Nursery times

Growing plants for sale is not all one happy haze of seed sowing and sauntering through your own beds of glorious perennials. It is hard graft, 12 months of the year, as Abi and Tom Attwood discovered when they took on Halecat near Grange Over Sands, Cumbria .

Words: Tom Attwood

On a sweltering August afternoon, five years ago, we made the immortal decision to take on Halecat Nursery in the Lyth valley in Cumbria. Surveying the dust, detritus and mummified plants on that first day, we climbed into our oven-hot Polo and agreed that we must have lost our senses.

A combination of naivety and youthful enthusiasm powered us through the early months of a two year re-development to create a whole new growing area and garden. But we survived and today we and the nursery – which sits on a two acre site surrounded by mixed ancient woodland – are consumed in a loving embrace.

The story of the nursery is one of serious neglect. For more than 10 years nature had crept in and overtaken all the original plants. When we took it over stock beds of open ground perennials stood shoulder high with every conceivable weed endemic to the UK. This was an alarming situation to resolve in a two-year period before re-opening the nursery to the public. Complete closing down the site was the only way we could manage the work which we juggled with our existing jobs and projects.

Every decision in the first few months had a financial commitment. Our rapidly eroding funds meant we had to prioritise the major works. This involved several weeks of contractors moving thousands of tonnes of soil and stone, chiselling out a rocky bank to enlarge our growing areas and building 80 metres of retaining walls. The nervous, anxious looks of passing dog walkers said it all.

What had originally been the stock beds would become a gravel-dressed, half-acre space to site tunnels and other additional growing structures to create our ‘plant factory’. This was terrifying, not just because of the financial commitment, but also as we knew all these works would have to pay off or we would be in an extremely difficult situation. Much of the work we were able to do by hand, digging through bindweed-riddled soil, removing roots and using herbicides where we could. Restoring the distinctive wooden glasshouses and existing buildings consumed months of work, as did the crude carpentry (we had to embrace) to create sales beds, pergolas and fences.

Not a single plant of the original nursery stock remained, meaning we had to grow everything from scratch. Year 2 was geared toward the propagation of 500 different varieties and cultivars of herbaceous perennial. The bulk of these were done by seed, the remainder being sourced as bare-root material potted up in the spring.

Today, herbaceous perennials fuel what we do, with a strong bias towards those species and cultivars that can cope with a northern climate. For both plants and gardeners this demands a strong constitution to cope with the protracted, cold, wet, winter season. Our growing ensemble of plants numbers nearly 750 different varieties, varying from the most compact alpine to those demanding a large stage from which to be seen.

The enjoyment that comes from running a nursery is down to many factors. For me, it is the strong rhythm that dictates your working year. You intertwine your lives with the lifecycle of the plants. When they work their hardest, you do too and, when winter comes, it allows you time to catch breath, focusing on a different set of tasks and techniques.

Our winter duties have an altogether different focus. As lacklustre a subject as it may seem, the duties of leaf picking and preventing the ravages of mould on overwintering seedlings is a major undertaking, as is keeping moisture levels in containers low. Plants, compost and plastic pots work in harmony if they avoid becoming overly wet. The added challenge of pots jostling for space is that air flow suffers and this isn’t the best scenario in structures like polytunnels. We therefore aim for as much ventilation as possible inside all our growing structures.

Despite the nursery’s chronic years of neglect we were able to salvage some reasonably intact Dutch lights. They resemble 5ft x 3ft wooden windows. They are cumbersome to handle but when laid upon concrete blocks these provide an effective dry micro climate, perfect for most semi/fully dormant plants. Providing this shelter is basic practice but in the first year of overwintering our fledgling stock we assumed that it was overkill to do so. We lost a significant number of plants due to excessively wet pots freezing and thawing repeatedly. Today, we are a little savvier and provide cover when and where we can.

It’s impossible to describe a ‘typical customer’ but broadly speaking they vary from those who are on a mission, knowing exactly what they want with no room for compromise, to the baffled young couple who struggle to know where to begin. Discussions can range from the specific germination requirements of a particular hepatica to the tentative, almost apologetic admission from another customer that ‘I’m not sure what a perennial is.’ Often it’s simply a question of providing reassurance. But one thing our customers mention most is being able to talk to us knowing we have grown the plants and therefore know their quirks and needs.

Growing plants for a living is enormously fun, challenging and rewarding but for Abi and I we need it to also be a viable source of income for our family. The biggest flaw in our business model is the weather and how this dictates when we have custom. A late spring holds back any income after the winter ‘drought’, a rain speckled summer can leave results sporadic to say the least. We’re realising that there is no such thing as a ‘typical year’ but you can rely on peoples enthusiasm and dogged determination come the spring to feed their desire for plants. We had hoped sheer intrigue would drive custom to us in the early days to see how we’d made our mark on the nursery since taking over but we soon realised we have to shout a resounding ‘we’re here!’ be it the first year of trading or the last.

At times it can feel a little relentless. A local sheep farmer said to me recently ‘you’re in a similar game to me really.’ I replied, ‘I suppose so, but our flock kindly shuts down for the winter and yours doesn’t.’ I always ponder that thought whenever I feel like having a grumble.