Gardening: A maverick in the nursery: Michael Loftus used to run a wholefood store. Now, self-taught, he grows wholly wonderful plants. Anna Pavord met him

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The Independent Online
'IT'S CALLED destination shopping,' said Michael Loftus, talking about his nursery, Wootten's Plants, in Suffolk. He didn't look the sort of person to use such jargon. It goes with self-conscious suits, a mobile phone, flickering eyes and phrases such as 'pro-active' and 'total quality management'. But here was a man with slightly wild hair, dressed in baggy cords and a blue canvas jacket, standing in the yard of a beautifully laid-out nursery in a remote part of East Anglia, surrounded by superbly grown herbaceous plants, many of them rare. Some destination. Some shopping.

Why are his plants so good? 'Because we pot on regularly, which is vital. We water systematically. And we feed.' And how does he know about shopping? Because he used to own the Neal's Yard wholefoods shop, Covent Garden.

The clock should have provided the clue. Poirot would have got it straight away. On the top of the potting shed is a big, four-square clock, the sort you find on the stables of posh country houses. So like that, in fact, that you don't look at it closely. But on each quarter-hour it chimes in a weird, John Cage way and that makes you look at it again.

The clock face is framed by two silver columns. 'Heat exchangers from Sizewell A,' said Mr Loftus. On top is a model of an old man in a cap, holding a scythe and a hosepipe. Every hour water spurts out of his hosepipe to trickle over the roof on to the plants below. The clock was designed and made by Tim Hunkin, who also made the water clock in Covent Garden.

But you don't go to a nursery to look at a clock. The plants have to be worth the trip. These are. They are thumping with health and the range is extraordinary: masses of salvias, a huge collection of Barnhaven primulas, at least 10 different sorts of foxglove, more than 40 irises, some pretty scabious including Scabiosa succisa with good clean foliage and slatey-blue knobs of flowers on 2ft stems. He has all the plants of the moment, such as Corydalis flexuosa recently introduced from China and the deep-purple oriental poppy 'Patty's Plum' that originated with Patricia Marrow in Somerset.

He also has trendy Alstroemeria pulchella with flowers of a pucey sort of red and a sickly green. 'Don't like it much though,' he said. 'It's like the worst kind of Victorian wallpaper.'

The retailer in him tells him he ought to have such plants in his list. Fortunately, they do not dominate. The maverick in him is much more interesting. In deciding what to grow, he mostly follows his own nose, each year propagating hundreds of new plants, just because he wants to see what they are like.

'Brilliant plant,' he said, swooping on a silene in a pot and twirling it round in front of me.

'But what if it doesn't sell?' I asked, silenes not being everybody's cup of tea. 'Will you still go on growing it?'

'Yes,' he said emphatically. 'I'm dogged.'

He is also evidently a quick learner. He left the Neal's Yard operation in November 1990, 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. 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.' He started to lay out the nursery in May 1991 and opened for business that autumn.

The nursery is conspicuously well ordered, but not in a bossy way. The plants are ranged systematically, the pots are all upright, none of them is gasping for water as they so often are in garden centres, and there is no liverwort or weed on the top of the compost. And Mr Loftus only has one part-time helper.

I wish I had known he was a campanula man, though. He didn't look it, and I made the mistake of saying I thought several members of the family were overrated as garden plants. Coarse, uninteresting foliage. Flowers too fleeting to make up for an overall lack of habit or style. Colour sometimes washed-out, muddy. I should have been looking at him when I was saying it, instead of his clutch of Campanula lactiflora. When I did look up, his face was rather thunderous. It could have been pistols at dawn, but I got off lightly. 'How can you say such things]' he demanded. Then he did a very good twirl on his heel and strode off to communicate with the violas.

There, at least, there was no possible cause for argument. We both agreed that Viola cornuta 'Netta Strachan' was one of the best, a vigorous spreading plant with flowers the colour of skimmed milk. It never stops flowering, it smells and it is happy in sun or half shade. What more can you ask? He has 'Freckles', too, another of my favourites, with flowers curiously spotted with blue on white. It needs moisture and half shade to enjoy itself.

Michael Loftus also specialises in old-fashioned pelargoniums, the sort with scented leaves. He uses them very well in his own garden, which adjoins the nursery. You find Pelargonium tomentosum with huge grey felted leaves lolling against the walls of his summerhouse. He also uses them in his beds and borders, where they mound up into enormous plants, releasing exotic whiffs of peppermint and lemon and nutmeg as you brush by them.

I tried a type of P. tomentosum called 'Chocolate Spot' in my front borders this year. In the centre of each leaf is a dark chocolate-coloured stain, much more impressive than a spot. With it I grew a handsome oak-leaved pelargonium, which Mr Loftus also has in his vast collection. He has more than 80 kinds, including many of the vigorous, shrubby Unique types with sumptuous dark flowers.

It was only after I had left that I realised I had not asked Mr Loftus what 'destination shopping' meant. I checked it out later with another retailer. 'It means going a long way to find something special that you can't find anywhere else,' he said. So that's why I spent seven hours in the car, driving through a monumental cloudburst. It was worth it.

Wootten's Plants, Blackheath, Wenhaston, Halesworth, Suffolk IP19 9HD (050270 258), open daily 9.30am-5pm. No mail order.

(Photograph omitted)

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