On the 14th of March, Rob and Jackie Potterton visited Helensburgh on a wild and windy day all the way from Lincolnshire, and shared the experience of building a nursery from scratch.
It was a fascinating story of how a family arrived at the point where they have over four hundred varieties of alpines, and nearly as many bulbs all carefully raised on site in what one of our audience described as ‘a different world’, far removed from our own damp and verdant west coast. The patriarch, obviously much respected by our speaker, was his father, who, after raising carnations and tomatoes till there were no more prizes to be won finally fell in love with alpines after visiting Compton Acres in Devon. He and a partner, Mr Martin began the venture in 1971, and didn’t ‘give up their day jobs’ for some time, but after much work, 10 visits to Chelsea and 7 gold medals, the Potterton nursery is what it is today: a thriving business with a big online presence and what looks like a stunning demonstration garden, complete with a pond and rockery, originally modelled after Compton Acres.
Rob himself described his early attempts to strike out from the family business, only to be seduced by New Zealand Alpines on his travels. (Who amongst us hasn’t had their own moment of plant seduction?) He returned to England, began with soil mixing and labelling and now can share a vast knowledge of alpines and bulbs, including his beloved NZ plants, which, fairly new when he introduced them, have since proved popular.
Interspersed with the engaging story of the growth of a family plant business, Rob had many practical points to make about propagation it was fascinating to see the photos of his wife taking cuttings from the edge of one of their stock plants, and floating the pieces in water in a margarine tub, then using a razor blade to avoid crushing the stems. (I bet it makes all the difference, and I for one am going to try it.) it was also fascinating to hear how long it takes from seed/cutting to sales area; the fact that some trilliums take up to 16 years to flower and be ready for sale, makes one realise there’s good reason why some plants are more expensive than others.
Also, as ever with visits from a nurseryman, there were images and descriptions of mouthwatering plants that made one twitch to buy and get the trowel out - tiny Daphnes and exotic Narcissi to name but two – and the miniature Dicentra looked irresistible!
I couldn’t help but be reminded of our last talk, and the Japanese love of ‘venerable’ plants, when we were looking at the photos of the 47 year old peony, veteran of 4 Chelsea Flower Shows, that customers come to visit, and the thirty year old alpine with its ‘war wounds’ from the last hot summer, and the hollows where (perhaps) the cat sleeps: in fact, Rob actually admitted that some plants were like pets – a sentiment I suspect many of us share.
And to top it all, the Pottertons had brought plants to buy, including descendants of the Chelsea veteran. A good evening all round.