Gardens: 'There had to be a garden'

Marchants Hardy Plants in Sussex is a busy and successful nursery. So what possessed its owners to take on a large and complex garden as well? Anna Pavord finds out.
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The Independent Online

You'd think the last thing a nurseryman would want is a large, labour-intensive garden billowing round him and his potting shed. Not Graham Gough, who with his partner, the textile designer Lucy Goffin, opened Marchants Hardy Plants in Sussex 10 years ago. "There had to be a garden," he says emphatically. "It's my creative outlet. Learning about new plants, propagating them, is fascinating, but the plant isn't an end in itself. It's what you do with it that matters."

So at Marchants, the nursery drifts almost imperceptibly into Gough's rich, dramatic sweeps of herbaceous planting: sanguisorbas, day lilies, masses of grasses, achilleas, dark agapanthus, tall daisies in yellow and bronze. It's a cleverly designed space, the land sculpted into promontories, beds protected by swirling hedges, the land gradually dropping down through areas of long grass and young trees to a pond guarded by a fine, huge-leaved Populus lasiocarpa.

For Gough, making the garden has been the best possible therapy for the manic depression that first manifested itself in his twenties. He's now 41 and for both him and Lucy, the move to Marchants was the beginning of a new life. Selling plants wasn't new – he'd been doing that for 16 years with Elizabeth Strangman at Washfield, also in Sussex – but, after a breakdown, at Marchants he found the "bare canvas" he was longing for, two acres where he could garden.

He hadn't quite reckoned on the intractability of the clay soil he'd bought into. It was autumn when they arrived, the time in the year when clay seems reasonably crumbly and workable. But just beneath the surface was the kind of yellow stuff that potters make pots with, and 10 years of mulching hasn't yet had the desired effect.

But you'd never know the trouble they've had. As in all the best gardens, as you wander through the vast drifts of plants, admiring sheaves of dark-leaved eucomis behind a foreground of orange potentilla, or deep maroon daylilies paired with the hairy heads of grey-pink pennisetum, it looks effortless.

The garden, though, is also Gough's stock bed. He propagates nearly all the plants he sells and the garden provides his seed, his cuttings and his divisions. He keeps costs as low as possible (the only heated area in the nursery is a small enclosed propagating box inside one of his two polytunnels), mixes his own compost and has quickly acquired a reputation for producing superb plants. Within three years of setting up he and Lucy had saved enough to build an extension to their house, which provided Lucy with a well-lit work room to do her intricate needlework.

But the garden is a wonderful resource for customers too. If you want to see what the red hot poker 'Percy's Pride' looks like when it's grown up, there it is blazing away in Gough's borders. If you're looking for new ways to use dark blue monkshood (one of my favourite plants at this time of year), you'll find ideas here that you can copy in your own garden.

"The English flower border at the end of the Nineties was stuck," says Gough emphatically. "Then Piet Oudolf did what he did and set it free." But here in Britain we've generally got a more forgiving soil and climate than in The Netherlands (Oudolf is a Dutch nurseryman and garden designer). At Marchants, you'll find a wonderfully wide range of herbaceous plants and grasses, both in garden and nursery.

But how do you choose, I asked Gough, as we surveyed a luscious batch of agapanthus seedlings, which he has selected over the years. "Well my taste hasn't changed since we've been here, but I suppose it's been honed. I'm looking at an overall picture. Anything that comes in has to fit into that picture. I love finding new plants and every summer I go on a trawl of other nurseries. It's like taking a pulse – catching a drift. But they have to fit."

I went to Marchants with a feeling that the Gough picture might include a handsome beast called Datisca cannabina which I originally acquired from Billy Carruthers's nursery, Binny Plants, in Scotland. It's done well in our garden, rearing up to 10 feet high at least, with strange, long tassels of green flowers in late summer. It doesn't need staking, it doesn't need cosseting and I wanted more. Sure enough, there it was in the nursery, looking meek and manageable in its 14cm pot. But if you don't know it (or anything else on the nursery benches) you've only to walk down through the garden to check it out, see what it's capable of.

And although I hadn't ever been to the nursery before, I had met Gough, most memorably at the late Christopher Lloyd's 80th birthday party, where in a fine tenor voice he sang German Lieder in a programme of music chosen by Lloyd himself. For four years Gough trained as a singer at the Guildhall School, but found, as he puts it, that mentally he wasn't "cut out for a singer's life". Gardening, though, is a little bit about performance and Gough reckons that Marchants more than fulfils his need to express himself. His customers are his audience. "We just hope we may have opened their eyes a bit."

Marchants Hardy Plants, 2 Marchants Cottages, Mill Lane, Laughton, East Sussex BN8 6AJ, 01323 811737, open Wed-Sat (9.30am-5.30pm), until mid-October. Send 4 x 1st class stamps for a catalogue (no mail order). There will be a special exhibition over the Bank Holiday weekend with prints, baskets, paintings, stoneware, salt-glazed pots, jewellery and textiles for sale. Open 23 & 24 Aug (10am-5.30pm) and 25 Aug (10am-4pm)