Alan Bloom

Innovative Norfolk nurseryman


Alan Herbert Vauser Bloom, nurseryman: born Over, Cambridgeshire 19 November 1906; MBE 1997; twice married (one son, four daughters, and one son deceased); died Bressingham, Norfolk 30 March 2005.

Alan Herbert Vauser Bloom, nurseryman: born Over, Cambridgeshire 19 November 1906; MBE 1997; twice married (one son, four daughters, and one son deceased); died Bressingham, Norfolk 30 March 2005.

It is not very long since the world of horticulture was peopled by a host of colourful, even mildly eccentric individuals who had in common an unbounded enthusiasm for plants, an understanding of the conditions in which they thrived, a commitment to growing them to the highest standards and to expanding the range available to gardeners. Today, when many former family nurseries have been acquired by large corporations, such characters are few. Alan Bloom was among the last of them.

I first set eyes on him some 13 years ago - a tall man, still muscular though well into his eighties, his thick white hair tumbling below his shoulders as he forked up clumps of aconites for sale at the family garden centre he had founded 40 years earlier at Bressingham in Norfolk. Yet, although he looked for all the world like an ageing hippie, he had been one of the most innovative plantsmen of the post-war years, responsible for a profound change in the look of British gardens.

It was in the 1950s, shortly after he founded the nursery in the grounds of the Georgian Bressingham Hall, that he developed a theory about growing perennials. Until then, they had been confined principally to long, deep mixed borders of the kind popularised by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. These were usually sited beneath walls and fences, in shade for a part of the day, which meant that many plants became leggy and needed staking. In addition, such borders are difficult to weed.

"I realised that perennials weren't getting a fair deal," he told me, after I had persuaded him to put down his fork and go into the house for a talk. His solution was to grow them in "island beds", dug into the middle of lawns and other open areas. This allowed the plants to grow more sturdily, as well as giving access to the hoe from all sides.

He performed a similar service for lovers of alpine plants, another of his specialities. Until then these had normally been grown in rockeries, again notoriously difficult to maintain without a staff of professional gardeners. Bloom found that they thrived, and made more of a visual impact, in simple raised beds, where they did not have to fight for space with large stone boulders.

He demonstrated both these techniques in his six-acre garden, the Dell, which became a popular attraction for gardeners and helped to establish Bressingham as one of the four or five most successful nurseries in Britain. He introduced nearly 200 new perennials during his career, including popular varieties of crocosmia, astilbe, geranium and phlox. In the 1960s, when steam trains were being phased out on British railways, he fed another of his enthusiasms by buying up several old engines and establishing a steam museum next to the nursery, further increasing the flow of visitors.

As the son of a nurseryman, Charles Bloom, Alan's career was decided for him at an early age. At 16 he began performing menial tasks at a succession of nurseries in the east and south of England. This was in the early 1920s, when the chief means of delivering batches of plants to customers was to take them by horse and cart to the nearest railhead. In 1926 he started his own wholesale nursery at Oakington, Cambridgeshire, and bought a farm at Wickham Fen to grow his stock. By the time war broke out in 1939 the nursery was a thriving concern.

During the Second World War he switched to growing food crops and in 1946 he sold the nursery and farm and moved to Bressingham. Discouraged by the Arctic conditions of his first winter, he decided to accept the challenge offered by emigration to Canada and in 1948 he took his young family to Vancouver Island, leaving the fledgling Bressingham nursery in the hands of a manager.

He never settled in Canada and after two years he came back to his nursery. In the 1960s, after some soul-searching, he decided to expand into the retail market by following the trend towards growing plants in containers, the advantage being that they were easier to transport and display and could be planted out at almost any time of the year.

"I was reluctant to change," he wrote in his 1991 book, Alan Bloom's Hardy Perennials,

preferring to grow alpines in pots and perennials in the open ground as I had always done,

and to keep to wholesale only; but our retailing customers were calling for container-grown plants.

He also had reservations about advances in propagation by tissue culture, which he thought would undermine the old virtues of human skill and commitment in plant breeding. But he concluded: "Material progress is ever a two-sided affair, of gain for some and loss for others."

In 1972 he retired from the day-to-day running of the nursery, leaving it in the hands of his sons Adrian and Robert, but he continued to work in the garden, and he remained at Bressingham even after the nursery was sold to outside investors in the 1990s.

He wrote some 30 books and appeared often on television and radio, most recently in a radio interview last year. The Royal Horticultural Society recognised his achievements with the award of both the Victoria Medal of Honour and the Veitch Memorial Medal, and in 1997 he was appointed MBE.

Michael Leapman

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