Bunhill: Kelway's Nurseries

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GOOD news for gardeners: Kelway's Nurseries will survive - probably. Kelway's what, I hear you ask. Kelway's Nurseries is to peony growers what Mouton-Rothschild is to claret drinkers.

The Somerset nursery, established in 1851 by James Kelway, is the world's biggest producer of the blooms. The Queen Mother buys hers there. So does Princess Margaret.

A century ago, when Monet wanted peonies for his gardens at Chateau Giverny, he placed his order at Kelway's.

The company has an unequalled bank of 'mother stock' - the roots from which cuttings are taken for fresh plants. Some of the stock is more than 100 years old. Three varieties of peony are named after the company, including the carmine and salmon-pink 'Kelway's Gorgeous'. And it has exhibited at every Chelsea Flower Show.

Its fields, where half a million plants are under cultivation, are known as Peony Valley and briefly become a tourist attraction each May and June when the flowers bloom.

But Kelway's, though revered by horticulturalists, has had all the charm of poison ivy for investors. It has repeatedly proved a commercial disaster, most recently for investors under the Business Expansion Scheme. The famous green fingers of Kelway's have been looking distinctly frazzled.

In November, the petals finally fell off, so to speak. Clydesdale Bank, which is owed pounds 420,000, called in the receivers. Robert Birchall, of Coopers & Lybrand, who made 28 of the 35 staff redundant, is hopeful Kelway's can be saved. By Friday's deadline for bids, he had received several encouraging offers.

But there is bad news for the 1,500 mail-order customers who ordered plants in the weeks before the receivership and did not have their demands fulfilled in time. As unsecured creditors, they rank below the Clydesdale and are 'highly unlikely' to get either their money back or their plants.