It somehow seemed appropriate that Architectural Plants (www.architecturalplants.com) finally opened their impressive new premises a couple of miles north of Pulborough last week at the same time as the Garden Museum in London is about to celebrate the life of that most structural and inspired of designers, Russell Page.
Last Thursday they held a really good party in a marquee there to celebrate the move with a talk to remember from Tom Hart Dyke (www.lullingstonecastle.co.uk/tom.html ). Funnily enough, all these events brought together a quality that is much professed, even if less felt in today’s world, “passion”. It is certainly something shared by Architectural Plants’ proprietor Angus White, by Tom himself and Guy Watts, the founder of the charity Streetscape for which a silent auction was held. Streetscape provides horticultural training for 18-25 years olds who might otherwise have fallen through the net (http://www.streetscape.org.uk) and Guy is an AP alumnus who clearly feels strongly and cares deeply about providing opportunities in horticulture for young people. Someone also won, and was highly delighted with, a very nice, large, cloud pruned “niwaki” tree as a result of a competition promoted in the Daily Telegraph.
Tom Hart Dyke spoke in a way that evidenced his real love for horticulture and plant hunting. Inspired by the example and support of his beloved grandmother and his upbringing at the family home, Lullingstone Castle in Kent, he trained at Sparsholt College before setting out with a friend on a plant hunting trip to South America, aged 23. Having survived many obvious risks, they decided on a final orchid-hunting venture into the Darien Gap, a stretch of largely unmapped territory where the Pan American Highway temporarily disappears on the border between Columbia and Panama. At this stage their luck ran out, big time, and they were captured by a group of teenage, but extraordinarily dangerous, guerrillas. For nine months they were moved from camp to camp in conditions of extreme hardship. Tom made light of the dangers as he spoke to us, telling us for example that spider chips and fried parrot were really quite good to eat, but it was clearly seriously scary by any normal standards. Indeed, Tom, believing he was about to be executed, planned in his mind the garden he would build at Lullingstone if he was lucky enough to return.
Their relations at home despaired and planned their memorial services. Eventually Tom’s obsession with orchids drove his captors mad and the pair was released, with all their belongings returned untouched, on condition they never came back. Even then they ignored the advice, returning since they had forgotten to ask for directions out of the jungle. Miraculously released again, this time they actually got home in time for Christmas. After that it is little short of amazing that Tom’s passion for plants, and plant hunting in hazardous conditions, has if anything even grown. He has managed to create the World Garden he had dreamt of as a captive – an outline map of the world imprinted on two acres at Lullingstone and filled, perhaps painted is the best word, with plants typical of every continent. He has gone on to become a television personality, founding and expanding many horticultural events at Lullingstone, and has become a source of inspiration for many gardeners of all ages, but especially the young.
Architectural Plants is something of an anomaly, although a very successful one, in the staid world of nurseries. Firstly, Angus White who founded the firm in 1990 when he was frustrated he couldn’t buy the plants he so wanted and has since seen it go from strength to strength, came from a background in furniture design rather than horticulture.
Secondly Angus has a very clear vision of what he believes gardens should be about, namely plants that are “tremendously green and sculptural”. Most people who buy and use his plants are likely to share these values, although anyone who recognises the importance of structure in a garden will be a potential customer. Indeed many of his customers are perhaps not typical “flower gardeners” but rather people with a strong sense of design and style in other areas coming new to this vocation.
Thirdly he believes in fully informing his customers about what he sells and how they can be best used saying “We decided to be bossy, but nice bossy”. The best example of this is APs “traffic lights” system of climate hardiness where the appropriate colour of the plants’ labels indicates their hardiness. Green labels should survive anywhere in the UK below a 1,000 feet .This group includes the old staples of holly, box, Portugal laurel and yew together with a further 200 plants many of which are not generally known . Amber labelled plants are generally tender, but may perform unscathed through the winter in town gardens and sheltered environments. Those with red labels such as Hedichum gardnerianum and Melianthus major are definitely tender and will be cut down by frost and need protection through the winter.
Fourthly the business recognises its long term success depends on customers’ very expensive purchases actually thriving as well as surviving so enhancing the firm’s good name, reputation and demand for what they sell. They therefore offer design, planting and ongoing maintenance services as an essential part of their business model rather than the relatively half hearted add-ons that are more typical of the nursery trade in the UK.
There’s still some construction work to be finished and in a few weeks time the spring warmth will have put a lot of growth on the plants; but it really is worth a visit so April or even May would be good months to go.
So what did I learn, beyond the fact the nursery has a huge stock, very knowledgeable and friendly staff, and offers an extensive range of services, together with a cafe?
There are simply too many plants to write about in a single article, so here are five out of the many which I believe are still underused and are excellent when well placed to give structure and movement to a garden. All provide interesting and viable alternatives to the traditional topiary plants, which are of course also available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
The loquat, Eriobotyrea japonica, is marginally hardy but has wonderful shuttlecock green leaves and will grow to 12 feet. The green olive tree, Phillyrea latifolia, was used much more in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Celia Fiennes wrote of seeing “stiped ffileroys” at Woburn, probably a variegated variety we no longer see. The orange stem myrtle, Myrtus (or Luma) apiculata has a wonderful orange and white bark. It’s borderline hardy but fine for most towns. The long leaved bay, Laurus nobilis angustifolia is significantly tougher than the normal variety and I would prefer it any day. Finally, the Chinese cloud tree, Ligustrum lucidum, is completely hardy and my favourite. Sometimes called the Chinese privet, it produces the most wonderful airy balloons of glossy leaves above standard stems that may well make 12 feet, and once seen is most compellingly desired.
Picture Credits PMW