Urban gardener: Busman’s holiday

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The Independent Online

It's natural to want a break after exhibiting a show garden, but with projects "on hold" and new clients calling, leaving the office unmanned right now is just plain daft. Weekends and short breaks, however, are permitted and we've planned a number of busman's holidays to gardens and nurseries in the spirit of CPD (Continuous Personal Development) and, if I'm honest, as a distraction from the fact that we have lost what little control we had at our allotment during our recent Chelsea stint.

Hilliers Arboretum (with Roy Lancaster), Spinners Nursery (with the owner Peter Chappell) and Great Dixter (with Fergus Garrett) are in the diary, each promising inspiration and a chance to buy some of the more unusual plants. We're also planning to visit a new event, one that has been geared toward some of the smaller UK nurseries: the Plant Finders Fair at Cottesbrooke Hall.

Set in the magnificent grounds of the notable Northamptonshire manor, with elements designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, Dame Sylvia Crowe and more recently James Alexander Sinclair (who has tweaked and re-planted the terrace borders), Cottesbrooke Hall's central location (recently described as the most dreamily picturesque landscape in England) will be a hit with those who complain that everything happens in the south-east.

The organisers, TJM Associates (who masterminded the International Festival of the Garden at Westonbirt and who are currently working on the launch of Future Gardens, due to open outside London in June 2009), have hand picked nurseries and garden accessory retailers to give the event a distinctive flavour. "It's got to look beautiful and it's got to have the quality," said TJM director Therese Laing. "We're hoping it will become the UK's version of Courson." Journées des Plantes de Courson, the spring and autumn plant fairs outside Paris, is renowned for both diversity and quality and therefore quite a benchmark, but Laing believes there is a wealth of quality nurseries in the UK that simply can't afford to exhibit at some of the larger shows and need an outlet that doesn't cost the earth.

Originality and quality are their guiding principles, and this has brought together several highly respected names in the specialist nursery field, from Michael Loftus at Woottens of Wenhaston to Bob Brown's Cotswold Garden Flowers and Laurel Farm Herbs, the oldest herb nursery in Suffolk. Firms specialising in garden accessories have also been chosen for their individuality and skill – from the garden clothing and bags of the Carrier Company to Quercus Fencing, a Somerset-based company that is going from strength to strength producing a range of fencing, finials and arbours from sustainable, seasoned oak. Lisa Beard, the owner of Quercus, is still recovering from what happened at the Chelsea Flower Show, where one of several hundred oak seedlings she had on display emerged with white leaves – the first albino oak to be seen at the show. Every time I passed her stand she would collar me to guard the plant so that she could visit the loo or grab a sandwich without worrying that her potential money-spinner would be hijacked.

There will also be beautiful iron-work from blacksmith Lucy Sandys-Clarke, letter carving in stone by Pip Hall, and Moulton College will be at hand with information on courses in land-based industries.

TJM Associates believes that not only should the show look beautiful but that every element, including the catering, should be first-rate – so they have enlisted Dining Divas to provide the tantalising, healthy, and reasonably priced food.

This weekend, the spirit of Courson has finally arrived in the UK. Resistance is futile.

The Cottesbrooke Hall Plant Finders Fair, Northamptonshire, runs until tomorrow. For more information visit www.cottesbrookehall.co.uk or for group bookings call 01604 505808