All I want for Christmas . . .

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I’ve been asking some of my nursery friends what’s on their list to Santa.

Talk to any gardener and it won’t be long before you start discussing the weather. Whether it’s been too hot or too wet, it’s rarely just right.

Sisters Liz Nicklin and Kate Phillips, who run Harrell’s Hardy Plants, are hoping Santa will help them get the perfect growing conditions.

The perfect weather is on Harrell’s Hardy Plant’s wish list.

“We would like a gift voucher for the weather of our choice for a month – at least!” says Liz.

Failing that, they’d like something a new hose for watering the perennials they grow at their Evesham nursery.

A hose that doesn’t kink would help with the stock plants.

“Please, please, could we have a non-kinking hose? No matter how much you spend they all kink and usually about as far away from the end as possible.”

Watering is also top of the list at Sylvia and Tony Marden grow hundreds of shade-loving plants, including ferns, unusual begonias and podophyllum at in polytunnels and glasshouses their home in Painswick and are regulars at Rare Plant Fairs across the region.

Help with watering is top of the list for

“We would love an automatic watering system that can tell which plants need watering in a mixed collection,” says Sylvia, adding “Tied in a big red bow!”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has come early for the team at Fibrex Nurseries.

When I caught up with Heather Godard-Key the family business near Evesham had just taken delivery of a new greenhouse for their wide range of plants  – Fibrex holds the National Collections of pelargoniums and ivies, as well as a huge number of ferns.

Fibrex have plants that are perfect for pots.

Yet, Heather has her eye on something to display their beautiful plants.

“I’d like a really beautiful pot from Whichford,” she says, “or two – but that’s wishful thinking.”

A Whichford pot – or three – would be perfect.

Perhaps, Santa will oblige.

Of course, it’s not just a busy time of year for him, at The Nursery at Miserden Christmas is also pretty hectic.

The nursery near Stroud stocks a range of perennials, roses and shrubs but this month it’s Christmas trees that are centre stage and preoccupying owner Julie Dolphin.

Christmas trees are keeping Julie busy.

“We’ve got hundreds of them to be de-netted, displayed and netted again for the customer!” says Julie. “And that’s what I’d like – a de-netting and re-netting robot that also takes the tree to the customer’s car!”

Also on her list are new pots: some that are totally disposable.

Julie would love some help with the Christmas trees Photo: Britt Willoughby Dyer

“We reuse ours but it would be great for the planet if every pot could be compostable. We grow our herbaceous in peat-free compost so I’d like to think we do our bit but this would be a wish come true.”

Something I’m sure is on every independent nursery owner’s list is the wish for more customers in 2018. If you would like to support our fabulous British growers, you can find details at the Independent Plant Nurseries Guide.

The shady side of planting

A shady border is rarely the one a gardener is eager to show me when I’m out garden visiting. Areas that get little sun or, in some cases, none at all are usually viewed as difficult and often overlooked. Yet, by choosing the right plants for shade you can make something beautiful and interesting.

Just how much choice there can be is obvious when I visit, a Cotswold nursery run by Tony and Sylvia Marden. Glasshouses and polytunnels behind their Painswick home are stuffed with plants suitable for the full range of shade from dark, dry spots through to those with dappled light and moist soil.

plants for shade
Dryopteris erythrosora

“There are some wonderful plants that can make a really nice garden,” says Tony. “You just need to think of woodland plants.”

One of the top choices is ferns and the beautiful pink-bronze tinged new growth on Dryopteris erythrosora is one that catches my eye.

“It has that colour all summer not just in spring,” comments Tony, adding that it would be ideal for a couple of challenging areas in my dry-as-a-bone sandy soil.

Dryopteris affinis ‘Cristata The King’, which can get to around 3ft tall, is another that would cope with deep, dry shade and Tony also suggests Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosum Densum’, which has more delicate foliage.

plants for shade
Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosum Densum’

Adding plenty of humus when they are planted and top dressing with leaf mould or old compost in the autumn will help keep them in good shape.

“Don’t bother to dig it in,” advises Tony. “Put it around the plant at the end of the season and the worms will do the work.”

When it comes to more dappled shade and soil with more moisture there’s a greater choice.

Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’ is a particular favourite and, despite its exotic-looking mottled foliage, is quite hardy in a garden.

plants for shade
Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty Dotty’

Tony also has several polygonatum, or Solomon’s Seal, including a variegated variety and one with a deep red stem.

There are Anemonella thalictroides with dainty flowers – white, pale pink and a lilac double – Impatiens omeiana ‘Pink Nerves’ from China with curiously veined leaves, trilliums, hostas and pots of Lilium ‘Kusha Maya’ just beginning to break through the soil.

“They have got beautiful flowers with a lime-green throat on maroon and are good for woodland.”

Impatiens omeiana ‘Pink Nerves’

He began growing plants for shade about 20 years ago because he couldn’t find what he wanted for landscaping jobs. Then, about five years ago he retired but kept growing the plants.

Today, the couple sell their plants for shade mainly through plant fairs – they attend around 50 a year including Plant Hunters Fairs and Rare Plant Fairs – and also from the nursery, which is open by appointment.

Not everything I saw is available to buy yet; it’s taken several years to get some plants to either a big enough size or to have enough of them to put on the sales table; one that has taken Tony years to propagate successfully is Podophyllum pleianthum.

plants for shade
Arisaema are beginning to shoot

“You get them to germinate by putting them in the fridge over winter and then they germinate in February at about three degrees,” he explained.

He’s busy potting up arisaema that are just coming out of winter dormancy and beginning to shoot. One, that he’s had for around 12 years, is several centimetres in diameter. Nearby are some that were done earlier and are already showing their rather sinister hooded flowers.

Everywhere there are signs of new shoots and fresh green leaves appearing. It’s a time of year Tony loves.

plants for shade
There’s something almost sinister about arisaema flowers

“I open up in the morning and get that smell,” he says. “The smell of growing plants.”

For more details about, visit the website. will be one of 21 nurseries, including Tortworth Plants, at a Rare Plant Fair at The Old Rectory, Quenington on Sunday April 9, 2017. More details, here

Rediscovering asters

Sometimes you think you know a plant only to find there’s far more to it than you realised. Asters – commonly known as Michaelmas Daisies – are such a plant.

To many gardeners they are those mauve daisy-like things that flower in autumn and grew in their parents’ garden. They have a slightly old-fashioned image and are generally seen as a filler in the border rather than a star.

Yet, the colour range is vast from cool white through to claret and it’s possible to have them in flower from early September to almost Christmas.

There’s far more to asters than mauve

I was reminded quite how interesting asters can be at the Malvern Autumn Show where a display by Old Court Nurseries, holders of the National Collection, won gold.

It’s been some years since I visited Old Court and its display beds in The Picton Garden and I’d forgotten what a spectacle a mass planting of asters makes.

The display had a lightness and grace that is rarely associated with other autumn bloomers, such as rudbeckia, helenium or helianthus, and was something different to the usual yellows and oranges so often associated with the season.

Deciding it was time to rediscover asters, I attended at talk by Helen Picton hosted by Allomorphic in Stroud.

From the outset, it was clear there’s more to asters than mere mauve. A bucket of flowers, cut that day from the nursery, had white, pale pink, deep purple and some with a hint of red.

What’s in a name

And if the sudden realisation of the choice available wasn’t confusing enough, there’s the name. Work by botanists has led to many being reclassified and they are no longer called asters; nearly all the North American species are now Symphyotrichum or Eurybia.

Helen, who has a degree in botany, skipped through the explanation with ease but, perhaps realising that the switch is going to take some time among their customers, the nursery is still using the term aster as well as the new name for its plants.

Flowers cut from the nursery showed the range of asters

She is the third generation of the Picton family to run the Colwall nursery, which was founded more than 100 years ago by Ernest Ballard, one of the first people to specialise in Asters.

The National Collection was started by her parents, Paul and Meriel, with many varieties owing their survival to two Bristol enthusiasts who collected them; their plants joined those at Old Court in the 1980s and today the collection has more than 400 varieties.

Growing asters

Asters do have a reputation for being prone to mildew that can turn their leaves an unattractive grey.

We were told that the novi-belgii group are the most susceptible, not least because they are shallow-rooted and therefore dry out quickly during the summer.

Helen suggested a garlic foliar spray was one method of treatment – though it is essential to cover all the foliage – and division every three years would help to keep plants vigorous.

Helen is the third generation to run Old Court Nurseries

Varieties with smooth leaves were more likely to get mildew than those with rough leaves, she added.

The majority need open, sunny positions to flower well, although a few are tolerant of shade.

Other cultivation tips included hiding the “naked bottoms” of the New England asters.

“They are definitely back of the border plants. Give them a nice skirt of something more interesting.”

What to choose

If you’re looking for something that will be smothered in flowers, the compact ‘Gulliver’ is a good choice. It grows to around 45cm and has mauve blooms.

Another small aster is ‘Purple Dome’, which again gets to around 45cm high, and has large purple flowers.

“It needs as much sun as you can give it,” advised Helen.

The Picton Garden displays the National Collection

For arching flower sprays, Helen recommended the species asters, such as ‘Photograph’, which has smaller, pale blue flowers

“It is more relaxed in habit and mixes better with other perennials.”

‘King George’ had a rapid name change after it was introduced as Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914 and is now a popular variety. Its large purple flowers are loved by hoverflies and butterflies. Upright growing, it is mildew-free but needs good winter drainage.

One of the blowsiest is ‘Fellowship’, which has masses of pale pink double flowers. It grows to around 100cm and is one of the more mildew-resistant of the New York asters.

‘Fellowship’ produces a mass of double flowers

And, if you want something to tumble over a retaining wall, ‘Snow Flurry’, the only prostrate aster, might be the answer. It has long, horizontal flowering stems that are covered in tiny white flowers.

The Picton Garden and the National Collection of autumn flowering Asters and related genera is open until mid-October. For details and more information on Old Court Nurseries and growing asters see here

The next in the Allomorphic series of lectures is on November 11 when nurseryman Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers will be talking about his favourite plants. More details here

Online plant nursery guide launches

A chance remark by Monty Don on BBC Gardeners’ World has led to a project to support independent nurseries and the launch this month of an UK-wide online plant nursery guide.

There was dismay when Monty said that garden centres would be shut on Easter Day without mentioning that small nurseries were allowed to open under Sunday trading rules.

online plant nursery guide

It sparked a debate about how to best support these small growers and led to the idea of an online guide giving opening times, contact details and an idea of the nursery’s range. The website will also offer the chance for plants men and women to write about their business.

“Often we hear it is hard for nurseries to find affordable advertising space,” say the organisers, “and that people who want to support the British horticultural industry often find it hard to find nurseries.

online plant nursery guide
Tortworth Plants

“Hopefully this site will help to begin to solve both those issues while also giving our industry a boost through good media support.”

The online plant nursery guide, which launched last week, is still in its infancy and new suggestions of firms are being added as they come in. However, it already lists nearly 200 growers and received more than 2,000 hits in the first day.

It’s divided into areas, such as the Channel Islands and Northern Ireland, then regions, and then further sub-divided into counties. The Cotswolds has several nurseries listed, including Tortworth Plants, Pan Global Plants, Farmcote Herbs and Chilli Peppers, Dundry Nurseries, Miserden Nursery and Hoo House.

online plant nursery guide
Harrell’s Hardy Plants

Specialists include Spinneywell for box, Shady Plants and The Lavender Garden.

Among those on the fringes of the Cotswolds are Harrell’s Hardy Plants in Evesham, penstemon specialists Green Jjam Plants and Gardens, and Bob Brown’s well-known Cotswold Garden Flowers.

There is also a section for those nurseries who deal with customers via mail order only, although several of those who open will also send plants to gardeners who cannot visit.

Organisers are open to ideas of independent plant nurseries to include and should be contacted via the website.

The online plant nursery guide is available here:

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Tortworth is treasure trove

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.

Tortworth plants
Rebecca Flint and Tim Hancock

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.

Salvia 'Nachtvlinder'
Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’

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.

Leucanthemum 'Victorian Secret'
Leucanthemum ‘Victorian Secret’

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.

Armeria maritima 'Armada White' and Saxifraga x arendsii Touran (TM) 'White Imp'
Armeria maritima ‘Armada White’ and Saxifraga x arendsii Touran (TM) ‘White Imp’

“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.

echinacea and chyrsanthemum
Echinacea purpurea ‘Green Jewel’ and Chrysanthemum ‘Beppie Bronze’

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

Anemone 'Honorine Jobert'
The back of Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ is flushed pink