A very rare breed: Plantsman Nick Macer fills his eclectic nursery with fine specimens
“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.”
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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)
David Wheeler heads to Gloucestershire to meet the man behind Pan-Global Plants
Nick Macer seems to be a happy man. Tree-smitten throughout his childhood and teenage years, he now spends his working days among a collection of mostly hard-to-find woody plants that many of us would be pleased merely to glimpse. Not that his botanical and horticultural interests lie exclusively with trees and shrubs, as his nursery, Pan-Global Plants, confirms.
Nick is a true all-rounder with unfamiliar abutilons and birches, new (and newish) magnolias, and a range of deutzias, franklinias and viburnums among his collection; all unheard of at the nation’s garden centres. These and many more are lined up alongside potted climbers, perennials, bulbs and succulents; his interest in the latter borne out by an informed review of Greg Starr’s new book, Agaves, which Nick wrote for a recent issue of The Plantsman.
Nick’s path to a satisfying and family-supporting career began with a three-year course at Merrist Wood College in Surrey in the early 1990s. From this, he took a one-year ‘gap’ to work for six months at each of two world-famous institutions: the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, and Westonbirt Arboretum in his native Gloucestershire. Eventually, armed with classroom and hands-on skills, it was time to earn a living, and Nick took several paid jobs before deciding to ‘go it alone’ and start his own nursery.
First, he rented land at Painswick Rococo Garden, near Stroud. There he established himself on the ‘rare plant trail’, and was quickly identified as a supplier of uncommon plants and a magnet for aficionados on the lookout for trees and shrubs that were difficult, if not impossible, to find in run-of-the-mill retail outlets.
After six years, he transplanted himself and set down what appears to be a taproot within a walled garden at Frampton-on-Severn, not far from the late Sir Peter Scott’s Wetland Centre at Slimbridge. With no time to work his third-of-an-acre garden at home, Nick has made one at the nursery – a place to try out personal design ideas, to experiment with plant combinations, and to evaluate an unfamiliar specimen’s full potential in open ground. In his 11 years at Frampton, Nick has enviably extended his stock, and to browse his neat rows of plants for sale and tunnels quite literally stuffed with botanical desirables was, for me, a lesson in horticultural acumen that delightfully exploits personal idiosyncrasy alongside commercial nous.
From that extensive and constantly changing stocklist, I found myself reaching for plants that, while not exclusively available from Pan-Global, are nonetheless difficult to track down elsewhere. Take Magnolia laevifolia, for example; one of his almost 50 magnolias. This medium to large evergreen shrub has small leaves with brown undersides when young, and what Nick describes as ‘deliciously fruity-scented, creamy-white flowers that open flat
in spring from handsome, velvety-brown buds’. Moreover, it is tough, hardy, easy and lime-tolerant – surely deserving of a prime garden position.
Another with year-round foliage is a phlomis that has curiously in-turned, tube-like, grey, felty leaves. Its whorls of mustard yellow flowers in midsummer associate well with many of the ornamental grasses also to be found at Pan-Global. Nick’s odd names and descriptions occasionally find their way onto labels: the scent of Osmanthus yunnanensis flowers is memorably given as ‘vanilla playdough’. A mahonia that he calls ‘Pan’s Peculiar’ has a ‘soft, drooping’ habit that gives this normally stiff and spiky genus a measure of unexpected grace. His tall, richly coloured Corydalis ‘Tory MP’ has just the right shade of blue to excite certain electioneers on polling day.
Nick has travelled widely in the pursuit of plants, making small discoveries in such far-flung places as Vietnam, the Azores and California. More for foliage than flowers, he grows a dahlia at Frampton that he found in the hills of northeast Mexico. Unusually, it wants to flower in December, and is hardy enough to last that late in the year. Against a wall, it will make a handsome 2m mound of huge complex leaves on strong multiple stems, rewarding gardeners with a sprinkling of single light-pink flowers in the run up to Christmas. A good substitute, I would say,
for another seasonal Mexican: Euphorbia pulcherrima,the ubiquitous poinsettia.
For more information on Pan-Global Plants, visit www.panglobalplants.com
Britain’s top nurseries: Pan-Global Plants
But there’s not a hint of that here. As soon as I walked in, I spotted a big block of Euphorbia ceratopcarpa in pots.
This is a hard garden player, almost evergreen and exceptionally long-flowering. Euphorbias are now rather usual British garden fare, but not this variety. Mine came from my parents’ garden, propagated from a cutting taken by them in Sicily 40 years ago, but I have never seen this unmissable plant for sale. It is definitely a contender for the longest-flowerer in my garden.
After this, I noticed the best clump of Lobelia tupa I have ever seen. This Chilean lobelia is unbelievably beautiful, dramatic but exquisite, with coral-red hooded flowers (this was an exceptionally tall form from the Jim Archibald collection). Here, silhouetted against the backdrop of the brick wall, it was the most glamorous thing I’d seen in any garden this year.
What was the thread between a rarely seen euphorbia and a particularly lovely and exotic tender perennial lobelia?
It is Nick Macer, a 39-year-old plant collector with distinctive tastes. The nursery shuts at the end of October so Nick can head off to plant-rich pastures around the world. Last year, he went to the Atlas mountains of Morocco, then spent three weeks searching for dahlias in Mexico.
He already has eight species of dahlia in his list, including a wonderful vermilion-orange Dahlia coccinea, which I bought. In early November, he’s off again to Mexico to hunt for another new collection of plants to bring back.
What is he looking for? To demonstrate his tastes, I asked him to choose his five favourite plants for this season.
He selected an agave, a grass (Pennisetum macrourum), the Lobelia tupa as a perennial, and a couple of shrubs: the tough but lovely Hydrangea aspera Kawakamii Group and the more tender, purple-flowered, Indigofera pendula.
These plants are as diverse a group as one could find, and that’s what Nick wants. He has been known over the past decade for his shrubs, but is now much more excited by the idea of a mixed emporium of trees and shrubs, herbaceous perennials, grasses, ferns, climbers, bamboos and tender exotics.
Each one must have a beauty, either handsome like the agave, lobelia and pennisetum, or displaying the softer charms of the hydrangea and indigofera. They must also be rare and unusual. You wouldn’t find any of his plants in a garden centre – they are too tall, too risky or too odd.
Nick has a penchant for the exotic, particularly if it is hardier than it looks. Global warming is now on his side, as more and more “tender” plants now survive our winters. They also need to be good performers to make his list: relatively easy to look after, thriving without much preening and fuss and possessing exceptional good looks.
His absolute favourite right now is an Agave montana, collected from a high altitude (3,000m/10,000ft) in Mexico and completely hardy. When you see it, you think desert, hot Mexican hillside or glasshouse – but, given good drainage, this agave will over-winter happily outside.
Nick grows his on a raised bed, back-filled with rock. It looks good 12 months of the year, with amazing blue colouring and teeth to every leaf margin like a gigantic house leek.
His chosen pennisetum also has great presence, planted in a wide river surrounding Albizia julibrissin f. rosea. The grass is perfectly upright, with statuesque, parallel flower heads, at their best back-lit in evening light. This is reputed to be invasive, an underground runner, but only gently self seeds here.
As Nick says about the hydrangea, any H. aspera is gorgeous, but a Kawakamii is an amazing performer. It has no sensitivity to pH, so its flowers keep their lovely colour whatever the profile of your soil. It goes on flowering very long and late, with a delicate beauty and a wonderful overall shape.
With one plant, you get a complex multi-storey effect, perfect for filling a corner in any partly shaded place.
By contrast, the intricately lovely indigofera works best in combination with one or two other plants. In Nick’s garden, self-sown Verbena bonariensis provides vertical purple spires from below, with a lovely white climbing Cobaea pringlei draped above.
What is Nick after on his next trip abroad?
He wants more new dahlias; preferably an entirely new dahlia species. He’s on the look out for species eryngiums, as yet unknown over here and more hardy agaves, because he loves them. Watch this space.
I do love a good nursery and am fortunate to live in North Carolina where we have some of the finest, most innovating wholesale and retail nurseries in the world. Our nurseries grow everything from huge landscape trees to flats of annuals and everything in between. Nurseries here include the largest single site, heated greenhouse complex in the US (162 acres under glass!), tree liner producers, and world re-known mail-order nurseries but it is always great to see how other folks are doing things.
My quick whirlwind tour of Great Britain included several nurseries that blew my mind with their diversity and high quality plant material and I only wish I could have seen more. I stopped in for a brief visit at Pan-Global Plants (http://www.panglobalplants.com/) where I was delighted and a bit chagrined to realize I knew owner Nick Macer but hadn’t been aware that this was his nursery. Nick has been traveling the world collecting plants – Mexico, Morocco, Manipur, and Vietnam – not necessarily where many other plant hunters have gone in recent years.
As his travels might indicate, Nick is not one to pigeonhole himself and is growing everything from bulbs to trees. His collection was mouth-watering and well worth the trip to his beautiful walled-garden location on the Frampton Court grounds. I spent a bit of time with Nick checking out some recent introductions and was especially excited to find Styrax shiraianus, a snowbell from Japan that is exceptionally rare in gardens despite having been introduced to the US a century ago. The long tubed flowers and heavily toothed leaves are quite distinctive for a styrax.
Nick’s plants are mostly smaller sized unusual species while Junker’s Nursery grows larger, landscape sized, field grown plants. I’ve long wanted to visit and was not sure what to expect since their website (http://www.junker.co.uk/) indicated that they had recently moved. I was met at the nursery by Karan Junker and her son Torsten. I shouldn’t have worried about the nursery, they had been establishing it for several years prior to the move and I can’t imagine a more picturesque site with rolling hills and agricultural fields.
The nursery consists of quite a few hoop houses, lined out stock plants, rows of nursery stock in the fields, and an arboretum of their trees and a sunken quarry garden as well where Torsten has been taking the lead. Junker’s grows a very wide variety of material, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 taxa although not all are available at any one time. They specialize in some material like Acer (maple), Cornus (dogwood), and several other woody trees and shrubs. I think I counted over 140 different dogwoods – these are definitely my type of people.
Karan took me on a tour of the grounds where I saw some impressive, new (to me at least) plants that set me to drooling. Folks in the UK are lucky to have growers of quality material so near at hand. I was especially pleased to see that a new generation of Junker is interested in the nursery and Torsten has been expanding the palette of material growing at the nursery. Several frames were built to house his growing collections of herbaceous material (120 taxa of Roscoea among others) and the most recent Junker’s availability list includes Agave and Dasylirion that Torsten grew from seed. I can’t wait to see where the nursery goes as Torsten becomes even more integrated and involved.
I did want to visit at least 1 mainstream garden center so I stopped by one of the Notcutt’s Nursery locations which are scattered around England. It held a very interesting selection of plant material but was in many ways similar to many of our own better nurseries. The hard-goods selection was huge with everything from garden decor to outdoor entertaining goods available. I was impressed at how they funneled visitors through their entire sales area much like Ikea does in their stores. I’m sure that must be good for impulse buys.
The industry in the UK has certainly suffered like it has in the US over the past several years but it still looks strong to me. New plant material, excellent quality, and enthusiastic folks should serve the industry well. If the USDA doesn’t continue to tie our hands on imports of plant material, the UK industry could certainly help us keep our own industry innovating.
Follow me at @jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.
Check out all the happenings at http://www.ncsu.edu/jcraulstonarboretum