn Theatre

While she heads up six of the Three Counties’ eight annual shows, the Malvern Autumn Show is one of the biggest, alongside the Royal Three Counties Show.

“I’m really excited about it because there’s such passion and enjoyment behind this show. Everybody I speak to just loves it and looks forward to it.”

So, what should you look out for at this year’s event. Here’s my pick of what’s on offer.

RHS Flower Show

Malvern Autumn Show

This is always top of my must-see list. There will be 35 nurseries this year including Fibrex Nurseries with ferns and ivy, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, Derbyshire Bonsai and Plantagogo with heucheras.

Expert advice

Malvern Autumn Show
Carol Klein is one of the experts at the show

There’s a host of gardening experts offering the benefit of their years of experience. There will be question and answer sessions and talks on specific subjects, including growing dahlias, vegetables and what to plant for pollinators.

Carol Klein will be discussing autumn colour and propagation. Tim Miles, head gardener at Cotswold Wildlife Park, which is well known for its tropical style planting, will give ideas for eye-catching autumn plants, and the current popularity of houseplants is catered for with talks on cacti and terrariums.

Celebrating British Flowers

Malvern Autumn Show
Jonathan Moseley

Florist Jonathan Moseley returns to the Malvern Autumn Show with demonstrations of how to get the best out of seasonal flowers.

The Floral Fiesta will also have displays by British cut flower growers and florists.

Giant Veg

Malvern Autumn Show

You either love or hate these outsized monsters but either way they are worth going to see, if only to admire the skill and dedication needed to get parsnips, cabbage and carrots to grow so big.

Harvest Pavilion

Malvern Autumn Show

I love traditional horticultural shows and the Malvern Autumn Show’s Harvest Pavilion is just a bigger version. From beautiful cut flowers to perfectly matched fruit and veg, it showcases the best in amateur growing.

This year, there will be even more on display as the show hosts the National Championships of the National Vegetable Society and there will also be the popular contest for a trug filled with autumn produce.

Food and drink

Malvern Autumn Show
Selasi Gbormittah

And if you want to know what to do with all that produce, head for the Food and Drink Pavilion and the Cookery Theatre.

Andi Oliver, from the Great British Menu, Great British Baker Selasi Gbormittah and author and grower Mark Diancono are among those giving advice.

Herb Society president Judith Hann will be discussing cooking with herbs and there’s information on using edible flowers.

The Malvern Autumn Show runs from September 23-24. For ticket details, see the website.

Chastleton House: gardening with the weeds

It’s not often I encounter an open garden where weeds are deliberately left, especially one that’s run by the National Trust. But Chastleton House is different.

Rather than neatly mown lawns, elegant topiary and carefully co-ordinated borders, the garden near Stow-on-the-Wold has shrubs draped in bindweed, grass encroaching into the gravel and unstaked perennials flopping onto the ground.

chastleton house
Perennials are not staked

It is, explains garden supervisor Rosy Sutton, all part of a policy of “managed decay”.

“It’s supposed to look like there’s one gardener who’s really struggling.”

Chastleton House was built in the 1600s and its history charts the fortunes of the family that owned it until the 1980s, with periods of prosperity when the house and gardens were enlarged and stretches of financial hardship with no money for repairs or maintenance.

chastleton house
Some bindweed is left to wind through borders

While the house was in a bad state when the Trust acquired it in the 1990s, it was also unmodernised, giving a rare glimpse into the past.

As such, it was decided to leave it untouched as an illustration of the decline of private country houses. Cracked windows were laminated to make them safe but not repaired and woodworm holes filled with resin but the wood was not replaced.

Outside, it was clear a garden of the National Trust’s usual standard would be out of place and so the “managed decay” approach has been adopted.

chastleton house
Seed heads are left.

It leads to a delicate balancing act between on the one hand reflecting the remit at Chastleton House while on the other keeping something that is still attractive for visitors.

“It is trickier than in the house,” says Rosy, “because the garden is not static.

“It’s a real juggling act to create this slightly Sleep Beauty-esque feel.”

chastleton House
Dahlias are one of the late summer highlights

She and her team of volunteers achieve it with careful management. Shrubs are pruned not every year but every three and then only one out of a group will be done. Tall herbaceous plants are not staked but allowed to fall into each other.

As for the weeds, some, such as toadflax and grasses, are tolerated while dandelions and milk thistles are removed.

“My poor volunteers. They ask ‘Are we allowed to weed that one’,” says Rosy with a smile.

chastleton house
The topiary is one of the garden’s stranger features

This unusual approach extends to what is possibly Chastleton House’s most memorable feature: a circle of bizarrely shaped box topiary set inside a yew hedge. Originally part of ‘The Best Garden’ on the east side of the house, the box was once clipped into recognisable shapes, including a goblin and cow. By the time the National Trust took over, those shapes had long gone and it was decided not to reinstate them.

“We manage what we’ve got and keep them to what are misshapen lumps.”

Likewise, what would have been borders of Victorian carpet bedding are now represented by longer patches of grass.

chastleton house
Sweet peas are still giving some colour

However, work is going on to rejuvenate the yew with the first stage of a long process of cutting back to generate new growth now underway.

While the garden is not manicured, it is full of colour. The long borders at the front of the house are a soft mix of gold and pink, designed to blend with the Cotswold stone while not detracting from the house.

These have been revamped since Rosy took over in 2013, with plants divided and thugs such as Saponaria officinalis, or soapwort, reined in.

chastleton house
Senecio doria is a recent addition

In the double herbaceous borders, she’s been adding more dahlias, most of them grown from seed, to give colour later in the year. Taller plants, such as cardoons and the rarely seen Senecio doria, discovered at Harrell’s Hardy Plants, are also being introduced to increase the height; originally the borders were designed to screen the kitchen garden and reduce the risk of seeing a gardener at work.

Both borders have a dual role: the outer edges have flowers for cutting on one side and vegetables on the other. Nearby, beds cut into the grass are planted with veg on a rotational system while this part of the garden ends in a semi-wild area of fruit trees and long grass.

chastleton house
The dahlias have been grown from seed

What was once a rose border alongside the croquet lawn has also been revamped with a more varied planting palette. The roses are now underplanted with geranium, achillea and hemerocallis to give a longer period of interest.

Croquet is important at Chastleton House, as the family that owned it were the first to publish formal rules for the game and a croquet event where visitors can learn how to play is held each year.

chastleton house
The fruit trees are laden

While Rosy is limited in what she can change there is still scope for development: new cold frames have just been built and will form a display feature; she is trialling ‘pretty weeds’ at the foot of hedges.

chastleton house
I rather liked this water butt alongside the pretty greenhouse

What Chastleton House lacks in precise horticulture it more than makes up for in atmosphere. There’s a real sense of walking into a garden that the owners have stepped out of while the tranquillity means many visitors stay for hours and frequently return. It’s also one of the few National Trust properties that does not leave you feeling depressed about the state of your own garden.

Chastleton House is open Wednesday to Saturday until October 29, 2017. For more details, visit the website.

Discovering The Mill Garden

I’ve ventured further afield this week to explore Mill House in Warwick.

It’s easy to stick to the tried and tested when it comes to garden visiting: National Trust properties, well-established private gardens that open regularly; members of the National Garden Scheme. But sometimes it’s worth taking a chance.

mill house
There are a lot of plants packed into Mill House garden

On a work trip to Warwick, I passed a sign advertising an open garden. It wasn’t one I was there to visit, or somewhere I’d heard about however, having a bit of time to spare, I decided to take a look.

mill house
Glimpses of more garden entice you to explore

What I discovered was a varied garden with plant-packed borders that showcased some clever colour combinations.

The garden was laid out more than 40 years ago by Arthur Measures and it’s now run by his daughter and her husband, Julia and David Russell.

mill house
Clematis climb through trees and scramble over shrubs

While they have inevitably altered some of the planting, the layout is essentially the same: a mix of winding paths and mixed borders designed to divide the garden into smaller areas.

And it’s the setting as much as the garden that makes The Mill Garden stand out. The third of an acre plot runs down to the River Avon and shares a boundary with Warwick Castle. As a backdrop, the ancient stone walls are unequalled while the river was a cooling presence on what turned out to be a warm afternoon.

mill house
Few gardens have a backdrop as impressive as this

The planting schemes are designed by Julia and she obviously has an eye for colour with borders that team hot yellows, oranges and reds contrasting with others in shades of pink and mauve.

David, a retired nurseryman, told me that the couple also include lots of bedding in their borders and I spotted scented leaf pelargoniums, begonias and masses of verbena among the phlox, hydrangeas and achillea.

mill house
The river is one of the main features

It was, he explained, because the garden is open so often: “No matter how good your herbaceous is, if you’re open to the public you’re guaranteed colour everywhere with bedding plants.”

They run the garden with help from volunteers and raise thousands every year towards both its upkeep and charities; in 2016, they raised £13,000.

mill house
There’s the remains of a medieval bridge

While The Mill Garden is a member of the NGS and, it appears, well known to locals, not least as a prize-winner in Warwick in Bloom, none of that was apparent from the sign. I was glad I took a chance.

Here are some of the things that caught my eye.

mill house
The colour combinations have been carefully planned
mill house
Sometimes foliage is the key to a scheme
mill house
I liked the contrast of melianthus with crocosmia
mill house
Pink with just enough darker hues to stop it being bland
mill house
The garden has many different hydrangeas
mill house
A hot border and an old summerhouse framed by planting
mill house
I wasn’t the only one who liked the planting
mill house
Every open garden should have a seat and Mill House has plenty
mill house
The castle is never far away

The Mill Garden, Mill Street, Warwick, is open daily from April 1 to October 31 from 9am to 6pm. Admission is £2.50. For details, see the Visit Warwick website