Michael Loftus: Neal's Yard owner who became a dedicated nurseryman

The nursery that Michael Loftus set up, Woottens of Wenhaston, was a place of pilgrimage for anyone who loved plants, especially iris, auriculas and day lilies. The nursery had an aura about it; and Loftus himself certainly did.

He was a big man, in every sense. Very sure of his opinions. Very clear about expressing them. He liked debate. Someone who worked in the nursery (at that stage he only employed women) remembers how each day the staff gathered for elevenses in the house, where Loftus would invite topics for discussion. Nursery talk was banned.

Standards at the nursery were staggeringly high. The plants thumped with health. No liverwort or chickweed dared invade a pot. And he grew only what he loved. At first, the nursery occupied part of his garden in Suffolk, but as Loftus's ambitions got bigger, the garden grew very much smaller. When irises started to take over his life, he bought a two-acre field to accommodate them. It was a showcase for the nursery of course, but it was also a wonderfully extravagant gesture, a gift to the visitors who wandered round it in a daze in June.

Loftus was in his mid-forties when he suddenly decided to become a plantsman and nurseryman. The money to set up the new venture came from the sale of his previous business, the Neal's Yard wholefoods shop in Covent Garden. In the Nineties, sun-dried tomatoes were still a novelty (except for the NW3-ers with second homes in Italy) and Neal's Yard, which had been founded in the Seventies, was a pioneer in providing a certain kind of product, an alternative lifestyle, to the flower children now settling into middle age.

Loftus understood marketing and could trade terms like "destination shopping" and "proactive" with the best of them. He knew how to make a splash and he did, quite literally, with the water clock that became a famous landmark at the Covent Garden shop. Designed by Tim Hunkin, it marked the hours by drenching anyone passing on the pavement underneath.

The clock found its way with Loftus to the new nursery, flanked there by two silver columns, heat exchangers from the Sizewell A power station on the Suffolk coast nearby. The nursery itself was beautifully laid out and Loftus loomed in baggy cords and canvas jacket, as a memorable, intensely charismatic presence at its centre.

He had very high standards. No plant ever pushed its roots out through the bottom of a pot before it was snatched up and moved into a bigger one. He was proud of the systematic regimes he devised for watering and feeding the nursery stock. He would defend a plant he loved to the death.

But he was a practical, knowledgeable gardener, too, and the superb, beautifully illustrated handbooks that he began to issue from 1991 onwards always contained sharp, direct observations. On dahlias: "For those doing penance for horticultural sins in a previous life, and enduring the rigours of clay, I recommend keeping your dahlias in pots and plunging them in the herbaceous border." On campanulas: "Do not grow Campanula 'Loddon Anna' which has muddy-pink flowers or Campanula 'White Pouffe' which is a dumpy dwarf." On day-lilies: "Hemerocallis is inextricably associated with that dreadful old cultivar H. fulva 'Plena' – a hideous rusty orange thug only fit for the municipal dump. The modern hemerocallis cultivars with their ruffles, eyezones, banding and edges (camp and gorgeous as if snipped out of velvet and silk by John Galliano) are fit to strut the cat walk."

By establishing the nursery in Suffolk, Loftus was returning to his roots. His father was managing director of the famous Suffolk brewery Adnams and he was brought up in a family of five children. At the University of Essex, where he studied briefly in the Sixties, he was more interested in student politics than his coursework. But he finished a degree in Russian language and literature, spending what he remembered as a "miserable winter" in Minsk "enveloped by drunks".

His first venture, making goat's cheese in Suffolk, was what led him to Neal's Yard, where his entrepreneurial flair emerged. He worked with Neal's Yard founder, Nicholas Saunders, before masterminding the takeover which allowed that business to grow. When he himself sold out in 1990, he left, unable to face the prospect of being somebody else's employee.

"The nursery was the only thing I could muster up enough enthusiasm for to go through all the agonies you know lie ahead in running any business of your own," he explained when he first set up Woottens. "I taught myself how to propagate. I thought there would be far more mystique involved, but technically it has not been half as difficult as I expected."

Always, he remained faithful to the herbaceous plants that were at the heart of his business. Starting with perhaps 250 different kinds, he ended up with more than 4000. "It is the uncompromising seasonality of perennials that still bewitches me," he wrote in his magnificent handbook of 2005, which is already an icon. "They make no attempt to stake out a claim on eternity; they have their moment of brilliance, and then they are gone."

Michael Loftus, plantsman and nurseryman: born Blythburgh, Suffolk 21 November 1948; married 1989 Lizzy Woolfe (four sons, one daughter); died Wenhaston, Suffolk 25 July 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
United States President Barack Obama, right, uses actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play the part of 'Luther, President Obama's anger translator'
video
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions