Country & Garden: Caution: heavy plants crossing

How do you set about moving an entire nursery from the South of France to Hertfordshire? Very, very slowly
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The Independent Culture
John Hoyland had his own computer company before he chucked it all in to set up a nursery. Smirnoff used to run an advertising campaign with copylines like that. Hoyland did it without the vodka. He did it 10 years ago, when he was in his early thirties. He had a house in the South of France and that is where he went to start a completely different life, trying to make a living out of what had been a hobby.

"In the Eighties, all you were supposed to do was earn loads of money. I was doing that, but it just wasn't very interesting," he explained. "And at that time, several of my friends died of Aids. I just thought I owed it to them to make sure I didn't waste a single moment more of my life." So off he went to Fenouillet, where he set up Les Jardins de John, selling all the kinds of perennials he liked best: red-hot pokers, crocosmias, geraniums, irises.

Now he's doing the same thing at the Pioneer Nurseries, near Letchworth in Herts. He's still got the French nursery, but roots pulled him back to England, where he and his partner, Nick Downing (another escapee - he used to be an editor at Random House) spent several months looking for a suitable site to set up shop.

In February this year, they stumbled on the old Pioneer site in Hertfordshire, where a nursery had been set up in 1903 by the idealistic band of utopians who established Letchworth as England's first garden city. Here, these dreamers conceived a community where everyone had space to garden round their houses, and where a local nursery would provide the trees and flowering plants to turn this spot into a kind of Eden on Earth.

It was a nice idea and, though Mammon rules in Letchworth now, the nursery remained as an exemplary symbol of the garden city movement. By some miracle, the planners did not insist that the four-acre site be covered in concrete and Tarmac. Though it was overrun with brambles and marestail, the place was still recognisably a plant nursery when John and Nick took it over this spring.

Moving house is difficult enough; how on earth do you move a nursery? Slowly, is the answer. One load of plants came over this spring; another big load is due in the autumn. It's a laborious business. Many of the perennials are grown in stock beds, which provide the reservoir of new plants for the nursery. Though plants are allowed to move between countries, earth isn't, so all the plants have to be lifted and the roots thoroughly washed before they can be brought into Britain. If you are a hellebore or a peony, you then sulk for at least a year, to punish the person who has meted out such shocking treatment.

In Hertfordshire, John Hoyland is in an area of very low rainfall and on a sandy, free-draining soil, not so different from the conditions in his French nursery. But how will his oleanders get on? And what about the beautiful, stiff-leaved Geranium canariense that is in his English catalogue? Both will probably be glad of the nursery's greenhouse to shelter them from the worst of the winter weather.

If he had to leave his new nursery just with the plants he could carry, what would he take, I wondered. "Crinums," he replied. "And kniphofias. Crocosmias, especially the old variety `Queen Mary II'." That was new to me, and it's a good crocosmia, with soft orange flowers flushed over bud and stem with purple. It's not as tall as the brilliant red `Lucifer'. "But of course, in spring, I'd be thinking of completely different plants," he added. "Pulmonarias probably. Or irises."

Already, show gardens are springing up among the acres of weeds. The old greenhouses have been scrubbed out, ready for their winter cargo. The pioneering spirit has been revitalised. What John Hoyland likes about this place is that it has been a nursery before.

"To me, gardening isn't simply about what you are doing now," he explained. "We are just the present part of a great cycle of people who have laboured on this patch before. It's important to remember that."

And did I buy anything? Yes, of course I did. I'm not made of stone, and, if the weather is right, late summer and autumn are my favourite times for planting. The ground is still warmish (and dampish too, after the recent rain). Plants have time to get their roots sorted out before they are expected to do much above ground. Before garden centres and containerised plants were invented, autumn was the only time to plant.

So I picked up a white-flowered crinum (pounds 7.50), on the basis that the pink-flowered one is almost the best thing in our garden at the moment. The "almost" is because of the leaves, which make the plant difficult to place in relation to its neighbours. They are long, strap-shaped, meaty and heavy, and they are around for most of the year, while the flowers are there for six weeks at the most.

I first planted the pink-flowered crinum in the south-facing border in front of the house. I wanted it because the garden used to tail off at this end of the year and a plant that starts to perform in August is always welcome. This is a dramatic performer. From the forest of foliage, thick stems zoom up unnoticed to three feet, and send out a succession of elegant, trumpet-shaped flowers. They are sweetly scented, which is a bonus. The crinum went into that particular border because I'd been told that it needed rich, well-drained soil at the foot of the warmest wall I could provide.

It doesn't, and that first position turned out to be a disaster. A crinum takes up a lot of room and that particular border needs to work hard for its living. So I dug it up (don't underestimate that task - the bulbs are vast, and hang on to their homes like limpets) and, in a bad mood, slung it into a dark, badly drained corner, where its leaves wouldn't get in the way. It loves it. This year there are seven flowering stems coming from just the one clump.

Two things it certainly needs: protection in winter and moisture during its summer growing season. Our crinum has sailed through a few tough frosts unscathed, but it is mulched every autumn with a thick layer of leaves. Moisture it has in abundance in that particular corner. But the crinum's ebullience emphasises how, in gardening, rules are there to be broken.

The Pioneer Nurseries are at Baldock Lane, Willian, Letchworth, Herts SG6 2AE (01462 675858). Take exit 9 off the A1(M) and look immediately for the turning to Willian on the left. The nursery is tucked behind the Three Horseshoes pub in the village. It is open Tues to Sat (10am-6pm) and Sun (10am-4pm). There is an extensive catalogue and the nursery does mail order. On 19 September (12pm- 5pm) John Hoyland and Nick Downing will be at the Rare Plants Fair at the Royal Free Hospital Recreation Centre, Fleet Road, Hampstead, London NW3, admission pounds 3