Harrell’s – a hidden plant paradise

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.

The garden is still full of colour

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.

Echinacea ‘Raspberry Truffle’

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.

Most of the beds have themes

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.

Grasses are one of the sisters’ many favourites

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.

The Mandevilla laxa survives against the odds

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.

Chicory is seldom seen in garden centres

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.

Scabious come up in a range of colours

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.

Dahlia ‘Sam Hopkins’

“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.

Hemerocallis ‘Kasia’

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.

Erigeron against yellow potentilla

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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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 www.tortworthplants.co.uk

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