Bob Brown, Badsey Nuresery
PUBLISHED: 09:01 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013
A trek to one Cotswold nursery is well worth the effort. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw
Searching out Cotswold Garden Flowers is not for the faint-hearted. The Badsey-based nursery is notoriously difficult to find and even when you are on the right route, the last stage - along a narrow, rutted track through farm fields - can be off-putting. A lesser business would have failed years ago, but this nursery is different.
It was set up 20 years ago by Bob Brown and so well known has he become in the industry that the business is more often than not referred to by his name rather than by its correct title; one of the signs in Badsey village even points you towards 'Bob Brown' with the legend Cotswold Garden Flowers almost as an afterthought underneath.
When he first started the business the remoteness of the site was not an issue as he intended it to be mail order only with no on-site visitors.
"I couldn't stop them wanting to come," he recalls.
Today people visit from all over the country and even from as far as America and Japan. It is a source of some amusement that he is better known abroad than he is in Badsey itself.
What they travel for is the chance to buy something different and from someone who knows exactly how to care for it. Bob specialises in easy to grow and unusual perennials and selected shrubs, and his plant knowledge is formidable. Add to that the fact that everything is trialled before sale at the nursery and you begin to see why he is successful.
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.