My Life in Plants
The first plant I ever grew
I was raised in the 1940s on my grandparents’ family farm in the Yorkshire ‘rhubarb triangle’ and spent most of my free time, aged 10, helping tend their 110 acres of rhubarb, and 200 acres of mixed vegetable and arable farm crops. Aged 17, I had my own acre of rhubarb which, three years later, I sold to my employer for a not insubstantial £400.
The plant that shaped the gardener I am today
As a student with no experience of ornamental horticulture, I found learning plant names for tests a real challenge, particularly those from the tropics. One plant I could rely on was blue-flowered Plumbago
capensis, which I still appreciate to this day.
My favourite plant in the world
The dawn redwood, Metasequoia
glyptostroboides. I love its reddish bark, ferny leaves and conical habit. Only discovered in China in 1941, it’s a valuable addition to our palette of trees and I’ve planted one wherever I’ve lived. It’s easily rooted from semi-ripe cuttings, taken in summer, and we’ve sold more than 2,000 of them over the last 30 years.
The plants that made me work hardest
In the late 1950s, I had the opportunity to work in market gardens around Surrey. Starting at 4.30am, I often worked a 100-hour week cutting lettuces on piecework. I filled up to 50 boxes per hour for the princely sum of 32½p.
Winter was dominated by digging up and trimming leeks, again by piecework. In frosty weather, we used pickaxes to lift them. The money I saved helped me start my own business.
The plant I’d like to grow more of
A wider range of evergreen trees and shrubs. They never lose popularity and with climate change looming, evergreens hold the greatest potential for the future. Hebes have excellent foliage, flower colour in summer and are visually interesting all year round. With rising temperatures, they’re now better able to survive British winters and perform in drier summers.
The plant I am in human form
Mare’s tail or equisetum. It’s survived for millions of years and no matter how hard you try to tackle it, it always comes back for more!
The plant that changed my life
I’ve sold 2.6 million cherry laurel,
since I started the nursery. It’s so
Prunus laurocerasus, adaptable, has few pests and diseases, is easily propagated and trained, and always looks good whether it’s used as a landscape or garden plant.
The plant I’d always give as a gift
The dawn redwood if they’ve space, otherwise crab apples or dogwoods for sheer variety, range of form and visual interest throughout the year.
Time spent in market gardens helped John launch his own nursery