Michael Loftus: Neal's Yard owner who became a dedicated nurseryman

Anna Pavord
Sunday 19 August 2012 12:21 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The nursery that Michael Loftus set up, Woottens of Wenhaston, was a place of pilgrimage for anyone who loved plants, especially iris, auriculas and day lilies. The nursery had an aura about it; and Loftus himself certainly did.

He was a big man, in every sense. Very sure of his opinions. Very clear about expressing them. He liked debate. Someone who worked in the nursery (at that stage he only employed women) remembers how each day the staff gathered for elevenses in the house, where Loftus would invite topics for discussion. Nursery talk was banned.

Standards at the nursery were staggeringly high. The plants thumped with health. No liverwort or chickweed dared invade a pot. And he grew only what he loved. At first, the nursery occupied part of his garden in Suffolk, but as Loftus's ambitions got bigger, the garden grew very much smaller. When irises started to take over his life, he bought a two-acre field to accommodate them. It was a showcase for the nursery of course, but it was also a wonderfully extravagant gesture, a gift to the visitors who wandered round it in a daze in June.

Loftus was in his mid-forties when he suddenly decided to become a plantsman and nurseryman. The money to set up the new venture came from the sale of his previous business, the Neal's Yard wholefoods shop in Covent Garden. In the Nineties, sun-dried tomatoes were still a novelty (except for the NW3-ers with second homes in Italy) and Neal's Yard, which had been founded in the Seventies, was a pioneer in providing a certain kind of product, an alternative lifestyle, to the flower children now settling into middle age.

Loftus understood marketing and could trade terms like "destination shopping" and "proactive" with the best of them. He knew how to make a splash and he did, quite literally, with the water clock that became a famous landmark at the Covent Garden shop. Designed by Tim Hunkin, it marked the hours by drenching anyone passing on the pavement underneath.

The clock found its way with Loftus to the new nursery, flanked there by two silver columns, heat exchangers from the Sizewell A power station on the Suffolk coast nearby. The nursery itself was beautifully laid out and Loftus loomed in baggy cords and canvas jacket, as a memorable, intensely charismatic presence at its centre.

He had very high standards. No plant ever pushed its roots out through the bottom of a pot before it was snatched up and moved into a bigger one. He was proud of the systematic regimes he devised for watering and feeding the nursery stock. He would defend a plant he loved to the death.

But he was a practical, knowledgeable gardener, too, and the superb, beautifully illustrated handbooks that he began to issue from 1991 onwards always contained sharp, direct observations. On dahlias: "For those doing penance for horticultural sins in a previous life, and enduring the rigours of clay, I recommend keeping your dahlias in pots and plunging them in the herbaceous border." On campanulas: "Do not grow Campanula 'Loddon Anna' which has muddy-pink flowers or Campanula 'White Pouffe' which is a dumpy dwarf." On day-lilies: "Hemerocallis is inextricably associated with that dreadful old cultivar H. fulva 'Plena' – a hideous rusty orange thug only fit for the municipal dump. The modern hemerocallis cultivars with their ruffles, eyezones, banding and edges (camp and gorgeous as if snipped out of velvet and silk by John Galliano) are fit to strut the cat walk."

By establishing the nursery in Suffolk, Loftus was returning to his roots. His father was managing director of the famous Suffolk brewery Adnams and he was brought up in a family of five children. At the University of Essex, where he studied briefly in the Sixties, he was more interested in student politics than his coursework. But he finished a degree in Russian language and literature, spending what he remembered as a "miserable winter" in Minsk "enveloped by drunks".

His first venture, making goat's cheese in Suffolk, was what led him to Neal's Yard, where his entrepreneurial flair emerged. He worked with Neal's Yard founder, Nicholas Saunders, before masterminding the takeover which allowed that business to grow. When he himself sold out in 1990, he left, unable to face the prospect of being somebody else's employee.

"The nursery was the only thing I could muster up enough enthusiasm for to go through all the agonies you know lie ahead in running any business of your own," he explained when he first set up Woottens. "I taught myself how to propagate. I thought there would be far more mystique involved, but technically it has not been half as difficult as I expected."

Always, he remained faithful to the herbaceous plants that were at the heart of his business. Starting with perhaps 250 different kinds, he ended up with more than 4000. "It is the uncompromising seasonality of perennials that still bewitches me," he wrote in his magnificent handbook of 2005, which is already an icon. "They make no attempt to stake out a claim on eternity; they have their moment of brilliance, and then they are gone."

Michael Loftus, plantsman and nurseryman: born Blythburgh, Suffolk 21 November 1948; married 1989 Lizzy Woolfe (four sons, one daughter); died Wenhaston, Suffolk 25 July 2012.

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