the perennial garden
HOW THE FOUNDERS OF ANTIQUE PERENNIALS NURSERY HAVE CREATED A BUSINESS FROM GROWING GARDEN COLLECTABLES.
pend some time browsing the displays at your local nursery or roam around a rare plant sale and you are sure to find some unknown treasures. Often these botanical gems have a tag, with a picture of the plant in flower and the correct Latin name, under the heading: ‘Antique Perennials — growers of garden collectables’. The business is the brainchild of Matt Reed and Mike Morant, who established their successful wholesale plant venture at Kinglake, about 60 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, in 2001. Since then, they have had a definite impact on the nursery industry, although they claim to be “just a couple of plant addicts who happen to make a living out of growing them”. “We like the challenge of trying out and raising unusual stuff; we would be pretty bored if we were growing English box all our lives,” says Matt. They have certainly had their challenges, the greatest being burnt out and losing all their stock, their homes and private gardens in the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. But they have totally re-established themselves on another Kinglake site — a 4.8 hectare former potato farm — putting the trauma firmly behind them. The area’s deep humus-rich soil, elevation on the Great Dividing Range, clean air and reliable rainfall make it a great place to grow plants. “We generally get an occasional light frost in winter but quite a wide temperature variation: the hottest day we’ve known was 48 degrees,” says Matt. But how did the two team up in the first place? Matt and Mike met when they were working at the same nursery in the 1980s and soon became aware of the growing interest in what was dubbed ‘the new perennial movement’ in the gardening world. They noticed how well perennials were being used in Europe and how under-appreciated they were in Australia. “It really all goes back to the tremendous influence Dutchman Piet Oudolf has had on the plant world — he has been a pioneer, not only in planting design, but also in his specialisation in large, robust perennials,” says Matt. Since 1982 Oudolf’s influence and ideas have spread worldwide from his garden and nursery at Hummelo, about 125 kilometres east of Amsterdam. Oudolf has networked with botanists and growers in the US, Europe and beyond, seeking out the plants he wanted and bringing little-known genera, such as sanguisorba, to a mainstream clientele. In many ways Oudolf’s work has provided a template for Matt and Mike. They, too, have travelled the world searching for rare and unusual plants to introduce to Australian gardeners. From visits to the Chelsea Flower Show to hiking in the Canadian Rockies and the Italian Alps to see plants in the wild, the pair has been on a learning curve. They rate a 2012 journey to nurseries in England, Scotland and Wales, including a visit to the renowned Beth Chatto Gardens, as their most productive in sourcing new strains of perennials. “Nursery people and growers are often fairly surprised that two Australians turn up to buy plants; this happened when we went to a nursery south of London where we got our veronicastrums.” From the same growers they got a number of different sanguisorba varieties. One of these, Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’, was a huge hit at the 2015 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. The story of this plant indicates the level of interest and popularity in perennials that the pair has cultivated. Seeing the sanguisorba at the show, one florist offered $250 for some of the dark ruby, brush-like flowers, but they were not for sale. When the show was over, Matt and Mike took their plants back to Kinglake where they were nurtured and divided, ready for eventual retail sale. Just this one plant reveals how plants move around in the botanical world. This particular sanguisorba was collected by the American plantsman Dan Hinkley in Yunnan, China, in 1996. Due to its great colour and height, it has become a must-have in gardens around the world. Matt and Mike have many more interesting plants from veronicastrums to misacanthus and polygonum. They have even bred an agastache named ‘Nadine’ after Matt’s wife, and an aster called ‘Otis’ after Mike’s son. “We grow what we want,” says Matt, “but we aim to make available garden-worthy plants, not pot-worthy ones! We want to improve the nursery industry with good plants.” For more information, telephone 0404 006 303 or visit antiqueperennials.com