"If you added up the hours, it wouldn't make sense," says Nigel Rowland, co-owner with his wife Michelle of the Long Acre Plants nursery in Somerset. But all the same, neither of them look as though they resent the 12-hour days they spend working on the place. "It's just a way of life," says Michelle. They arrived in Somerset 10 years ago with £500, a lorryload of plants and a dream of setting up a nursery specialising in woodland plants: epimediums, erythroniums, hardy ferns, violas, trilliums.
And they've made it happen. Although they spent the first winter hopping from pallet to pallet in a sea of mud, they got their first polytunnel up and started to propagate from the mother plants they'd brought with them. From the beginning, they tried to run the place in what they call an "environmentally aware" way. They don't use peat in their compost and they collect rain to water the plants. It's stored in 12 huge black 1,500-litre barrels, originally used to import orange juice. They even generate their own electricity, enough anyway to run the nursery and the office.
But how did they find customers, I wondered, tucked away as they are in the middle of nowhere? At first, explained Nigel, they did shows – Chelsea, Hampton Court, rare plant fairs. Now they do the internet. "It's revolutionised our business" said Michelle. "When we first arrived here, the internet hadn't really happened. Now 75 per cent of our business is mail order and most of that is online." It's a trend mirrored in recent research carried out by the Horticultural Trades Association, which shows that gardeners are now spending more online than they ever have before. Still, it surprises me. The Long Acre Plants website is excellent. It's logical, well laid out and easy to use. The pictures of plants are gorgeous and there's a generous amount of information about how to grow the things the nursery is offering.
But there is nothing quite like the feeling of wandering around a nursery for real, rather than in cyberspace. You don't open up a website with the same eager anticipation as you approach a special plant nursery. The computer screen can tell you nothing about its setting. You can't catch the damp, soft, sweet smell of many plants crowded together under cover. And for me, no second-hand, computer-generated experience, however clever, can replace the things you learn by having a plant in front of your own eyes: the texture of its foliage, the way it holds itself, its size (always deceptive in a photograph, when an anemone flower can seem as big as a dahlia).
A website is fine for ordering something you know you want, not so good for serendipitous discoveries. Long Acre's online catalogue includes many wood anemones, including one called Anemone nemorosa 'Stammheim' described as "a new double bracted white-flowered form". Reading on screen, I glossed over that, and the other eleven wood anemones listed alongside it. But when I called in at the nursery, in pursuit of a fern, Woodwardia unigemmata, there was 'Stammheim', waving at me as wildly as a wood anemone can, absolutely irresistible, waiting to be swooped upon. Which of course it was. I'm not made of stone. And me going out for a fern and coming back with a wood anemone is nowhere near as mad as my husband going out for a haircut and coming back with an Alfa Romeo, which is what happened this week.
The advantage of the online catalogue for a small, specialist nursery such as Long Acre Plants is that the Rowlands can use it to list plants that they don't have many of and so don't put in their printed catalogue. They still produce one and it's very handsome, but once it's been sent out, it can't be tweaked in the way the online list can. When plants sell out they can be deleted from the website list. When seasonal things come into their own, they can be added.
The two of them met at the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley where they had both signed on as trainee gardeners. Then they went on together to Reading University, where Michelle did a degree in landscape management and Nigel started a PhD about paeonies. Even then they ran a nursery, more of a hobby than a profession, but it taught them the vagaries of the business, the difficulties of predicting how many of which plants to grow, the trickiness of persuading some plants to live in a pot at all. Pulmonarias hate it. So does the fabulous Lilium nepalense (greenish-yellow outside, reddish-purple inside). Paris quadrifolia, the native 'Herb Paris', is exactly the kind of plant you'd expect to find in a nursery specializing in woodlanders, but it too, says Nigel Rowland, languishes when trapped in a pot.
I wondered how easy they found it to agree on what they should be growing. At any one time they reckon they have five or six hundred different plants on the nursery. Do they both love them all equally? There was a pause before Michelle admitted to a prejudice against plants with yellow leaves. And then another pause before she said that perhaps she wasn't quite so mad as Nigel was about Adoxa moschatellina "a little green-flowered thing". Generally though, given the passionate views that plant people have about the merits and failings of particular plants, they seem to be remarkably united in their choices.
I didn't dare ask whether either had a favourite plant. It would be like asking a parent to choose a favourite among their children. But they did come up with a list of their bestsellers, a useful indicator of their customers' favourites. It includes Anemone leveillei (£3) "basically a larger-flowered and more robust form of Anemone rivularis but without the blue anthers"; Anemonopsis macrophylla (£4.50) "a magical woodlander for cool humus-laden soils, summer flowering with crystalline pinky purple flowers over ferny foliage"; Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' (£4) "a new variety that shows great vigour even in dry conditions with fully silvered leaves and the typical blue flowers"; Dryopteris wallichiana (£4) "a most magnificent evergreen fern from the Himalayas and Japan with young unfolding fronds that are golden green in spring and contrast well with the hairy black midribs and stems"; Epimedium epsteinii (£5) "large pale lilac and purple flowers with brilliant leaf colour"; Epimedium x youngianum 'Niveum' (£3.50) "very easy with masses of pure white flowers in spring"; Erythronium californicum 'White Beauty' (£3); Erythronium dens-canis 'Pink Perfection' (£3) "mid pink-flowered form of an easy dog's toothy violet"; Tellima grandiflora 'Forest Frost' (£4) "good for shade, even dry shade with pink flowers in spring and heavily mottled leaves, beautiful in winter when they turn burgundy and hold the frost."
Long Acre Plants, Charlton Musgrove, Somerset BA9 8EX, Tel/Fax: 01963 32802, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.plantsforshade.co.uk. Plants are sent out mail order until the end of June and also from September until the end of November. The minimum order is £25
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