Thumpingly wonderful plants

Anna Pavord gets away from the supermarkets of the garden world and visits a private nursery in Devon
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The Independent Online
My New Year's resolution this January was to shun supermarkets. It didn't reflect much self-denial on my part. I've always loathed them, and when we first came down to Dorset there weren't any here, anyway. That was one of the place's great attractions. Proper shops. One-off shop- fronts. Grocers who delivered.

Since the arrival of the supermarkets here, local shops have been shutting faster than you can say "Sunday opening". Consumer choice? Soon there won't be any. It'll be the supermarket or nothing, and goodbye to local produce that doesn't fit into their central buying system.

Tesco, Sainsbury's and Safeway may dominate on the food front, but fortunately they are making much slower progress with garden plants. According to the latest figures released by Mintel, the big multiples, such as Homebase and Texas, account for just 21 per cent of sales of what they call "garden product". That means plants, seeds and bulbs, as opposed to chemicals, tools or garden furniture.

It's a surprisingly big market, the garden produce one. It was worth pounds 867m last year, more than twice as much as we spent on tools (pounds 368m), chemicals (pounds 301m) or garden buildings (pounds 392m). But despite the rich pickings, diversity still rules. Nearly 800 private nurseries are listed in the current edition of The Plant Finder (Moorland Publishing Company, pounds 12.99).

"So are you in it for the money?" I asked Rodney Davey and Lynda Windsor, who have their own nursery, RD Plants, at Tytherleigh in Devon. Their looks said it all. As long as you haven't got a bank manager breathing down your neck, children to feed or employees to pay, then you can get by. But the hours are long. Losses can be sudden and unforeseen. And you have to make most of your year's income in the three months of spring.

Why do they do it, you wonder? Because they love plants, they said, and were fed up with being offered weedy, small specimens, indifferently grown, which turned out, when they flowered, not to be what they were labelled. Rodney and Lynda thought they could do better. I don't know when they ever get any sleep, but they certainly grow thumpingly wonderful plants and all the kinds I like most: ferns, hellebores, wood anemones, arums, epimediums, iris, thalictrums, comfreys (including a showy one with gold variegated leaves called "Axminster Gold") and the white-flowered perennial stock.

Rodney is the propagator. Lynda organises the office, handles the customers and hand-writes the catalogue. And she helped build the shade house, where their huge stock of precious, potted hellebores spends the summer. Nearly all their stock is in pots. What happens when you go away, I asked? "Oh, I don't go away," said Rodney, with quite a shocked look on his face. "Rodney can't go over the Devon border," explained Lynda. "He's on a piece of elastic which only stretches so far."

They built up the nursery gradually on a former smallholding, a run-down little bungalow with a barn, some Nissen huts and chicken houses. It's been a full-time business for the last four years. To get to the plants, you go through the office, where flowers of the hour are displayed in a corner. There was a stunning pan of magenta rhodohypoxis (R. milloides "Claret") there when I visited, the colour of the flowers brilliantly set-off against bright-green grassy foliage. Beside it was a most extraordinary anemone, with leaves as ruffled as a "Lollo Rossa" lettuce, and an old- fashioned French begonia, "Gloire de Lorraine", with waxy, polished bronze leaves and tight, double flowers of bright pink. Behind was a flourishing tree fern. Altogether rather an eclectic collection.

Working out how much to grow of any particular plant is the greatest headache, said Rodney. Because they just grow the plants they are intrigued by, they sometimes find themselves ahead of the trend. Plants of the moment are Verbascum "Helen Johnson", the oriental poppy "Patty's Plum" and any kind of oreganum.

What about the trendy plants of the future? Well, they said, anyone who sees Cerinthe major "Purpurascens" with its strange, grey, waxy foliage and drooping bracts of purplish, pinkish, greenish gunmetal colour, is going to want to pick one up. They were right there. I had been begging seed from a friend who had one in her garden that same week. Rodney and Lynda are going to raise about 800 of them.

And they have great hopes for a double-flowered anemone, A. sylvestris "Flore-Plena" which Rodney has patiently been increasing. This is a spring- flowering anemone, about 18in tall, with nodding white flowers sharply centred with a boss of yellow stamens. The leaves are deeply cut and the seed heads mature into great fluffy balls of cotton wool. It is equally happy in sun or in shade. It's an old-fashioned flower, known in this country since the 16th century.

Like all the best plantsmen, Rodney and Lynda have sharp eyes and are quick to sort out the sheep from the goats in a batch of plants raised from seed. They expect a lot from their plants. A stripy red-and-yellow dahlia has recently turned up in a batch of seed. They have also picked out rather a lovely balloon flower (platycodon) with blue veining on milk- white petals. "We could call it 'Varicose Veins'," says Lynda brightly, as we stand admiring the plant.

Rodney, who has spent most of his life in agriculture, used to grow exhibition vegetables as a hobby. Nothing, you might think, could be more different from the plants he's raising now. But to grow any plant well, you need to pay attention to the detail. "Not spreading yourself too thin" is the way he puts it. He likes time to water properly. There's no wholesale overhead spraying here. Each plant gets what he thinks it needs.

They have a wide list, biased towards plants for woodland conditions, which is where their own interests lie. They have about 30 different geraniums, including the beautiful Geranium phaeum "Samobor" which has leaves heavily marked with dark-chocolate blotches. They also had the handsome Disporum sessile "Variegatum", with sword-shaped leaves cleanly striped in white, and cream bell flowers in spring. "Much better than Solomon's Seal," says Rodney.

The 1997 plant list will be available early next year. For a copy, send an sae with four 2nd-class stamps to RD Plants, Homelea Farm, Tytherleigh, Axminster, Devon EX13 7BG. Open every day from March to September.