Gardening: The germinator

A stand at Chelsea commemorates the cotton broker who sowed the seeds of modern horticulture in Britain, writes Ursula Buchan
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We live in a golden age for mass gardening, yet gardeners, being no less human than anyone else, are prey to fits of nostalgia for times gone by - particularly when it comes to the disappearance of the rich plantsman patron.

In the first quarter of this century, there were a number of wealthy amateur gardeners with estates or large gardens, who liked to spend their money sponsoring plant-hunting expeditions. They were individualistic and acquisitive, and often highly competitive. Sometimes they also owned a nursery, sometimes not, but always they divided the collected seed amongst their friends, and they usually forged close links with botanic gardens. Prominent among them were John Charles Williams at Caerhays, Lionel de Rothschild at Exbury, Sir Frederick Stern from Highdown and HD Mclaren from Bodnant. The man who gave the lead was Arthur Kilpin Bulley (1861- 1942).

Bulley, a successful Liverpool cotton broker, made several gardens in the Wirral, the most magnificent of which was his last - at Ness, near Neston, where he also founded a famous nursery and seed merchants, Bees. For 20 years, starting in 1904, Bulley paid wholly or in part for explorations to the temperate regions of the Far East, particularly China, by George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward, Roland Cooper and Reginald Farrer. These intrepid individuals endured hardships, loneliness and fear to collect hardy plants, especially alpine species and rhododendrons. All of them are commemorated in plants they introduced. Many of these were first distributed commercially by Bees, and a number are well established in cultivation.

The recently published A Pioneering Plantsman, AK Bulley and the Great Plant Hunters, by Brenda McLean (HMSO, pounds 29), shows Bulley to have been a fascinating and complicated man. Although well connected in the purple of commerce, he was a lifelong Socialist and agnostic (he maintained this was a reaction to attending Marlborough College, which was churchy and conservative).

He was a humane man, who ran his nursery as a co-operative and allowed visitors into his garden free of charge all the year round. He died in 1942, after 44 years at Ness, and in 1948 his daughter, Lois, gave the garden of 60 acres (24 hectares) to the University of Liverpool. It is now an environmental and horticultural research station for the university, and a much admired public garden.

This year is the centenary of Bulley's move to Ness, a milestone to be celebrated next week at Chelsea Flower Show, with an exhibit staged jointly by Ness Botanic Gardens and the Alpine Garden Society. It is fitting that the designer is Dr Christopher Grey-Wilson, himself a plant hunter as well as a botanist, gardener and writer.

The exhibit is principally composed of a number of large and very fine, well-weathered stone troughs, planted with alpines amenable enough for amateurs to grow successfully. Twelve of the troughs are of Triassic sandstone, and come from Ness. They were gathered from nearby farms in the Sixties and Seventies, as development encroached, and are usually to be seen at the gardens, filled with rock plants. The largest weighs about half a tonne. The others were provided by the Alpine Garden Society (AGS), which owns an enviable number, including a stone coffin.

The exhibit also includes outcrops of tufa, that strange, porous, volcanic, alpine-friendly rock, together with a raised bed and a pond, the stone for which has been given by the aptly-named Hard Rock Quarry, near Skelmersdale. This stone will be reused at Ness after the show is over.

It is an ambitious display, even for the AGS, which last year won the Holford Medal, the prize for the best amateur exhibit at any Royal Horticultural Society show during the year. The society depends entirely on its members, both for setting up the Chelsea exhibit and for growing the plants.

This one looks set to make quite an impression in the marquee, with bright jewels of mountain flowers sparkling in the troughs, the tufa, and the raised bed. The gods have not been kind, it is true; the strange weather conditions this spring will mean no charming, golden-yellow Primula bulleyana or reddish-pink Primula beesiana to commemorate AK Bulley in flower. Nevertheless, visitors to the stand will be left in no doubt of the achievements of the Liverpool entrepreneur who did so much to enrich British gardening.

Last Sunday, during a break from manhandling troughs and tufa rock in the marquee, Chris Grey-Wilson told me of his forthcoming plant-hunting expedition to the Caucasus. The money to fund such a trip has come mostly in grants from public bodies and charitable trusts. There will be no help from any garden-minded mobile phone mogul or computer millionaire, it seems. Ah, change and decay ...