It’s all been achieved with­out any bank loans or bor­row­ing Cou­ple cel­e­brate half a cen­tury of flo­ral suc­cess

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - Kent Business Update -

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.

Pic­ture: Gary Browne FM2704416

Jerry and Jo Shirley with son Stephen, and grand­daugh­ters Ser­ena, Molly and Milly in Vic­to­ri­ana Nurs­ery, which is cel­e­brat­ing 50 years in busi­ness

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