"Seven-year cycles," says Nick Macer, owner of a superb nursery called Pan Global Plants in Gloucestershire, “they’ve had a lot to do with the way my life has worked out.” And because I don’t really get what he’s talking about, I’m rather relieved I’ve turned up at the nursery in the year that he is 45 years old. However I do the sum, I can’t make that anything to do with seven.
Pan Global is the sort of nursery that makes you want to dig up every tree and shrub you’ve ever planted and start all over again. And that’s before you’ve even begun to listen to Macer talking about them. Oh boy, does he love his plants. Not because they are rare (though many are) but because they are beautiful. “Look, it’s my nursery. I can grow whatever I like. Anything I recommend to a customer, I can recommend from the heart.” The intensity is like a laser-beam.
He’s a born-again man, one of the lucky ones, finding not God but trees at a time when he might have gone off the rails altogether. “I was a dosser at school, but not dumb. I screwed up my exams. Deliberately. I was a rebellious child with too much energy.”
So he ended up doing poxy jobs until, at 21, he had his Damascus moment. And all because of the arboretum at Westonbirt, where his dad used to take him, along with a copy of Alan Mitchell’s Trees of Britain and Northern Europe. “I wanted change in my life and I found it. Without ever consciously looking. I took possession of that book and it became like a golden, glowing Bible.” It was obsession time. “Obsession is definitely in my character,” he adds, unnecessarily.
But obsession has got him where he is now, to his immaculately tidy nursery in a walled garden at Frampton-on-Severn. That – together with a £5,000 loan from his parents and a similar amount from thef bank. And a three-year course in arboriculture at Merrist Wood College.
We’re talking in his new wooden office in the walled garden, a conversation broken up by the stream of customers who come in clutching pots of things they want to take home. I’m struck by the amount of time he gives to each one. Will this do on a north wall? What can he recommend to fill out a border of grasses? How tall will this tree grow? Is this shrub likely to be hardy further north? Where would he recommend going for lunch?
I’m always interested in what gardeners buy in plant nurseries (in supermarkets too – at the checkout other people’s baskets always have more interesting things in them than my own). A couple who had driven up that morning from Richmond bring in a Paeonia veitchii sprouting from its pot with fantastic bronze-cut leaves. I get that must-have moment. A nursery is a dangerous place at this time of the year, with buds bursting on trees, foliage positively edible in its freshness.
“My angle?” asks Macer in response to a customer who’s been drawn in to the place by the roadside sign. “I grow fascinating, interesting, unusual varieties of plants.” And so he does. Where else will you find more than 60 hydrangeas, alongside nearly 20 different bamboos and 10 different sorts of spiky agave? It’s a very eclectic mix.
Agaves were an obsession for about 10 years, he says, but I went to the nursery because of magnolias which happen to do rather well in our new garden. I’m not planting spring-flowering kinds – I couldn’t bear the heartache of seeing the flowers frosted as they sometimes are in our unpredictable springs – but later-flowering ones. We’ve got 10 and I persuaded myself there was room for one more, Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei from western Florida. It has the biggest leaves of any magnolia, at least 60cm/24in long, and sweet-smelling flowers up 30cm/12in across. But apparently it’s a devil to propagate, which is why so few nurseries bother with it. But there it was, when I went to visit, waiting for me on the verandah of Nick Macer’s hut.
At lunchtime, when it was quieter, we walked round the nursery together. I’d asked him to pick out a shrub that he thought we all ought to know about, but probably don’t. But he wasn’t just walking and looking. He darted in to nip browned-off leaves from a branch. He scuffed out a tiny bittercress that had dared grow in the path. He constantly bent down to arrange pots of plants more neatly in lines, or to adjust a label that might be rubbing on a new bud. And he never forgot the name of anything, which I do all the time.
But I might as well have asked him to choose a favourite among his children. We ricocheted from plant to plant, every one a paragon in its way. Of course it was. The plant wouldn’t be there in the first place unless it was good. So we start off with a shrubby kind of quince, a Chinese species Chaenomeles cathayensis, first collected by the Irish plantsman, Augustine Henry in Hubei. The flowers are not spectacular, says Macer judiciously, but the fruits certainly are, the biggest fruits of any quince, 10-15cm/4-6in long and excellent for jelly. A German friend had just sent him some fruit leather made from this same quince. Delicious, he said.
But we move on round the corner and come upon a small crowd of a hydrangea I’d never seen before, one called ‘Bellevue’. The upright stem looked strong enough to fly a flag from and I fell for it immediately. “It can go up to 4m,” warns Macer, watching to see if I’m frightened. But that makes me like it even more. It’s a child of a big hydrangea we already have, H. sargentiana, huge leaves with the texture of sharkskin, huge heads of lacecap flowers, and came to this country from the French garden where it first arose. So, despite the fact that I’m not supposed to be spending money on the garden at the moment, somehow, ‘Bellevue’ joined the magnolia on the steps of the nursery hut. I had a very happy drive home, thinking where I might put it.
Pan Global Plants is at The Walled Garden, Frampton Court, Frampton-on-Severn, Glos GL2 7EX. Open (11am-5pm) Wed-Sun from Feb-Nov. For more information call 01452 741641 or go to the website at panglobalplants.com. Nick Macer does not do mail order but the nursery is only minutes away from Junction 13 on the M5. You could make a weekend of it: there’s an upmarket B&B at Grade 1 listed Frampton Court, a fine mid 18th-century house in a beautiful park (01452 740267); the Orangery, a Gothic gem right next to the nursery, is also available to let for weekends or holidays. For details call 01452 740698. For an excellent fish dinner, Nick Macer recommends The Passage at Arlingham (01452 740547)
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