Britain’s top nurseries: Cotswold Garden Flowers

Amaryllis belladonna was next on his autumn favourites list. These are seriously glamorous plants for planting at the bottom of a sunny wall, but Bob has one better than the usual pink – a lovely white A. belladonna ‘Alba’.

The foliage comes up in October, disappears by June and then, in September, up come the flowers, naked out of the ground.

The same is true of nerines, another favourite genus. They’re at their best when everyone is out Christmas shopping and you don’t see just a few delicate winter jasmine flowers, but a whole bed of intense zingy colour, shape and freshness.

There are increasing numbers of new hardy N. bowdenii hybrids, and Bob believes there are plenty, such as ‘Maria’, that are not hardy but which our milder winters will soon make it possible to grow (for more on Nerine bowdenii see page 8).

As well as bulbs, Bob drew my attention to two other plants. He knows I like fruit and veg, so picked out a climber from Mexico that has edible tuber roots.

But I was won over not by its roots, but by the intensely sweet, violet-scented flowers that cover this self-clinging climber from early summer until the first frost.

He also pointed out a radiant-red dahlia called ‘Murdoch’. The story goes that, 13 years ago, a man turned up at the nursery and without even getting out of his car, told Bob that he had collected and bulked up the dahlia he had in his car many years before.

He knew it was a champ, so he was making Bob its custodian. It flowers – like most dahlias – without cease from early July until November and is the best bright-red dahlia that either Bob or I have ever grown.

  • Cotswold Garden Flowers, Sands Lane, Badsey, Worcs WR11 7EZ (01386 833849; www.cgf.net). Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Bob Brown, Badsey Nuresery

Yet he has not always been a nurseryman. Despite a love of plants from childhood, his first career was as a teacher. The chance to pursue his dream of working in horticulture came when he was made redundant from his job as a head teacher in London following the abolition of the London Education Authority.

“I had always planned to do something like this. The children were grown up and that was the impetus.”

Deciding that the Cotswolds was a good central base, he bought an acre of land in Badsey originally intended for use as a burial ground. It was not an obvious choice for a nursery as 21 years earlier all the topsoil had been removed and sold. That August, when mushroom farms were giving away their spent compost, he arranged for 60-ton lorries and a bulldozer to cover the ground to a depth of about a foot. By October the compost had been pulled underground by worms and the soil had changed colour.

“It was instant topsoil.”

Today he is in partnership with his son Edmund and the business is on two sites, with Offenham the centre of the mail order side. At Badsey the nursery consists of polytunnels, a shed which doubles as staff room and sales desk, and the all-important stock beds. Plants are stuffed into a series of wide rectangles, with a network of paths inbetween – originally there were no hard paths and visitors were advised to bring wellies. Unlike formal trial beds there is no pattern to the planting yet nor is there an attempt to make flower borders.

“Plants get put in the next available space,” explains Bob. “I never intended to make a garden.”

Yet the nursery has the feel of a garden, not least because of the trees he has planted, including eucalyptus and several walnuts grown from seeds collected in his grandparents’ home. Mixing the plants avoids the regimented feel of trial beds and the birdsong and occasional seat gives the business a relaxed feel.

Sometimes a happy coincidence provides a beautiful planting combination: the purple heads of Allium giganteum against variegated Sambucus Nigra ‘Pulverentula’, the toning shades of Kniphofia ‘Oldcourt Seedling’ with Hemerocallis ‘Burlesque’.

It is for this sort of inspiration as well as the chance to see something different that makes the nursery so popular with plant-lovers.

The nursery stocks more than 12,000 different plants and they come from many sources. A few are brought by customers who have them in their gardens, others are given by nurserymen in different parts of the country, some he has been allowed to collect from the wild abroad. Indeed, he has been helping the Lebanese government identify plants that could be sold commercially.

It can take anything from one season to several years before a new plant is ready for sale.

“I don’t like to sell things until I know something about them. Too many plants go into gardens before people are really sure what they do. They might be very invasive, or die.”

Among the things he is watching at the moment is a perennial foxglove. It may not make the grade as its flowers have proved to be a rather disappointing dirty yellow. Likewise a Canadian aquilegia with pale pink and lemon blooms has been judged “too wishy-washy”. In contrast, he is particularly pleased to have grown a double red Meconopsis cambrica, rather than the usual yellow or orange.

Meanwhile, fed up with reading that cactus were winter hardy, he decided to put it to the test and created a gravel bed to try them out. Some have lasted no more that a season, but others have survived four winters.

He has strong opinions on plants, disliking bedding, magnolias, philadelphus, except the variegated form, and, above all, lilac whose faults he lists as a short flowering period with blooms that then go brown and don’t drop, boring foliage and suckering.

“The last time anybody planted lilac was the 1930s and they are only in people’s gardens from default or inertia.”

Shrubs he does value include Rhamnus alaternus ‘Argenteovariegata’, which is beloved by flower arrangers for its neat foliage, Skimmia ‘Kew Green’, for its beautiful, long-lasting buds and then scented flowers, Sarcococca confusa, which is also winter scented, and Danae racemosa, both of which tolerate difficult dry shade, and Trochodendron aralioides, which has soft green foliage in graceful tiers.

His current passion, though, is for foliage and he launched a foliage society at this year’s Malvern Spring Gardening Show.

“Unless the flowers are really exceptional foliage is always more important because it is with us all the time.”

Heucheras are an obvious choice – he was responsible for introducing many coloured varieties to Europe from Oregon – and his stock includes ‘Burgundy Frost’ and ‘Peach Flamb’. Meanwhile, new tougher strains recently bred in France, such as the aptly named ‘Caramel’, have seen a resurgence in interest in these versatile plants.

Other top choices for foliage include Thalictrum honanense ‘Purple Marble’, which he describes as astonishing because of its long-lasting flowers and beautiful marbled foliage. There is also an unusual striped hemerocallis, ‘Golden Zebra’, Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, with rich coloured foliage, Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’, which has the added bonus of good flowers, and Dahlia ‘Twyning’s After Eight’, with white blooms set against black foliage. Among the more unusual plants is a dark purple Dracunculus vulgaris, whose smelly striking bloom looks as though it has been fashioned out of gleaming silk. It would make, he observes, the ideal plant for a young boy.

His catalogue is a delight with pithy comments about plants and marks out of 10 – scores that he changes if a plant fails to live up to its initial grading. An indication is also given if a plant is scented, is good for cutting, copes with dry shade or, in Bob’s words is “bomb-proof”. Dotted among the plant entries are observations about gardening, such as ‘God made rainy days so gardeners could get the housework done’. The nursery also offers a plant picking service that chooses things tailored to the customer’s requirements.

But by far the most enjoyable way to choose is to visit the nursery, see the plants growing and talk to the staff. It may be a challenging journey, but it is one that is well worth the trouble.

Cotswold Garden Flowers, Sands Lane, Badsey near Evesham, is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm, and Saturday and Sunday from March to September, 10am to 5.30pm. For more information, call 01386 833849, or visit www.cgf.net where directions to the nursery are available.

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The nursery is unusual in featuring a long series of rectangular stock beds where you can see mature plants in their prime, though the labelling is a little unpredictable. But beware this: Bob has the habit of quietly weeding behind a shrub and, as we works away, paying attention to customers’ remarks as they browse. If you hear a challenge to a passing remark, apparently coming from a tree, it will be Bob answering your question or putting you straight. But relax, it might be unnerving at first but he’s a fountain of wisdom so be sure to pick his brains and get his recommendations.

As you would expect, variegated plants feature, including the spectacularly hideous Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Loraine Sunshine’ – which gets a Bob’s Score of 6 out of 10 – and the dramatic biennial Lavatera arborea ‘Variegata’ (7.5) popping up everywhere. Bob gives most of his plants ratings, his clone of Helleborus x ericsmithii, ‘Bob’s Best’ gets 10 out of 10, “The best plant I grow,” he says, while most of those rated low are no longer in the catalogue but may be found in the encyclopedia on the website, sometimes with appropriately scathing remarks.

There are many tempting perennials, with a good range of echinaceas including some of the very latest from America, along with shrubs, woodlanders and at the nursery you’ll see an interesting bed of succulents including agaves and opuntias showing what thrives in the British climate.

This is an essential stop for gardeners from far and near, but be sure to check the website for directions and opening hours – and don’t expect a restaurant and swings for the kids: this is not a garden centre, it’s a nursery, packed with a vast range of well grown plants – and with one of the most knowledgeable owners and entertaining mail order catalogues you’ll find anywhere.

And finally, here’s something really fascinating. Bob’s Top Ten sellers for the season so far and interestingly different from the top sellers from North Carolina’s Plant Delights. Some new, some old – and the top three are all in the daisy family.

You’ll find details, and pictures, of them all on the Cotswold Garden Flowers website.

In Britain, one catalogue stands out for its committment to bringing us excellent new introductions, thoughtfully chosen plants from way back – and strong opinions. For in his Cotswold Garden Flowers catalogue, Bob Brown not only releases his own new plants plus those of other top breeders on both sides of the Atlantic, and chooses the best of all the rest, but he rates every plant in the catalogue. He gives each plant marks out of ten!
Now, of course, you won’t find any with only two or three marks, though there’s an elder rated only 3.5. A few plants escape rating but almost everything in the catalogue is rated 7 or more, with quite a few starring at 10 out of 10. “A score of 5 is average – it’s OK,” says Bob, “6 is nice, 7 is good, 8 is very good, etc. I welcome argument.”
The 10-out-of-10s include three agapanthus, two agaves, a bergenia, two brunneras, two cannas, a chrysanthemum, three crocosmias, an echinacea, three hellebores, two heucheras, no hostas, two kniphofias, a meconopsis, an Oriental poppy, three primulas…
Bob loves, and breeds crocosmias; three get top marks and, out of 13, ten get 9, 9.5 or 10. Same goes for kniphofias, two are rated 10. The picture below shows the throwouts from the breeding programme. And his son Edmund’s enthusiasm for elders is revealed in the collection of 46 (yes, you read right, 46 ) different types. Though none rate a 10, there are many specially selected for their fruit production.
Some plants are praised in a single word to go with their 10 out of 10: “amazing” (Helleborus ‘Bob’s Best’), “fabulous” (Papaver orientale ‘Snow Goose’). Others get a sparky phrase: “you (or more likely your spouse/partner) need mental preparation for its irruption” (Clematis armandii ‘Appleblossom’).
On the nursery’s website, you’ll not only find the text of the catalogue, but a record of Bob’s ratings for a huge range of plants that did not make it into the catalogue or are still being assessed:
“Small mounds of crinkled dark green glossy foliage as if suffering an aphid attack… Died – unknown reasons’ (Ajuga pyramidalis ‘Metallica Crispa’)
“Destroyed – not good enough.” (Vinca major ‘Jason Hill’)
“Easy. Most visitors are more enthusiastic than I am. (Died of old age).” (Potentilla ‘Melton Fire’)
And although this is all very amusing, it’s important to remember that with Bob’s experience, his fine eye for a good plants, and his inability to prevaricate for the sake of a sale you can trust what he says.
A visit to the nursery is a treat (check the website for details), as is the catalogue (don’t throw away the old ones). Bob Brown’s plants are also on sale at a range of plant fairs.
* Cotswold Garden Flowers will ship plants to the rest of Europe, but not to North America.

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