Rob Hardy

This month we had the chance to have a chat with Rob Hardy about the origins of the nursery as well as his view on how horticulture has changed. He also offers a few sage words of advice.

It all started in 1987 and Rosy had been to a car boot sale at Ascot racecourse. We were living in Camberley at the time and she had been busy clearing out rubbish from the garage. While she was there she saw plants being sold.  I had already tried to start my own business but things didn’t go quite so well. So Rosy came back and said” I can sell plants” and she started digging the garden up.

Rosy’s mum was a very good gardener, and she started doing splits of plants that were growing in her garden and sowing seeds etc. My parents were farmers and they started growing seeds as well, including all our cowslips and things like that. My sister who’s a really good horticulturist, was at college with Alan Titchmarsh back in the 60’s, at Oaklands in Hertfordshire. She had opened her garden for the NGS for 30 years and helped us to find a lot of new plants. She would go looking to find us new varieties. So that’s how it started.

We were selling everything, bedding plants, shrubs, anything we could get hold of or grow ourselves. But what people were asking for was other varieties of herbaceous perennials. They went to garden centres but there was such a small range available. They were looking for a wider choice and some of the old varieties, that they remembered from their grandmas’ garden, that couldn’t be found anymore. At the time, any plant that was over two feet high, wouldn’t fit snuggly on to a dutch trolley so wasn’t commercially viable. This made the range of plants that were commercially available very narrow. Getting tall plants out again was one of the ideas we had. So, we continued to sell via car boots for a couple of years.

Then, one of the gentlemen who supplied Rosy at a farm shop in which she worked said that he sold at flower shows and he suggested we did the same. We did our first one in South Bedfordshire in 1989. We did two shows that year as we did the New Forest show as well. Rosy put a display on in the flower marquee of 10ft x 5ft, made up of half litre pots, which took a lot of doing. I managed to get Rosy’s parents to the show, without her knowledge, to see her first display. Their reaction was absolutely brilliant and so was Rosy’s. Her mum helped us at the shows from then onwards.

In 1990 we decided to do a few more shows , we had planned to do 10 or 12 but ended up doing 28! We were everywhere, Royal Norfolk, Royal Cornwall and the Royal Welsh. All the big agricultural shows used to have a floral marquee where we put on a display and had a sales table alongside.

Going back to when we did the car boot sales it must have been about 1988, maybe 89, we were doing a car boot at Bracknell in a car park. We started setting up early and I said to Rosy ‘wouldn’t it be nice to do Chelsea? I received a wonderful comment from her which is unrepeatable, but 4 years later we did our first Chelsea Flower show in 1992.

So, it was a different start, we operated out of our back garden in Camberley which was 20ft wide and 120 ft long and used half of the neighbours’ garden too. Once we started putting down black plastic to lay the pots out, the garden disappeared. We operated from there for almost two years, before moving to Laverstoke, and the walled garden. We were there for 6 years before moving to our current site in Freefolk.

Peat free is absolutely massive and we’ve tried to lead the way on that. Rosy, Hilary and everyone else at the nursery is very keen on that. Maurice, our seeds man did a lot of work with the Soil Association before he came to work with us. That’s 20 odd years ago. So, we’ve always looked to be more environmentally aware. A majority of our plants are grown outside. Rosy always wants to get the frost on them, so they actually go through a normal season. Going to the trade shows we met up

with Melcourt and were very impressed with Catherine Dawson. She is the lady who has spent 30 odd years getting their peat free compost developed.

One of the biggest things we always needed was to be consistent. At first, we used a compost that was 50% wood fibre and 50% peat which was brilliant at the start,but couldn’t be taken any further. So, we looked at Melcourt and started doing trials for them. Catherine and the team came down to the nursery and there was a lot of work done to get to that next stage. There were lots of challenges with it, but we have now gone 100% peat free including in our propagation mix. Just this last year, Jiffy who supply the composts for our seeds and cuttings managed to get rid of the last 1% of peat so were now totally free of it.

The only challenge to going peat free is that you’ve got to use it in a totally different way, and you need to be prepared to accept that there are different rules for using it. Peat free compost holds less water so your watering will need to change a little bit. But the most pleasing bit is that the plants have to work harder to establish themselves because there is less water there. So, they’re having to establish better root systems. More root makes for a stronger plant. The first year that we switched to peat-free compost our Winter losses dropped by 50% because the drainage was so good. When the frosts came along the plants were already well-drained, so the problems associated with cold and wet were mitigated.

Words of advice

Try and build up a border throughout the year rather than all at once. All our plants are grown outdoors so they are flowering at their natural time and haven’t been forced. If you get a chance come up to the nursery and see what plants, we have that suit your conditions and suit you. A good blue for me is not necessarily a good blue for you, so if you see it growing naturally you can make the best choice for yourself. Also, by coming in regularly you will see what’s coming into flower each month and you can add that longevity of interest to your own garden. Always remember to match the plant to your conditions, Right Plant, Right Place.

Throughout the year, Rosy hosts talks at the nursery which will highlight the plants that are coming into to flower as well as how and where to grow them. These talks are listed on our website.