Nursing a habit: Seeking out specialist nurseries can be as addictive a pastime as gardening itself, says Anna Pavord. But it's the only way to go if you mean business

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The Independent Online

Most garden centres have been brought up firmly on the Henry Ford principle. You can have anything you like as long as it's pansies. Pansies are very good things in their way, but there comes a day, a few years on in your gardening career, when you get hit by a wild desire to break out of the pansy mould. You dream of salvias in iridescent blue, of fritillaries the colour of a witch's brew, perhaps even - if you are freewheeling totally out of control - an apricot datura to bring the tropics to Tregunter Road.

It is hardly surprising that your average garden centre wants little to do with daturas. After all, you don't go to the local department store if you are on the track of a Biedermeier sofa. At this stage in your gardening life, you may stumble upon the richly diverse world of the specialist nursery and their catalogues. You will also discover a most agreeable way to squander the housekeeping money.

You can get a taste of what is in store by looking in at any of the London shows that the Royal Horticultural Society holds in Vincent Square, near Victoria (the next one is 16-17 January 2007). Here, depending on the season, you will find old-fashioned roses billowing in the high-ceilinged hall, or, up from Berkshire, Louise Peters of Foxgrove Plants beaming over a display of snowdrops or hellebores. You will find fern freaks, ivy specialists, grandstands of auriculas and avenues of camellias brought up from Cornwall by Charles Williams of Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth. The shows are not only for looking. You can buy as well.

Once hooked, seeking out specialist nurseries becomes as addictive a pastime as garden visiting. Sometimes you can do both together. At Misarden Park, a fabulous Arts and Crafts garden, hidden away at Miserden, Stroud, the old kitchen garden has been taken over by nurseryman David Robb who grows between 500 and 600 kinds of perennial, following his own nose rather than fashion, though there happen to be several very fashionable families on display there: campanulas, foxgloves (including the refined yellow kinds Digitalis grandiflora and D. laevigata) and elegant white crinums, which flower in late summer with arching swan necks. Basking comfortably in two of the restored greenhouses are ranks of regal pelargoniums and deep, inky pots of streptocarpus. It's irresistible.

There is another excellent small nursery attached to the garden at Bosvigo House in Truro, where Wendy Perry propagates and sells rare and unusual herbaceous plants from her garden. Dream of Campanula takesimana, a bellflower from Korea with spikes of lilac flowers, spotted with maroon. Or of Gazania krebsiana with handsome silver foliage and an endless display of flowers in copper and orange. Gazanias flourished in the endless heat of last summer and their offbeat colours can't be matched by any other race of plants.

Nurseries attached to gardens often don't do mail order. You have to visit - but that's no hardship. Generally, however, specialist nurseries sell more by mail order than any other way. If you fall in love with a particular family of plants, you can be sure that somewhere there will be an equally besotted grower anxious to feed your habit. If violas are your weakness, try Elizabeth MacGregor. If hellebores are your thing, go to R D Plants at Homelea Farm, Chard Road, just outside Tytherleigh, Axminster, Devon, where you'll find staggeringly beautiful plants grown by the nurseryman Rodney Davey who propagates them all himself. If you want to swoon in a bower of old-fashioned roses, Iain Billot of Scented Roses in Cumbria will be able to set you up. Winter months are made for catalogues. You need a huge pile of them by your bed, so that you can swirl planting schemes through your head under the comfort of a duvet.

There comes a stage when few things are so seductive as plant lists. Whatever the season, Chris Ireland Jones of Avon Bulbs will have something to offer. Though it's getting too late now to plant spring beauties such as narcissus and crocus, there's a spring catalogue to look forward to: agapanthus and alstroemeria, crinums and cosmos, galtonia and some elegant gladiolus. I ordered a fabulous new eucomis called 'Cornwood' from their last spring catalogue: tall cylinders of tiny creamy flowers, each with a distinctive black eye.

For stylishly modern plants, try the long, thin and pleasantly opinionated catalogue that Angus White sends out from his nursery, Architectural Plants, in Sussex. White's ambition is modest: to own the best-run and most interesting nursery in the history of the universe. His plants are chosen for their statuesque good looks. Here you'll find Podocarpus salignus (from £9.50 to £117.50 depending on size), an elegant evergreen tree luxuriantly clothed with grey-green leaves, and Phyllostachys aurea (£42.50 for a plant about 5ft tall, £82.50 for one nearer 8ft). 'Very well behaved,' promises White, who considers it one of the best of all bamboos. There are masses of spiky yuccas, cordylines and New Zealand astelias with leaves of burnished steel. These are all ideal plants for small courtyard gardens where structure and form give more lasting pleasure than fleeting displays of flowers.

'New exoticists', White calls the adventurous, slightly reckless gardeners most likely to understand what he is at. But new exoticists had better not live in the chillier, more exposed parts of Britain. Architectural plants are not always hardy ones.

The Arbuthnotts, Major James and the Hon Mrs Louisa, specialise in wall shrubs and unusual climbers at their nursery, Stone House Cottage. Over the past 12 years, they have made an eclectic garden round their house there, with some extraordinary home-built follies so that you can indulge in the rare pleasure of tipping straight from garden into nursery to bear off the plant that you have just fallen in love with. They have seven sorts of jasmine, even more honeysuckles, including the magnificently dusky Lonicera x tellmanniana, at least 50 clematis and enough other climbing plants to cover the Eiffel Tower.

Some notable nurseries

Architectural Plants:

Cooks Farm, Nuthurst, Horsham, W Sussex RH13 6LH, 01403 891772. Open 9am-5pm, Mon-Sat. Specialises in architectural plants and hardy exotica. Mail order. Free catalogue.

Avon Bulbs:

Burnt House Farm, Mid-Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE , 01460 242177. Specialises in bulbs. Mail order only.

Bosvigo Plants:

Bosvigo Lane, Truro, Cornwall, 01872 275774. Open March-Sept, Thur & Fri (11am-6pm). Specialises in rare and unusual herbaceous plants. No mail order.

Elizabeth MacGregor:

Ellenbank, Tongland Rd, Kircudbright, Dumfries and Galloway DG6 4UU, 01557 330620. Open May-Sept, Mon, Fri, Sat (10am-5pm). Specialises in violets and violas. Mail order.

Misarden Park:

Miserden, Stroud, Glos. Open daily (10am-5pm) except Monday. Specialises in perennials and pelargoniums. No mail order.

R D Plants:

Homelea Farm, Tytherleigh, Axminster, Devon, 01460 220206. Open Feb-July (9am-5pm). Specialty: hellebores and other perennials. No mail order.

Scented Roses:

Stewart Hill Cottage, Nr Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria CA7 8HX, 01768 484172. Open May to mid-July, Thur-Sun (1-5pm). Specialises in roses. Mail order. Free catalogue.

Stone House Cottage Nurseries:

Stone, nr Kidderminster, Worcs, 01562 69902. Open March-Oct, Wed-Sat (10am-5pm). Specialises in wall shrubs and climbers. No mail order. Send SAE for catalogue.