It’s all been achieved without any bank loans or borrowing Couple celebrate half a century of floral success
Just over 50 years ago Jo and Jerry Shirley arrived in Challock from Surrey, after purchasing a run-down wilderness smallholding.
To begin with, the fledgling nursery they created at the former Highbury Tea Gardens had just one 16-year-old female employee.
But by the autumn of 1968 they employed 20 people, allowing the green-fingered couple to prove the old adage that from little acorns mighty oaks do grow.
Without any loans, overdrafts or any borrowing, a modern automated production nursery was established – producing around seven million plants a year with worldwide export sales.
The thriving business was described by Campaign magazine as “the king of mail order horticulture”.
In October 1968 the couple purchased Ivy Farm in Challock and moved their Kent Country Nurseries to the new location, which offered more land for outside growing.
At the time, the then Czechoslovakia was not permitted to export currency, so one particular customer from the country sent the Shirleys fine crystal and lace as payment instead.
The nursery products included Fuchsias, indoor plants, pineapples, bananas, orange trees and many plants now lost from cultivation.
There were plans at one stage to expand sales into Russia and other eastern European countries with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and for the old nursery to become an early 1900s village, but neither scheme materialised.
Business prospered for many years before trade was hit by the arrival of much bigger garden centres.
Mr Shirley said: “We still support and encourage the bona fide nursery trade, but much has disappeared as a result of massive garden centres selling anything and everything.”
In 1997 the couple’s son, Stephen, opened Victoriana Nursery Gardens in Buck Street, Challock, with much of his business generated on the internet.
Mr Shirley said: “There are no exports now as the government has seen fit to impose an increase of 188 per cent in licence fee inspection for plant exports.”
The Shirleys officially retired some years ago, but still help out at Victoriana, which lists the Queen among its customers.
Mr Shirley, who started growing plants when he was nine, said: “As we mark 50 years in Challock our thanks go out to our garden friends far and wide.
“Many of our customers today were the children that accompanied their parents to the old nursery in the 1960s and 1970s, who visited the caves and rode on our nursery railway.”
Victoriana Nursery Gardens distributes more than 1,000 free pumpkin plants to local primary schools each year, and in autumn the Shirleys visit the schools to select the best pumpkins and hand out prizes to the winners.
Jerry and Jo Shirley with son Stephen, and granddaughters Serena, Molly and Milly in Victoriana Nursery, which is celebrating 50 years in business