A life story in plants
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I have just been on a nursery crawl. It involves plants, not infants. I vowed two weeks ago that my nursery crawl at that time would be my last until next spring. The vow lasted only a fortnight. I enjoy these crawls too much. They involve setting off to a specialist plant nursery, listed in the invaluable RHS Plant Finder guide, and trying not to get lost on the last three miles of the route. Nurseries tend to hide in country lanes. I wish there was a hortnav without the bossy voice on satnav. She is only tolerable when I leave her to a companion in the car.
Satnav-ed at one remove, I have just returned from a favourite destination, Stone House Cottage Nursery near Kidderminster. When its new owners, recently married, took over in 1975, it had brick walls, but no significant garden. By 1990, when I first wrote about it, the nursery, setting and garden delighted FT readers. It continues to crop up in their emails and conversations.
The garden is the work of Louisa Arbuthnott, mother of five and in sole charge for the past 45 years. I have known her for even longer. In the 1960s we used to meet at dances, too shy to discover that we shared a down-to-earth view of flower power and that each of us was wondering if we had shut the greenhouse door before going out. She is the unsurpassed one-woman nursery-owner of my generation.
After a summer of excruciating London parties, she broke with expectations and joined a firm of contract gardeners in Chelsea’s Elystan Place. She mowed, weeded and hauled mowing machines in and out of their trucks, but her main interests were different: plants and their propagation. She taught herself by looking, reading and listening. She never went on a gardening course.
“They educate the joy out of it,” she told me, as we sat beside a new gravel bed in her nursery. Occasionally she goes to lectures, but avoids those that are plugging a speaker’s new book. “I have become wary of driving for
an hour or so to come home with a worthwhile idea one time in three.”
She steers clear of the RHS and never watches gardening on TV. Her modest manner goes with profound knowledge and disciplined understanding.
They have accrued for many decades. For her 21st birthday her father gave her a greenhouse. After her marriage, it moved with her to Stone House Cottage and still stands there, the centre of her plant propagation. Nothing is bought in or forced in a dusty apology for earth. She makes all her own compost in a cement mixer and grows every plant on sale. She works from 8am to 5pm and takes the edge off “mind-blowingly boring jobs like potting” by listening to audiobooks through headphones. Resolute devotion has sustained her happily for 45 years. “What I try to do is to connect people to lovely plants they would not meet otherwise.”
Many of them can be seen growing in the walled garden adjoining her nursery. We walked through it after a welcome shower of rain and she left me to comment on what I, not she, picked out. It is an unfailing pleasure and challenge. The garden has a structure that her late husband James, previously a soldier, sketched with her, deciding where the hedges of yew and box would run. He then learnt bricklaying and in winter, built brick towers on the tops of the garden’s walls.
Meanwhile, Louisa dug out the formal borders that were in her mind’s eye. “I am not into design,” she says, “as if a garden can be installed and then the mind behind it can move on.” Her garden has a shape nonetheless, but it is also the stage for an amazing cast of plants, setting it apart from others in its style.
Some of the families are familiar: clematises, which she professes not to grow well; hydrangeas, salvias or daylilies. The varieties are not — tigridias such as Red Hot Tiger — while others stretch anyone’s knowledge: climbing iochromas with hanging flowers of slate blue, indigoferas galore, veratrums in green or dark orange-red flower and so much else that I could baffle you with botanical Latin for the rest of this piece.
Hand-written labels help visitors to identify what they are seeing. They also show what they are not. In corner after corner they allowed me to envisage groups of rarities, trilliums or Shortia uniflora, temporarily out of flower. The climbers on the walls are stunning, and I wish my garden was warm enough to accommodate them.
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Opposite a Japanese pink lacecap hydrangea called Miyama-yae-Murasaki, Louisa suddenly pointed to a lilac-flowered thalictrum, diffusiflorum I think, and remarked that it was the best sight of the afternoon. Nothing escapes her in what is the garden of her lifetime. Plants have come to her from people who live on through their presence. Both of us were fortunate gainers in earlier years from Valerie Finnis, the queen of alpines and small hardy plants. I had come hoping I might rediscover a superb laced pink that our mentor had once named Coste Budde after a young Dutch helper in her garden. I had it for years until it died of age. Did Stone House Cottage happen to have a plant of this beauty of the 1970s?
“There are 10 on that table over there,” Louisa replied, “how big a one do you want?”, giving me a three-year-old big mat of it in a pot. She has kept it going from cuttings though everyone else has lost it. Recently its Dutch namesake came to see if she happened still to have it. Gardens of pure design can be impressive but they do not have the cumulative autobiography which grows in long-term gardens of plants.
Weekly from Wednesday to Saturday, Stone House Cottage’s nursery and garden are open. “Some of my visitors are staggeringly knowledgeable,” their owner remarks, “and not at all just visitors from stately homes.” They teach her new things and even bring her plants they think she will appreciate. Others are comfortingly ignorant: “Do I need to take the plant out of its pot before I plant it?” one asked her only the week before.
From her clientele, does she think gardening is fading to be the pursuit of an ageing pool of enthusiasts? “Not at all,” she says, “there are hundreds of young enthusiasts longing to take it onwards.” I urge them to go and visit in order to raise their ideas of what an individual can achieve.
What about her, now that 70 years have passed? “I have got a wonderful battery-powered wheelbarrow,” she tells me, “and it will transform my next 20 years.”
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