Gardening: TO HAVE AND TO HOLD

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The Independent Culture
The National Collection holders are each guardian to a plant species. From stately gardeners to council allotmenteers, the common bond is a passion for their plants. Michael Leapman

meets three of these heroes of horticulture

They are the unsung - and largely unrewarded - heroes of horticulture. They range from head gardeners in large houses and parks to small-scale amateurs with a passion for a particular plant. These are the holders of the National Collections. The scheme started in 1980 when the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens sought volunteers to act as foster parents to a specific plant, nurturing as many varieties as possible to ensure they survive what it calls "the vagaries of fashion and disease". As there is safety in numbers, the Council places no restriction on how many Collections can be created for any one plant. Today, there are 600, ranging from a dozen variations of a plant to more than a hundred. They are inspected occasionally and must admit visitors. I went to see three of the holders, seeking to discover the depths of their ardour.

BESOTTED BY BOX

Box is the plant of the moment. With period knot gardens, topiary, formal parterres and potagers all back in fashion, there is huge demand for the neat, small-leaved shrubs that make such orderly hedges and bushes.

Elizabeth Braimbridge has caught the tide. She started a box nursery on the border of Hampshire and Sussex in 1985, partly to give her eminent heart surgeon husband Mark something to do when he retired. She became a National Collection holder six years ago.

She was born in 1933 in a semi-detached house in Worcester Park, in Surrey, and gardening is in her blood: "The garden was the centre of our lives. We were four children, all girls, and we were each given our own square yard. I remember going down to it every morning to see what had happened overnight. It made me think about life in a different way. It was so exciting and motivating, to think that the earth held all this promise."

After school she took secretarial work in the City but left her job when she married at 22. This gave her time to devote to gardening.

When her first marriage broke up, she was forced back into office work, but in 1983 her marriage to Mark meant that she retired again so that she could travel with him to international congresses. This is when she began to dream of establishing a nursery of her own, with the plan that Mark could help her with it when he retired.

Two years later, she found six acres of land for sale about an hour's drive from their home. She converted some wooden huts there into accommodation, so she could stay there in the week.

Until the l980s, nearly all supplies of box for British gardens came from Holland and Belgium. Elizabeth believes that hers may be the oldest major specialist nursery in the country.

The advantage of selling box is that customers usually want it in large quantities. Her client list includes municipal authorities, the National Trust and other owners of large gardens, who often put whole new hedges in at once. She also sells on to other nurseries. Many gardeners want their topiary ready-sculpted, and she stocks a wide variety, including geometric shapes and animal and bird forms. "One of the nightmares of topiary is that people want pairs or matching sets," she says.

There are about 80 species of box known throughout the world, and 34 of them originate in Cuba. Elizabeth has only 13 of those species but dozens of cultivars. The kind most in demand for hedging and topiary is Buxus sempervirens, native to Britain and one of the oldest ornamental plants in cultivation.

Her personal preference, though, is for boxes that do not need clipping but grow naturally into attractive shapes. Several cultivars of Buxus microphylla are suitable for this treatment, such as 'Green Jade' and 'Green Pillow', and the smaller 'Morris Dwarf' - Buxus macowanii, which she found on a trip to South Africa, and will soon be sold as a plant for desks: "You can sit and just watch the leaves unfurling."

Outdoors, box prefers a light soil and does best on chalk, although it will tolerate a wide range of conditions. Elizabeth advises clients that topiary and hedges should be clipped back into shape at the end of the summer.

She says of becoming a National Collection holder: "It is an accolade, but you have to do your stuff. You must be very accurate about the taxonomy and always take careful notes. They won't have just anyone."

! Langley Boxwood Nursery, Rake, nr Liss, Hampshire GU33 7JL (01730 894467)

FUCHSIA FASCINATION

When I visited Dave Green in his small terraced house in West Norwood, south London, a good part of the National Collection of species fuchsias was living in a white van parked in the street outside. He explained that he is enlarging his greenhouse: when it is finished, it will take up the full width and half the length of his 50 by 20ft garden.

Dave's progress to horticultural stardom is a triumph of determination over improbability. Born in 1942, the son of a Yorkshire lamplighter, he became fascinated with fuchsias as a child. His mother kept one on the back windowsill, and he loved to pop the flowers. "In the end I was forbidden to touch the plant," he remembers. "I told myself that one day I'll have my own."

But at 17 he joined the army. It wasn't until he left, 12 years later, that he got his own house and garden on a council estate in Lancashire. There, at last, he began to grow fuchsias, but stuck to common modern cultivars. "I liked them," he says with hindsight, "but they didn't do a lot for me."

True fulfilment came after a chance meeting, when a passerby stopped to admire his garden. That conversation led Dave to the more rarefied world of species fuchsias - the kinds that occur in the wild, from which cultivars are bred.

"This guy took me to a specialist nursery and I saw a tiny, delicate plant a few inches high. The nurseryman said it was a fuchsia. I said: 'No, these are fuchsias' - he had some cultivars growing there too. And he told me it was a species fuchsia."

Hooked, Dave bought a few of them, then a few more. He became a more serious collector 10 years ago, when he and his wife Eileen moved to their present house. He began to correspond with Dr Paul Berry of Wisconsin University, a world authority on species fuchsias, who told him that the place to look for them in the wild was Ecuador. Species fuchsias grow in the Andes at altitudes of between 1,500 and 4,000 metres. But they still require protection against the London winter - hence the new greenhouse.

Dave and Eileen duly took themselves there, rented a four-wheel drive and began hunting. "People in the British Fuchsia Society scoffed," he recalls, "and Paul told me not to be disappointed if we didn't find anything. But I had an idea we would. There are 23 indigenous species there. We found all of them and discovered a new one. I brought a lot of seed back, and grew them here."

Of the 110 species recorded, Dave now has 79. He was asked to become a National Collection Holder in 1994 and in the same year showed part of his collection at the Hampton Court Flower Show and won a bronze medal.

He may need still more space for the collection soon - he and Eileen are going back to Ecuador this year. So even when the greenhouse is finished he'll be keeping the van, just in case.

A LOVE-IN WITH LAVENDER

When Simon Charlesworth completed his PhD in land drainage in 1991, aged 32, he took a job as a part-time postman - the only one he could find. Five years later, he was one of five holders of National Collections of lavender, and he now has a booming nursery near Tonbridge in Kent.

His interest in horticulture began when he was 24, and took a job as assistant manager at a garden centre. Then his father died, leaving him responsible for the semi-detached family house near Maidstone, with a 100-ft garden.

He left the centre to study for his PhD and qualified at the height of the recession. At the same time he was helping a friend establish a nursery, and noticed a growing demand for sun-loving Mediterranean plants: lavender, cistus and rosemary.

This was due to a number of converging trends. The renewed interest in cottage gardens coincided with fears of global warming and drought, and the emerging fashion for alternative remedies like aromatherapy, where lavender is much used.

Simon began to grow a range of lavenders in his own garden and started a mail-order business. It did well enough to allow him to move to his nursery, where he now has an acre under cultivation.

"Last year I grew 38,500 plants from home," he says. "I have about 150 varieties. I keep collecting and I'm introducing the species lavenders that other nurseries won't touch, because they can't make masses of money out of them. I may sell only 10 plants a year of some varieties, but it gives me the edge over others. People take me seriously."

This year's hot lavender has been 'Kew Red' - not strictly red but a deeper purple than other varieties. Simon sold out of it two days after the Gardeners' World Live show at the NEC.

Lavenders need a well-drained soil, neutral to alkaline. The exceptions are the stoecha varieties, with distinctive sterile bracts on top, usually found in acid soil. Pruning is important for all lavenders: they should be cut back hard in August, when they finish flowering, then trimmed in the spring when they have about an inch of growth at the tips.

Like other National Collection holders who own nurseries, Simon finds it hard to balance the commercial part of his work with the plant heritage aspect: "I'd like to devote more time to research but I have a business to run. I like wandering round at the end of the day comparing and contrasting the heads of the different varieties. But it you're always doing that you don't have time to run the business."

But if he were not passionate about his lavender, he would not attract the custom of fellow enthusiasts. Commerce and commitment each have their place in gardening: the National Collections straddle the boundary between them.

! Downderry Nursery, Pillar Box Lane, Hadlow, Tonbridge, Kent TN11 9SW (01732 810081)

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