Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Walled Nursery

I’m a sucker for a walled garden, and so every opportunity to visit one is met with eager anticipation. Even so, it’s been too long since I’ve visited The Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst, and so an open invitation for a guided tour, and perhaps even a cup of tea, awaited merely a suitable space in the diary. Such a space appeared invitingly upon the page for this morning, and so off I went.

Deep in the heart of the Wealden landscape, a mere stone’s throw from Hawkhurst’s improbably pretty high street, lies this local treasure – a testament to the combined vision and horticultural experience of its owners, Monty and Emma Davies, and proof of what can be achieved with determination in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. You can forget the soulless big-name garden centres, now all too often little more than amusement park cum retail “experience”, where plants are clearly little more than an afterthought. Here, everything from the handwritten chalk boards to the room dedicated to vintage gardenalia bespeaks a passion not only for plants but also the process of looking after them. To resist the charm of this place would be a challenge for anyone in possession of even a passing interest in gardening – soul is something it has in spades.

You could be forgiven for attributing this to the setting. February is not the most inspirational time in the garden – snowdrops, hellebores and winter-scented shrubs aside – but in spite of the dismal grey skies and the fact that the nursery won't be open for another week, there is distinct atmosphere within these walls. Thirteen Victorian glasshouses within a bounded two-acre space will tend to have such an effect – so much wood, glass and cast iron, not to mention red brick. Though now sympathetically commandeered for the purposes of the nursery, I can’t shake the feeling that at any moment I might bump into one of the nine-strong workforce of who once tended Tongswood Gardens, as it was known at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But the magic of the nursery can’t be accounted for merely as a product of its history and architecture. Even with the shelves and benches half empty, the spaces between them seem filled with a kind of latent, fizzing energy. Perhaps it’s that thing that only gardeners feel at this time of year; that faint but ever-present background hum as an entire landscape full of plants muster their strength for the long-awaited jubilant push in spring, bursting up from soil and out from bud with an explosive release of potential force. Plants in pots and liners obey the same natural laws, so there’s no reason not to feel the vibrations on the nursery. But I’ve a feeling that the dynamism and purpose isn’t limited to one particular season here. Rather, it’s something that proceeds from the relationship between these unique buildings and the family in whose care they now find themselves. It’s hard to pin down, but evident in the numerous signs of Monty’s ongoing programme of glasshouse maintenance, in Emma’s informative and carefully handwritten plant labels, and even in the matchbox car left by one of the boys on the ridge of the coldframes – a reminder that this is a home, as well as a business.

All the magic in the world would be of little practical use without in-depth knowledge of the plants being raised for sale, and there’s no arguing with the horticultural pedigree of the team. Monty and Emma’s training in landscape management and commercial horticulture respectively, coupled with his experience as a self employed gardener and hers working in three of the county’s most significant gardens (volunteering at Dixter and on the staff at Pashley Manor and Sissinghurst) should leave no doubt that these folks know their alliums. And, having taken early retirement as chief propagator at Sissinghurst after 22 years, the arrival of Jaqui Ruthven at the nursery two years ago was something of a major coup.

“Jacqui’s like a propagating machine,” says Emma. “She’s only got to look at a plant and it multiplies, I’ve never seen anyone like her!”

Pellies and cast iron
The evidence is there to be seen when I pop my head into yet another glasshouse to say hello, finding Jacqui busily at work surrounded by benches stuffed with pelargoniums – I spy many scented-leaved varieties, regals and some species too – and through an opening into the rear section all manner of succulents jostle with the flamboyant hues of Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’.

The benefits of this in-house expertise are several; customers can be happy in the knowledge that they are supporting a local business by buying homegrown plants, while the nursery maintains tight control on the stock’s provenance, and importantly avoids seeing precious margin trickling away down a long supply chain.

It’s as well the staff are so experienced since, in addition to the usual business of running a nursery, the unique nature of the site also provides its biggest challenge.

“Most of the material used in construction is what they call redwood timber – Scots pine” Monty tells me. It’s not the cheapest softwood, but it requires constant maintenance to protect it from the effects of the weather, “and, as you can see” – here he uses his finger to dig out a worryingly large chunk of rotten wood from a rail of the Carnation House – “sadly, that hasn’t always been the case.”

There’s also the issue of the glass itself. The nursery takes a battering from the winter weather, in a single two month period last year losing over 300 panes of glass. Clearly the maintenance – in reality, the renovation – of these historic buildings is a challenge, and I wonder how the couple are intending to meet this additional pressure.

“In addition to grants and sponsorship, we have to diversify” Emma explains, “and this year we plan to open a restaurant. Our customers often ask us to recommend somewhere to eat, and we have to send them away. Why not cater for them here, ideally showcasing food we’ve grown ourselves?”

Why not indeed? There’s certainly the space, while leaving plenty of room for other ventures – there are plans to build upon last year’s successful forays into weddings and outdoor theatre. But how, I wonder out loud, do you avoid losing that emphasis on plants that brought you here in the first place? “We have to wear a lot of different hats” says Emma. “One each for horticulture, sales, book-keeping, marketing, events – and mum! But we’re plant people, that’s what makes us tick”.

I do love a handwritten label
We’re drinking tea at the big kitchen table in the old gardeners’ bothy – now home to Monty, Emma and their two boys – when Emma proudly produces a notebook stuffed with various lists of plants and seeds which she wants to grow on the nursery. “I love reading about new plants, or finding them at plant fairs, or tracking them down on the internet. I scour the country for stock plants, give them to Jacqui, and then – she’s off! That’s why – in spite of having to diversify to keep the place running – we won’t lose our focus. We want to be a horticultural hub for the area.”

It’s hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to resist being impressed by the dogged way in which the nursery’s current owners have bounced back from each weather-related setback. Making my way back to the car park via the shop, I find Monty unpacking a huge order of vegetable seeds, muffled up to the eyeballs with barely an inch of skin visible. It’s pretty fresh in here. “This used to be the potting shed,” he tells me. “You can just picture the poor gardeners in here, no heating, trying to coax some feeling into their fingers.” That’s a feeling I know all too well from gardening over the winter months. I bid my reluctant farewells, comforted by the knowledge that the horticultural future of this nursery is in safe hands.

The Walled Nursery
Water Lane
Kent TN18 5DH
Closed Mondays

The English Garden Future Fund
The Walled Nursery has been shortlisted to receive a grant of £5,000 towards the much-needed renovation of the Carnation House. Please support their application by going to the website of The English Garden magazine and voting for them. Voting closes 28 February 2015
Click here to vote for The Walled Nursery.