Gardening: The name of the rose - and its grower

Zephyrine Barbarachild runs a one-woman gardening business from a base in Lancashire. She talked to Anna Pavord about her circuitous route to the business that gives her satisfying work all the year round.

If your parents christen you with a name like Zephyrine, you are surely destined for a horticultural career. Where else do you ever see the name but in association with `Zephirine Drouhin', the pink-flowered Bourbon rose, famous for its thornlessness? For a long time Zephyrine Barbarachild tried to escape her fate. She fled from university (where she read languages) to hide in a croft in Aberdeenshire. There she kept goats, and attempted to forget the three beautiful gardens that her parents had made while she was growing up in Cheshire.

It worked for a while, but then, by a sneaky subterfuge, destiny arranged a date for her at the Quakers' meeting-house at Brigflatts, Sedbergh. She'd applied for and got the job of warden, which seemed innocuous enough. But there was a garden attached to the meeting-house and as well as sweeping out the building, making tea and doing other jobs that wardening demanded, Zephyrine Barbarachild found herself tinkering in this garden, planting things, thinking about it, when she could have been thinking about goats or trade unions or macrobiotics, or any of the other things that had from time to time been important in her life.

Realising how stealthily her doppelganger was creeping up on her, she chucked in the Cumbrian meeting house and charged off instead to mid-Wales - always a good place to head for in a crisis. There she fell in with some herbalists and, learning on the job, became chief dispenser at a centre for natural healing.

"But it was hard living in mid-Wales," says Ms Barbarachild. "The people are so bloody miserable." So she went off to try London, feeling, as did many at the time, that to have lived at all, you had to have lived in the capital. There she became a macrobiotic cook, most especially to a rather fussy all-girl band.

The job involved delivering regular food parcels to the band's various gigs, but it all had to be done by bike because she couldn't drive. "If I'd had a driving licence, I might have become their roadie," she muses, seeming to mind the opportunity she missed to add yet another episode to the tale of her picaresque career.

But, to cut a long story short, gardening got her in the end. It was her brother's fault. He, being a lecturer in horticulture at St Albans, was her first port of call when she wanted to find out about taking cuttings from a fuchsia. He told her, and delivered a bolt of information about horticultural courses at the same time.

So perhaps it's the fuchsia's fault rather than her brother's that she now runs a one-woman gardening business, Rose Among Thorns, from a base in Lancaster. She gives horticultural advice, takes on garden maintenance and can do garden design. She also creates dried flower arrangements to order and makes Christmas wreaths and swags.

Could she have set up the business without doing her course, I wonder. "No," she says. "Although I didn't enjoy it much at the time, it's come in useful."

What, especially, had been useful, I asked. "Pruning," she replied without hesitation. "Clients get into a terrible twist about pruning, when and how to do it. It's the sort of thing that my kind of business can easily take on."

She sees herself fitting into the niche left by the patio/construction professionals that she calls "the flat-bed truck brigade", who are keener on sloshing around concrete than they are on wielding secateurs. There is a living to be made in her field, she says, but you have to accept that it is seasonal. The slump in outdoor work between November and March is what prompted her to diversify into dried flowers and Christmas swags.

Ms Barbarachild's Lancaster house has a cellar, so she has recently started up another sideline: producing potted hyacinths. She buys the bulbs wholesale, pots them up and starts them into growth in the dark, cool conditions below - ideal for forcing hyacinths. Then when the bulbs have greened up and the buds are beginning to show, fat and juicy, she invites her friends and clients round and persuades them that potted hyacinths are just what they need to give away as Christmas presents.

Her garden is remarkable for the number of trees that she persuades to grow in pots. Much of the garden is contained in a small concreted yard behind the terraced house, so pots are the only option.

A twisty hazel (Corylus avellana `Contorta') shares one pot with a climbing hydrangea. Next to it is a potted larch, Larix decidua, which must be at least 10ft tall, and a rather smaller Norfolk Island pine, Araucaria heterophylla, which spends its winters in the spare bedroom. And yes, she does have That Rose. It grows in the little front garden with variegated fuchsia and Clematis armandii.

Rose Among Thorns is based at 35 Cromwell Road, Lancaster LA1 5BD (01524 383325). Zephyrine Barbarachild studied for her National Certificate of Horticulture (a one-year course) at Myerscough College, Myerscough Hall, Bilsborrow, Preston, Lancashire PR3 0RY (01995 640611). This is the first building-block necessary to qualify for a horticultural career. If you are successful in the NCH, you can go on to study for a National Diploma in Horticulture and then a Higher National Diploma. Different colleges offer different options. At Merrist Wood College, Worplesdon, Guildford, Surrey GU3 3PE (01483 232424), you can study either amenity horticulture (which is what Ms Barbarachild did) or Commercial Horticulture. The first teaches the science of gardening and the skills that underpin it. The second concentrates more on nursery production. At least 35 colleges offer courses leading to an NCH. For a full list send a large SAE to the Institute of Horticulture, 14/15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PS.

WEEKEND WORK

There are several hardy annuals which will make a good show early next year if you sow them outside now, in the place where you want them to flower.

Sow them as thinly as possible, cover lightly with sifted soil or compost and firm this down on top of the seeds. Protect with netting against cats and birds until the seedlings are properly established. Do not thin the seedlings until the spring. There are bound to be casualties before then.

Annuals such as poppy, calendula, larkspur, limnanthes (called "fried egg" because each flower has a brilliant yellow centre surrounded by white- tipped petals), love-in-the-mist, clarkia and cornflower can all be treated in this fashion.

Take cuttings of shrubs such as berberis, phlomis and potentilla. They will root most easily in a light mixture of sand and peat. Choose 6in- 9in shoots and pull them off the parent bush leaving a reasonable-sized "heel" (a slip of old wood) attached. Bury them about 3in deep and firm the compost down well around the cuttings.

After picking the last peaches and nectarines, prune wall-trained trees and tie in new shoots to replace old, fruited shoots. Cut out entirely any shoots that grow straight out of the front of the tree.

Check ties regularly on top-heavy plants such as dahlias and chrysanthemums. Dahlias, especially, suffered during the downpours of August, but there is still time for them to produce new flowers.

Weed carefully round cyclamen corms, which tend to get forgotten after the leaves dive underground. The flowers of C hederifolium are a great treat in early September, and they flourish among tree roots where few other plants will settle.

CUTTINGS

A new list of second-hand gardening books has just arrived from Mary Bland of Augop, Evenjobb, Nr Presteigne, Powys LD8 2PA (014547 560218). I'm still recovering from the sorrow of having lost, through dithering, a fabulous though expensive 1747 edition of The Compleat Florist from another second-hand bookseller. This list of less rare, so more moderately priced books, comes as a palliative. It's very good on quite modern books from small publishers such as Tim Buxbaum's Scottish Gardening Buildings.

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