Gardening: Now for a French nursery tale

What does it take to transplant a business? By Anna Pavord
Removal vans have never played much of a part in my life. We've only ever had two houses and when we moved into the first, from a rented hovel 200 yards away, we shunted our few possessions down the hill in a wheelbarrow. The pram helped, too. In our lives, babies and house moves seem always to have gone together.

So it was with a sense of awe that I listened to Carol Strafford and John Worrall who, at the end of this month, are packing up not only home, furniture, books, cooking pots and cats, but also an entire plant nursery. They are moving to France, to a small village just north of Saumur in the Loire valley. With them will come 3,000 stock plants, dug up from their present site near Wimborne in Dorset, and about 5,000 pots of plants for sale, which will form the nucleus of the new venture.

Archangel Plants specialises in interesting perennials: good aquilegias, old wallflowers such as `Bloody Warrior', fine monardas, phlox, salvia, poppies (including the sumptuous dusky `Patty's Plum') and red-hot pokers. For the last four years, all the propagating and most of the selling (apart from weekend stints by John) has been done by Carol. Now John is giving up his job as a prison counsellor and they are going to run the nursery together.

Which came first, I asked? The desire to go to France or giving up the counselling? As it turned out, neither. The story starts with a fortune teller who read Carol's palm and told her that France was John's spiritual home. Carol looks slightly sheepish telling me this, as sensible people do when admitting to something as deliciously irrational as having their fortunes told.

But it all seemed to fit. The nursery needed to expand. There was no possibility of buying extra land close to their present site. They had looked in vain for another smallholding in this country that they could take over. And although Carol says she can't speak a word of French, John, indeed, does confess to a kind of unspoken affinity with France and the French.

How will she cope? "As long as I've got plants, I don't care what goes on around me," Carol replies. "It's not going to be that different from my life here. And it's odd, but everything seems to have gone our way since we made the decision to go."

Earlier this year, they took a week off to look for their future in France. To a certain extent, the area chose itself. They didn't want to go far south, because it would be difficult to continue to grow the plants they like. They wanted to remain within striking distance of this country, so that they could do a few shows in the south of England each summer and keep their name alive with their English customers. They wanted to be near a good local market in France, where they could sell plants regularly.

After only two days of searching, they left their hearts on a D road at Mouliherne. La Pommasserie (I saw the photographs) is a low, colour- washed house with three acres of land and the possibility of renting more. There are two lakes, a stream, plenty of wild euphorbias (which was a good guide to what they could expect to grow), and soil fast draining over tufa rock. Most of the nursery ground is presently covered in couch and bramble. But there is a gite attached to the property which could provide an income while the nursery is finding its feet. "And there are wonderful deciduous oaks. A bit of pine ..." says John dreamily.

The area is full of small market gardeners. If vegetables grew well there, they reasoned, so would their plants. Nobody in the area seemed to be growing garden plants for sale, so they do not feel they will have much competition.

What will they do differently in their new nursery, I wondered? "Watering," said Carol instantly. At the moment they haul a hose around from a single standpipe outside their back door. In France, they will put in automatic irrigation. "And a mechanised trolley?" said John, in a way that was more of a question than a statement. Carol made a face. The trolley is evidently still a matter for negotiation.

Given the incredibly long hours, the sudden deaths caused by harsh winters and drought summers, the difficulty of earning an income that approaches even the minimum wage for agricultural labourers, you wonder why anyone ever wants a nursery of their own. But it has been one of the marvels of the last decade that, alongside the growth of the garden centre, there has been an equal growth in the number of small, specialist nurseries such as Archangel Plants.

The nursery was a dream that Carol and John had 15 years ago, when they were both students of horticulture at Cannington College in Somerset. Carol went on to work at Kew and then joined a wholesale nursery. John went first into horticultural therapy, then into even more demanding territory, rehabilitating drug addicts and alcoholics.

Carol set up her own nursery, she said, because she "didn't like being told what to do". That makes her sound much more bullish than she generally appears. But it was also the only way she could get to grow the plants she liked best. Fortunately those also happened to be the plants that are most in favour at the moment: herbaceous perennials. Growing plants, she says, is the easy bit. The part she hates is the selling. That is where John comes in.

So wish them luck this summer, as they unpack their crates of campanulas and anemones, sages and sedums, and settle them into French soil. And pay them a visit if you are going to the Loire valley. They will be at La Pommasserie, 49390 Mouliherne, near Saumur. Look for them on the left- hand side of the D279 on leaving Mouliherne.