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Cornucopia - Catalogues, Nurseries and the Inimitable Mr Brown

Catalogues, Nurseries and the Inimitable Mr Brown
Alan Hale

I tend to accumulate plant catalogues, not obsessively like some people collect postage stamps, or twitchers tick off bird sightings, but occasionally, picking them up when an opportunity occurs.

I very much enjoy browsing through them in a quiet moment, indulging in a little ‘make-believe’ by filling the garden with wonderful exotic plants, before a glance out of the window brings me back to earth.

Of course catalogues vary enormously, reflecting perhaps the personality and dedication of the author. Some are little more than a slightly amplified list of plants, whilst the best are a mine of information about the growing habits and recommended cultivation of the plants on offer. Some are lavishly illustrated, but, although this can be helpful, they need to be treated with caution as the pictures of the blooms are nearly always considerably enlarged, and the reality of a rather insignificant flower, following purchase, can be very disappointing.

There are hundreds of catalogues produced and I have only a small percentage, but these are a few favourites based on experience.

Of the specialist nurseries, David Austin for roses, Bouts of Inkberrow for violas and pansies, Pictons of Old Court Nurseries on the far side of the Malverns for Michaelmas daisies, and Thorncroft’s in Norfolk for clematis all have excellent informative catalogues and sell good healthy plants.

Amongst the more general hardy plant nurseries, Elizabeth MacGregor way up in Scotland has a fairly basic catalogue but has earned a reputation and a loyal following for good quality plants. Elizabeth used to be a viola specialist, but has expanded her range to cover a wide variety of plants. Our daughter, who lives in Cornwall, buys many of her plants on the premise that if they survive in Scotland they will surely flourish in Cornwall! Long Acre Nurseries in Somerset concentrate on plants for shady positions and produce a useful detailed catalogue. Their plants are well grown and of a good standard. Down in Hampshire, Marina Christopher runs Phoenix Garden Plants. Marina was at one time in partnership with John Coke (pronounced Cook) at Green Farm Plants in Bentley, but around the turn of the millennium decided to set up a nursery on her own and moved to a site a few miles down the road. She is a much respected plantswoman who has taken part in a number of plant-hunting expeditions. Her catalogue contains an interesting collection of plants, the majority of which have been personally trialled. Recently Marina wrote a book called ‘Late Summer Flowers’, a subject not covered before, which is packed with first-hand knowledge and advice. It is published by Francis Lincoln and is available in paperback for £16.99. It deserves to be better known and I would thoroughly recommend it.

My favourite catalogue for many years was Beth Chatto’s, produced for her nursery ‘Unusual Plants’ in Essex. She wrote about her plants in such detail that it became a useful reference book. Recently, when I phoned for a copy of the latest print, I was disappointed to receive a much truncated version.

Earlier this year I broke one of my golden rules, namely, not to be seduced by any of the many colourful collections featured in the advertising sections of the papers and gardening magazines, and purchased an interesting selection of salvias promoted by Hayloft Plants of Pensham near Pershore. The five plants arrived within a few days, small seedlings or rooted cuttings, a few inches high and neatly slotted into a plastic box. Potted on, they grew amazingly quickly and all have flowered well and provided cuttings for next year. To name but one, Salvia 'Amistad', with similar growth to S. 'Indigo Spires' but darker purple flowers and a slightly shorter spike, is really nice. I would mention that a fellow HPS member also fell for this collection and was equally pleased with the results. Later, I bought a coreopsis offer from Hayloft with a similar satisfactory outcome. Hayloft have a well-illustrated catalogue, sensibly limited in scope, with the emphasis being on the supply of multiples of young plants.

In my opinion, the best of all the hardy plant catalogues is the ‘inimitable’ Bob Brown’s for his Cotswold Garden Flowers nursery not far away in Badsey. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘inimitable’ as ‘impossible to imitate’ and that just about sums him up. His current catalogue runs to 129 pages, listing over 2,000 plants, surely the widest selection anywhere in the country. He offers 47 different agaves, 31 kniphofias, 24 nerines, 66 sambucus etc. Bob’s descriptions are succinct, to the point, and often include some personal observations, such as ‘sumptuous and easy’; ‘lovely and persistent’; ‘sounds stunning doesn’t it?’ and so on. He scores plants he has grown and formed an opinion on out of ten, useful when uncertain which variety to choose, but must surely result in plants scoring ten being sold in preference to alternatives with lower marks. If you think you know a lot of plant names the range of the selection is challenging in the extreme. How about Amorphophallus, Anisacanthus, Brahea, Chloranthus, Dicliptera, Hesperaloe, Moehringia, Pasithea, Scadoxus and Thladiantha. Just a selection of plants unknown to me. One further feature of Bob’s catalogue is that it is sprinkled with a number of amusing witticisms. If you haven’t visited his nursery do go. You may not find the plant you are looking for, as they are not all available all the time, but I guarantee you will find something else and probably come away with more than you intended.

Writing in the gardening supplement of the Daily Telegraph recently, Mary Keen deplored the fact that Derry Watkins of Special Plants, a nursery in Wiltshire, had decided that from next year she was not going to produce a paper catalogue, her plant list being entered on the internet only. Mary hoped that this departure would not escalate and be adopted by other nurserymen and women. I must say I do agree with her. To lose the pleasure of leafing through a tangible paper catalogue to words on a screen would be, for me, a very sad day.

First published in the Worcestershire Group Newsletter Autumn 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 32.
© Copyright for this article: Alan Hale

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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