On a recent visit to my sister’s house in Somerset, my brother-in-law asked if I could suggest some plants for their front garden. He had just dug up the parched, patchy lawn and was in the throes of creating a dry, gravel garden. I dread being asked this question. I might write about plants, but it doesn’t follow that I have a designer’s flair for planting combinations.
Nevertheless, in our post-lockdown world, where an opportunity to spontaneously ‘“pop out” still feels like a thrilling novelty, I jumped at the chance to accompany him to a new local nursery in search of inspiration.
Located in Horsington on the edge of the Blackmore Vale, Blooming Wild is conveniently a mile or so from my sister’s village, and, for those who don’t live in the vicinity, it’s a mere 10 minutes from the A303 – in other words, a quick detour if you’re travelling to or from Devon or Cornwall.
I must admit, I wasn’t expecting much; after all it’s nearing the end of the season and I’m well aware of the difficulties nurseries and garden centres have faced as a result of Covid-19. However, it didn’t take long to realise my brother-in-law has a complete gem on his doorstep.
Rather than the usual assortment of seasonal blooms you might find in a small independent set-up, the plants looked carefully curated. So much so, as my eye wandered over the nursery bays filled with perennials and grasses, it gave the impression of a beautiful planting scheme with drifts of veronicastrum, echinacea and persicaria weaving among calamagrostis, deschampsia and pennisetum.
This seemed a bold move (the selection of plants might not be everyone’s cup of tea), but to my mind it is extremely helpful from a customer’s point of view because it’s then easy to get a sense of how the plants will work together in our own gardens. With some relief, I told my brother-in-law to pick out seven or eight different plants he liked, (we could fine-tune the choice later), while I headed off to find the owners, Lauren and Will Holley.
“We realised early on that you cannot offer everything, and it is important to grow and sell plants you are passionate about,” explained Will. “There has been a trend towards a looser, nature-inspired style of planting for many years now and we offer a range of plants that are the building blocks to create this style of garden.”
This love of naturalistic planting is at the heart of Lauren and Will’s vision for their nursery and, it turns out, was the reason behind their decision to leave their jobs and set up their own nursery eight years ago.
“We met at Sparsholt College in 2007,” says Lauren. “Will was studying horticulture and I was studying animal management. After college, Will got a job as a gardener and I worked at Monkey World, caring for the rescued chimpanzees, but every weekend we would travel the country visiting gardens.”
Discovering Piet Oudolf’s beautifully crafted garden at RHS Wisley, Will began to develop a passion for perennials and grasses. Searching out more examples of this naturalistic style and discovering Neil Lucas’s ornamental grasses at Knoll Gardens in Wimborne, Lauren began to feel the pull to horticulture, too. So, in 2013, when Lauren became pregnant with their first child, Amelie (now seven), and it was no longer possible to continue working closely with the primates, it seemed the perfect time to take the leap and follow their dream.
Starting off on a very small scale from a rented piece of land in north Dorset, the couple initially sold their plants at specialist plant fairs. “It was a great way to meet other growers,” remembers Will, “and also helped us find out if there was a demand for our style of plants.”
“We had a lot of support from our customers early on, who seemed pleased to see a young couple start a nursery, as it tends to be something people take on later in life,” remembers Lauren. “We also had the ‘you’re brave!’ comments or ‘you must be mad!’, quite regularly, but the thought of giving up on our dream and returning to an unfulfilling nine-to-five kept us going.”
“I don’t know where it comes from, but we’ve always had this feeling of finding our path in life, that this was what we were meant to do, an unwavering sense of belonging to this role, this industry, this way of life,” adds Will.
Appealing as this sounds, running a nursery is not for the faint-hearted. Realising they had outgrown their first set-up, the pair eventually found the 3.67-acre plot in Horsington in 2016. “It was a crazy time,” remembers Lauren. “We had just had our second child, Mia (now four), and faced the overwhelming task of transforming a bare field into a fully functioning nursery.”
Having such a hands-on approach works very well for Will and Lauren, especially when they finally were in a position to start growing on the site. “It has been a real learning curve as the weather conditions and environment are totally different to our previous site. We have wind as our main contender as the site is very exposed so we have tried to combat this by planting new hedgerows and a multitude of trees around the site to provide protection in the future. We learn something new every day from a new method of propagating a plant or discovering a new favourite variety, to thinking of new ways to display plants or more efficient ways of running the nursery, which make the business so rewarding and exciting.”
While the couple describes the last four years as “a slow slog”, they were thrilled to find themselves at the point of being ready to open the nursery at the start of this year. “Then Covid-19 struck,” says Will.
“We felt the panic rise within us, but we had no choice but to be resourceful. We turned to social media, particularly Facebook, and we set out delivering plants to people who at that time were turning to their gardens for solace in a strange and worrying time.” When they were finally able to open in June, the demand took off and they found themselves running a busy nursery and meeting great contacts and customers.
“We love it when customers ask for help and advice about the best plants,” says Will. “Being honest is important. Plants have their good and bad points. We believe people appreciate being told about the nature of plants, their characters, how they behave or misbehave. Having that intimate knowledge of a plant when raising it from a seed or cuttings through to flowering and death gives you an understanding of the material you are working with.
“The public like this personal service each time they visit the nursery, having someone to help guide your plant choice to make sure you and the plant have the best possible start. We want people to succeed and be encouraged to continue developing a relationship with their plants, gardens and how they relate to the wider landscape.”
The couple’s eco-friendly credentials are important to the business too, and they use peat-free compost, biological pest controls where necessary, recyclable pots and harvest rain water for irrigation. “Our plants are low maintenance and generally long-lived and as we become more aware of environmental issues and think more sustainably about how we plant gardens, these plants can offer a long-term solution,” explains Lauren.
Despite the uncertain times, Will and Lauren remain positive and are excited about the future of the business. “We want to develop a stock bed next year,” say Lauren, “which will be planted out with plants we use for propagation, as well as plants we want to trial before offering to our customers. It will also offer people the opportunity to see our plants growing in their maturity.
“It is hard when walking around a nursery looking at plants in small pots to appreciate how they will grow when they are planted in the garden.” They are also taking the step of starting a national collection of veronicastrums, one of the couple’s favourite perennials. “We have found ourselves looking back over the past six months and thinking what a whirlwind it has been, and feel so lucky to not only be able to run the business during lockdown but to have launched it.”
Garden gems of the south west
The area around Blooming Wild has some of England’s most iconic gardens to visit. Here’s our pick of the best:
The Newt in Somerset
Bruton, Somerset BA7 7NG
Once the family home of garden designer Penelope Hobhouse, the extensive gardens have been restored to their original splendour, with additional modern twists to keep them fresh and relevant. There are also woods and orchards, as well as a garden museum and a café and restaurant serving delicious local dishes.
East Lambrook Manor Gardens
South Petherton, Somerset, TA13 5HH
A must-visit English Heritage Grade I listed garden, created by the doyenne of the quintessential English cottage garden style, Margery Fish. Plenty of autumnal colour to inspire in the herbaceous borders.
Stourton, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 6QF
These 18th-century landscaped gardens are a seasonal highlight, as the autumnal leaves create a stunning display around the lake, which was created in 1754, along with the Pantheon, as a homage to the Pantheon in Rome and the legendary Aeneas.
Hauser & Wirth
Bruton, Somerset BA10 0NL
For a masterclass in using perennials and ornamental grasses, a pilgrimage to see Piet Oudolf’s garden at Hauser & Wirth is a must. The world-renowned Dutch landscape designer created the scheme for the entire site and, most notably, the large perennial meadow, “Oudolf Field”.
Kilver Court Gardens & Nursery
Kilver, Somerset BA4 5NF
Designed at the turn of the last century as a place the local lace mill workers could enjoy, this magical three-and-a-half-acre garden has been restored by the current owner and founder of Mulberry, Roger Saul. Highlights include a 100-metre herbaceous border and a lake.
Seasonal highlights for early autumn
Will and Lauren’s selection of their top perennial and grass combinations, which are at their best now
- Anemone × hybrida ‘Königin Charlotte’
- Anemone ‘Robustissima’
- Anemone x hybrida ‘Loreley’
- Aster pyrenaeus ‘Lutetia’
- Eurybia x herveyi
- Eupatorium ‘Riesenchirm’
- Eupatorium maculatum ‘Red Dwarf’
- Helenium ‘Indianersommer’
- Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’
- Rudbeckia ‘Herbstsonne’
- Sanguisorba ‘Blackthorn’
- Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’
- Molinia caerulea subsp. ‘Heidebraut’
- Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’
- Pennisetum macrourum
Seasonal care for grasses
Whether you have deciduous or evergreen varieties of ornamental grass in your garden, they’re both pretty undemanding when it comes to maintenance. Deciduous varieties need to be cut back to the ground every year, though the timing is different depending on the variety.
Tackle calamagrostis and deschampsia before new growth appears in early spring, while miscanthus and pennisetum, which are slower to get growing, are better suited to an April haircut. Evergreens only need a quick tidy in early spring – simply remove dead material to ensure they’ll grow back well during the coming season.