Border bloom

Less business than labour of love, Elizabeth Taylor's Powys nursery is a treasure trove of unusual plants, writes Anna Pavord
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A reader, Frances Rathbone, of London N1, first put me on to the Whimble Nursery in Powys. "It's really in the back of beyond," wrote Ms Rathbone. "The plants are unusual and of the best quality. This spring the place was full of luscious terracotta and russet wallflowers and violas. I lose labels and forget names, but I bought some old-fashioned primulas, some geraniums and some gorgeous pale orange double poppies."

As it's never a hardship to fiddle about in the border country round Presteigne, I quickly persuaded myself that I needed to go and meet Elizabeth Taylor, who set up this nursery just a few years ago. No, she said when we met, Ms Rathbone didn't have shares in the place. Nor was she a member of the family. This was an entirely unsolicited testimonial.

Word of mouth is important to a business like this, because you'd starve if you had to rely on passing trade. One of the huge delights of the area is that there isn't any. But it's worth a detour, particularly if you like aquilegias, pinks, campanulas, geraniums, penstemons and violas.

Why was she growing these particular plants, I asked. "Because I like them," she replied. She'd been given her first viola, the scented, silvery- mauve `Maggie Mott', by an old lady in the village, and got hooked on the family. I know the feeling.

When she first started up the business, she had a great deal of help from a friend, Angela Holmes, and they sold shrubs, roses and climbers as well as perennials. Now that she's running the nursery on her own, she finds it sensible to concentrate on a more specialised range of plants.

The nursery is set high up - about 800ft - with the extraordinary, pudding- basin hill from which it takes its name rearing up behind it. The stock plants from which Ms Taylor takes her cuttings and divisions are mostly grown in rectangular beds on one side of the nursery, with plants for sale on the other. It's a quirky place, with a potting bench set comfortably among the plants, and in the middle a corrugated iron building, faintly Caribbean in feeling, which she had once planned to turn into a tearoom.

The principle was sound, but in practice Ms Taylor found that she didn't have enough hours in the day to cope with her plants, let alone brew tea. So don't go expecting cuppas. Stock up in Presteigne. Was there really a living to be made from this kind of business, I wondered, set so far off the beaten track? "I'd love to think that there was," replied Ms Taylor, "but I can't see it ever being financially worthwhile. You've just got to love doing it."

Mostly, she does. The worst times are the hot summers, such as we had last year, when 20,000 small plants, gasping in their pots, haunted her every hour. She has very high standards. The compost in the pots is clean and fresh, not covered with weeds and liverworts as you find at so many nurseries. When plants such as aquilegias have finished flowering, she cuts them down and sets them aside in a holding pen, while fresh plants - penstemons, maybe, or diascias - are brought in to take their place.

She's organic enough not to want to have peat in her potting composts, so she uses coir (Fertile Fibre) instead. She's stopped worrying about Britain's disappearing peat bogs and now worries instead about the ecological correctness of transporting coir expensively all the way from its own home ground. There are no easy answers in this business. The really correct thing to do, I suppose, would be to return to growing herbaceous perennials in the open ground and delivering them, bare-rooted, in autumn.

But then Ms Rathbone couldn't have waltzed away when she did with her poppies, and I couldn't have left the place clutching my viola, parahebe and euphorbia. I'm particularly pleased to have the euphorbia, E pithyusa. Ms Taylor had one growing in a pot in the little garden at the entrance to her nursery. Most of the euphorbias I grow are distinctly beefy, but this one has narrow, thread-like leaves of a strange, pale grey-green and equally pale flowers on top of stalks about 12in to 18in tall. You can tell it's a sun-lover. It needs good drainage too.

What sort of training do you need, to have a nursery, I asked Ms Taylor. "I don't know," she replied. "I've never had any training. I've done all sorts of silly things in my life, but I've never had a proper career. I just find things out by trial and error. End of story." This year she tried to give herself the illusion of being a proper businesswoman by keeping proper records of the stock she held. "But the time involved was just unbelievable. I couldn't keep up with it."

She started first in 1989 with a joint venture in Presteigne, growing herbs and wild flowers. "As one did," she said, rolling her eyes slightly. But few things look scraggier in pots than wild flowers, and herbs became the province of production-line growers, who could do them more cheaply than she could. And anyway, the back-to-nature mob who bought her first plants came to realise, as we all do, that nature does a better job with wild flowers than the rest of us can. They graduated to a different kind of garden and wanted different plants to put in them.

Each year she grows plants that are new to her. It keeps the nursery looking fresh and provides the treasure-hunt element that nursery visitors rather enjoy. Among the well-known pinks such as the double white `Dad's Favourite' and the superbly scented `Allspice', you'll find species such as Dianthus monspessulanus. I brought one of those home, too. It's wispier than the plants I generally go for, grassy foliage of green rather than grey, and flowers that are very pale and ragged, as though they have been blown to pieces in the wind. That's hardly a hard sell for the plant, but I thought it an intriguing thing. It's a native of central Europe, where it grows on mountains.

Did Ms Taylor ever put a cost on the time she spent in the nursery. "No," she said firmly. "That would be totally daunting. I'd end up feeling really terrible about it. I try not to be too obsessive about the way the plants are looking, but I can't go past a plant that's looking awful. I try hard to keep a balance in life. I like making pots - garden pots. And in winter I make a living by repairing oriental carpets. I know the nursery is never going to make me any money, but on the other hand it would be very hard to chuck it in now."

So if you are in the neighbourhood of Presteigne, wandering down the B4372, I reckon you'll still find Elizabeth Taylor at the Whimble Nursery, Kinnerton, Powys LD8 2PD (01547 560413). It is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays (1pm-5pm) until the end of September.