What big trees you have

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Gardening has always seemed to me to be a slow, patient business. I have just been obliged to rethink it from the roots. When I plant a new magnolia, it is a small cluster of twigs. In the first three summers it has to be watered from the hosepipe and slowly, slowly starts to increase its height and width. Flower buds form along the new branches and after 10 years its owner looks on it with some of the pride of a parent. Impatience, meanwhile, is the disease of other gardeners who simply cannot wait. There are few waits longer than the wait for flowers on a catalpa tree or a big Magnolia campbellii. In my thirties I used to be wedded to the long, slow view of gardening. In my sixties I am ever so slightly less sure. Is there a way of accelerating the process?

Designers, celebs and royalty certainly think there is. They buy trees and shrubs of an age and size that makes me recoil in jealousy masquerading as disapproval. They set mature trees in the spectator spaces at charity auctions or at weddings, calling them a “breath of London in the country”. Opinions divided over the Field Maples in pots that obscured the soaring stone pillars up the aisle of Westminster Abbey as Kate Middleton walked up to renounce her status as a commoner. I thought them common, too, and complained that they would probably go on the rubbish heap when the wedding was over. I have just found that they are alive and well. Two of the big hornbeams that hedged off the Abbey transept are now on sale. They can be bought for a price “in excess of £1,800” each and an enthusiast for last May’s wedding may well consider them a bargain.

Off the busy M40 motorway’s Junction 1 to Denham in Buckinghamshire, I ran the wedding trees to ground. The trees for the Abbey came from Tendercare Nurseries. They are Britain’s leading supplier of specimens of an age and size that make my efforts at slow gardening look like masochism. In 1989 the nursery owners Andrew and Angela Halksworth sensed a gap in the British market and duly made themselves the first resort for top designers and gardeners in a hurry. Their nursery sites now cover more than 35 acres and the main Denham display can be visited by retail customers too. I had always supposed that big trees and shrubs have to be lifted by the roots, after months of preparation, and hurried off in plastic to a hole in the customer’s garden. At Tendercare, all the big trees and shrubs grow in individual plastic containers, watered from an individual irrigation spray that runs off a central hosepipe. Thousands of pots are watered daily from a centrally controlled timed system, without the need for cans and ponds.

“What will happen when Thames Water ostentatiously imposes a ban on hosepipes in the early summer?,” I asked Craig Church, the nursery’s senior horticulturalist. Dressed in thin khaki shorts in late February, he is not a man to be flustered. “We have our own private water boreholes,” he reassured me. I began to admire the logic of the business. Every big plant that is not sold will grow on to an even bigger size and price the next year, watered by privately pumped water. The thousands of maturely planted pots are the nursery’s portfolio. The big pleached limes and enviable Portuguese Laurels have vastly outperformed the portfolio of the FT’s own Kevin Goldstein-Jackson and his favour for lesser “resource” stocks since 1990. Armed with the nursery’s retail catalogue, I revalued my own avenues of mature hornbeams and evergreen pears. They add up to £98,000 whereas they cost £480 as young trees in 1989. Would Tendercare like to bid for them?

“Certainly not,” Craig Church told me. They never buy uncertified stock from any old amateur and, anyway, the cost of uprooting and transporting it would be prohibitive. I will book in my avenues as private equity, theoretically valuable but utterly unrealisable until a hurricane turns then into firewood.

Celebs and royalty are less parsimonious. Tendercare deals with its retained designers and also with the set designers for big TV and film productions. Like William and Kate, Charles and Camilla went to the altar in St Georges Chapel, Windsor, among Tendercare mature trees. They chose white flowering cherries, the Tai Haku variety and also some pretty flowering Malus. There were two other Tendercare items in the chapel. The nursery-owner’s two young sons were choirboys in the chapel choir. On another musical note, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber is a fan of the enterprise. He has even left a wishlist at the nursery so friends can give him items off it for his birthdays and anniversaries. I am beginning to feel less worried about one day being 70, if the FT can then give me a mature Holm Oak commensurate with my length of service. When the comedian Rowan Atkinson ordered a batch of mature items, he even bought a JCB digger to greet them at his Oxfordshire home so that they could be planted immediately. The plants arrive from individual big pots and must be watered daily, but not soaked, in their new homes for the first two years. Then they will grow on contentedly.

Robin Lane Fox at Tendercare Nurseries

Andrew Halksworth is interestingly reflective about the business. After the financial panic in 2008, sales dropped by up to 10 per cent in each of the next two years. They are now back above their peak level, helped by foreign property buyers who want quick maturity. Many of us are moving houses ever more rapidly but we still want hedging and features during our shortened occupancy. The trade in mature trees is strong in much of Europe and Tendercare buys in about 60 per cent of what it sells on. The hard winters in Germany make its nurseries specialise in hardy beech, oak and hornbeams. By origin, the Field Maples for Kate Middleton’s wedding came from east Germany. Italy supplies magnolias in the north, oleanders on the east coast and big trees around Bologna. The Halksworths have local contacts in at least seven countries but even so they grow on much of what they eventually sell. About a third of it is sourced and brought on in Britain.

Among the 30ft-high box-pleached limes, the superb flowering Witch Hazels, the rows of huge clipped Holm Oak and the happy lilacs and magnolias, I lost my irrational prejudice. Big pot-grown items are a legitimate option and they are not skinning the planet. Rows and rows of young stock are being grown on to succeed them as demand accelerates. When your pension pays out a lump sum, why not buy a multi-stemmed, pot grown Magnolia soulangeana at a height of 12ft for £893.25 plus VAT? Tendercare is open to us all, not just to designers who may charge you for the privilege of knowing about it.

You are in excellent company. Last month’s turnover was double the total of February 2011, spearheaded by the Queen. Tendercare sent her a big flowering malus to be planted at Sandringham to mark the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne on February 6. The variety was Malus Evereste, always a top tip in this column. I presume Her Majesty and her designers are aware of the FT’s opinions but the choice was guided by other reasons. Evereste recalls the climbing of Mount Everest in the coronation year. In her eighties, the Queen cannot take the long view nowadays when choosing plants, but her anniversary malus is the one I would pick for flowers and autumn leaves. It would cost one of her subjects £336.75 plus VAT and delivery.

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