Fam­ily ded­i­cated to herbs

For four decades, a sunny court­yard has been home to a grow­ing se­lec­tion of rare and un­usual herbs

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - CON­TACT www.herb­nurs­ery.co.uk Words: Melissa Mab­bitt

In the rolling land­scape of Eng­land’s small­est county, nes­tled in a cen­turies-old court­yard of glow­ing lime­stone walls, sits a spe­cial­ist plant nurs­ery that is filled with scents and beau­ti­ful flow­ers. Neat rows of laven­der, camomile and thyme, among many other fra­grant herbs, sit on sturdy wooden benches. Their flow­ers stir in the sum­mer breeze, re­leas­ing hon­eyed scent into the air, and the old stone walls ra­di­ate a wel­come warmth that keeps the plants pro­tected.

What was once a derelict farm in the tiny vil­lage of Thistle­ton, near the bor­der of Rut­land and Lin­colnshire, is now home to ap­prox­i­mately 400 va­ri­eties of herbs, both culi­nary and medic­i­nal. Known sim­ply as The Herb Nurs­ery, it is run by the Bench fam­ily. Four decades of grow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence have left the owner, Peter, with an inim­itable knowl­edge of these plants. Within the 4-acre farm and its sunny court­yard thrive rare and un­usual herbs, many of which are only stocked here in the UK. More than 50 va­ri­eties of thyme and 40 forms of mint are grown at Thistle­ton. Other culi­nary favourites in­clude chives, fen­nel, oregano and rose­mary, while still more are grown for their or­na­men­tal beauty. “We like to stock herbs that are a bit dif­fer­ent be­cause it has more interest for us,” says Peter’s wife Chris­tine. “We like quirky plants. They have limited sales ad­mit­tedly, but it’s nice when we can help peo­ple who have been look­ing for a rare herb. We’re of­ten the last place they have to look.”

From derelict build­ings

The ven­ture started nearly 40 years ago, when Peter moved to the farm with his par­ents and sis­ter, Sally, in 1976. Even be­fore this, the fam­ily were keen gar­den­ers, pro­duc­ing home-grown veg­eta­bles and sell­ing the sur­plus. “My fa­ther wanted more space,” says Peter. “It was the height of the self-suf­fi­ciency move­ment in the ’70s. Al­though my fa­ther wasn’t a fol­lower of fash­ion, the idea of be­ing self-suf­fi­cient was a life­long dream for him. He wanted a patch of land big enough for him to watch the pheas­ants roam­ing across.” Back then, the farm pre­sented a huge chal­lenge. The build­ings were derelict, hav­ing been un­in­hab­ited for years. “Our first Christ­mas din­ner was eaten in a kitchen with its roof propped up with stones and steel bars,” re­mem­bers Peter. The fam­ily worked hard, and the farm soon be­came a thriv­ing, pro­duc­tive small­hold­ing, com­plete with goats and poul­try. The shel­ter­ing walls of­fered ideal grow­ing con­di­tions, but the old farm­yard where the nurs­ery now sits was a less than ideal spot to till the soil. Decades of com­pacted stone had to be dug out and soil im­ported to cre­ate plant­ing beds. In places, plant­ing holes had to be made with a pick­axe. At first, the fam­ily pro­duced a range of veg­eta­bles that they sold at the gar­den gate. Herbs were a side interest, grown as seedlings in old yo­gurt pots by Peter’s mum, Nancy. They soon came to play a big­ger part. “Herbs were a life­long interest of my mother,” says Peter. “She was in­ter­ested in herbal reme­dies well be­fore it was fash­ion­able. Some thought we were cranks. It cer­tainly wasn’t main­stream to grow herbs at that time.” Soon, how­ever, as peo­ple be­came more ad­ven­tur­ous with their cook­ing, interest in culi­nary herbs in­creased in the 1980s. By this time, Peter had been to hor­ti­cul­tural col­lege, and re­turned with new ideas to help run the fam­ily busi­ness. The Herb Nurs­ery was born. Nancy has long since stepped back from the busi­ness into a well-earned re­tire­ment, but the nurs­ery re­mains a fam­ily affair. Sally is the chief prop­a­ga­tor, and they have been joined by Chris­tine, who has a spe­cial interest in scented pelargo­ni­ums. Along­side the herbs, they make a heady mix.

Laven­der gar­den

One of the most at­trac­tive ar­eas is a for­mal box-hedge knot gar­den. Cre­ated in 2000, this is home to a col­lec­tion of laven­ders. Here grow the clas­sic English and French va­ri­eties, such as ‘Mun­stead’ and the white-flow­ered ‘Snow­man’, both 18in (45cm) tall. Join­ing them are oth­ers, more rare and un­fa­mil­iar. These in­clude a wild form, La­van­dula cane­r­ien­sis, a

large ten­der species from the Ca­nary Is­lands. It has soft, ferny fo­liage and beau­ti­ful blue flow­ers, grow­ing to 30in (75cm) tall. An­other wild species, La­van­dula viridis, has un­usual green­ish bracts in­stead of colour­ful flow­ers. Grow­ing to 24in (60cm) high, it has an in­trigu­ing le­mon scent. The nurs­ery is also the only place in the coun­try out­side the Na­tional Col­lec­tion of Laven­der in Nor­folk to grow L. aristibracteata, a rare species from So­ma­lia. This is a low-grow­ing, ten­der plant with vivid blue flow­ers and di­vided green leaves, just 12in (30cm) tall.

Rare va­ri­eties

Other un­usual herbs in­clude liquorice, Gly­cyrrhiza glabra. Rarely found in gar­dens or nurs­eries, this hardy peren­nial is known for its stom­ach-sooth­ing prop­er­ties. The roots pro­duce the tra­di­tional flavour, and can be chewed raw, di­rectly af­ter be­ing lifted and washed. If left to dry out, they can be used to flavour teas or syrups. It is a slow grow­ing plant, but will even­tu­ally reach 48in (122cm), so is best placed at the back of a bor­der. Soap­wort, Saponaria of­fic­i­nalis, is an­other herbal odd­ity. This can be used as a gen­tle soap for wash­ing hair or del­i­cate cloth. “Soap­wort is of­ten used for clean­ing old ta­pes­tries be­cause it is so gen­tle,” says Chris­tine. The leaves are sim­ply steeped with dis­tilled wa­ter, which is then strained through a cheese­cloth. A pretty, mound-form­ing herb, grow­ing to a height and spread of ap­prox­i­mately 20in (50cm), it has clus­ters of cam­pion-like pink or white flow­ers. One of the more un­usual ed­i­ble herbs at the nurs­ery is the Egyp­tian ‘walk­ing’ onion. This pro­duces bul­bils, or small bulbs,

at the top of each stalk. These sub­se­quently bend down to the ground and take root, grow­ing a new plant. Hence the onion can ‘walk’ around a patch of ground. “Some herbs are of­ten rare be­cause they are dif­fi­cult to prop­a­gate,” says Chris­tine. “We’re will­ing to make the ef­fort.”

Un­usual favourites

These herbs are com­ple­mented by an ar­ray of tra­di­tional favourites, such as thyme and mint, al­though many are also un­usual va­ri­eties. Rarely grow­ing more than 8in (20cm) high, thymes ei­ther hug the ground or form low clumps. They have small leaves, kept neat and tight with reg­u­lar trim­ming. The most com­mon va­ri­ety is Thy­mus vul­garis, a bush dwarf shrub, with small, aro­matic dark grey-green leaves, and spikes of small white or pink flow­ers. Among the 50 va­ri­eties at the nurs­ery are many with bright var­ie­ga­tion to the leaves, in­clud­ing the yel­low-leaved ‘Archer’s Gold’ and ‘Ber­tram An­der­son’. Oth­ers have un­ex­pected flower colour, such as the dark crim­son flow­ers of ‘Pur­ple Beauty’ and the red blooms of ‘Red­start’. All are grown for their in­tense flavour and scent. Thyme ‘Fra­grantis­simus’ is or­ange scented, while T. herba-barona is a creep­ing form with a car­away flavour. An­other col­lec­tion of peren­nial herbs that in­tro­duces new flavours and scents is mint. As well as the com­mon pep­per­mint and spearmint, the nurs­ery has va­ri­eties with cit­rus notes of lime, grape­fruit or le­mon, such as Men­tha x piperita f. cit­rata cul­ti­vars ‘Lime’, ‘Le­mon’ and ‘Or­ange’. Eu­ca­lyp­tus mint, an­other herb stocked only at Thistle­ton in the UK, has an even stronger men­thol per­fume than any other mint. The scent of pears is cap­tured in the leaves of men­tha ‘Sweet Pear’ while M. piperita ‘Straw­berry’ has a del­i­cate straw­berry scent. A re­lated va­ri­ety is known as the eau de Cologne mint, be­cause of its highly per­fumed, bronze-coloured fo­liage. The clas­sic ap­ple and cho­co­late mints are also in the col­lec­tion, well known for their de­li­cious sweet flavours.

Two more types grown only at Thistle­ton are Asian mint, Men­tha asi­at­ica, and ‘Ju­lia’s Sweet Cit­rus’ mint. The for­mer has small grey leaves and pale lilac flow­ers, while the lat­ter is a new cul­ti­var, with cit­rus scented leaves. All these grow to be­tween 15-24in (40-60cm) tall.

At­trac­tive an­nu­als

As well as the peren­ni­als, an­nual herbs star in the nurs­ery. One is basil, or oci­mum. Due to its ten­der­ness and abil­ity to ger­mi­nate and grow quickly, this is grown from seed each year. The Benches grow ex­otic Asian va­ri­eties, in­clud­ing Oci­mum x cit­ri­odo­rum ‘Siam Queen’, which has a spicy flavour. It has dark and very dec­o­ra­tive fo­liage, with pink flow­ers. An­other rar­ity is Oci­mum sanc­tum. “This is sa­cred basil from Thai­land, where it’s grown around Bud­dhist tem­ples,” says Peter. He rec­om­mends oci­mum ‘African Blue’, a new type of peren­nial basil. This was an ac­ci­den­tal hy­brid be­tween an East African basil and a gar­den va­ri­ety called ‘Dark Opal’. Thistle­ton started to stock it six years ago. “It has a fine, del­i­cate flavour and blue leaf mark­ings. It’s very showy, but also great for cook­ing,” says Chris­tine. “Be­cause it’s a ten­der peren­nial that you bring in­doors for win­ter, you can still have it grow­ing in mid­win­ter, and you can have basil in your Christ­mas cook­ing.”

Search for new plants

The cou­ple read widely about new plant dis­cov­er­ies, and look for new and un­usual plants when vis­it­ing other nurs­eries or plant shows. “We of­ten swap plants with other nurs­eries we meet out and about at shows, or get talk­ing to some­one who’s been abroad and seen some­thing spe­cial, then fol­low it up,” says Chris­tine. “We are con­stantly learn­ing. There’s al­ways some­thing new to grow, learn and re­mem­ber.” Oc­ca­sion­ally, a cus­tomer will bring them some­thing un­usual. “We are the only place in the UK to stock Cre­tan basil, which a cus­tomer brought us af­ter a hol­i­day to Crete,” she says. “Some­times peo­ple come to us and say ‘you need to grow this; it’s great’ and they pass us a cut­ting or two.” The search for new herbs never ends. “We’re al­ways in­ter­ested in new va­ri­eties,” says Peter. “We like to of­fer a wide range, so there’s al­ways some­thing to keep peo­ple com­ing back.” Peter, Chris­tine and Sally work hard to keep their stock truly interesting and un­usual. It is a per­fect fit for their peace­ful, beau­ti­ful and hard-worked-for set­ting.

“With fen­nel green, and balm, and golden pines, Sa­vory, lat­ter-mint, and columbines, Cool pars­ley, basil sweet, and sunny thyme” John Keats, ‘Endymion’

› Peter Bench, his wife Chris­tine, sis­ter Sally and mother Nancy, own­ers of The Herb Nurs­ery.

Highly aro­matic and very rare, La­van­dula viridis is known as the yel­low or green laven­der. Tak­ing fresh cut­tings to use in the kitchen.

The box-hedge knot gar­den at the nurs­ery is planted with laven­ders. From left: white-flow­ered La­van­dula stoechas ‘Snow­man’ flow­ers from late spring to late sum­mer; Gly­cyrrhiza glabra, or liquorice, is a mem­ber of the pea and bean fam­ily; the dainty pink flow­ers of soap­wort are sweetly scented. ›

Phy­to­lacca amer­i­cana can reach 8ft (2.5m) in height. The green to white flow­ers are fol­lowed by dark pur­ple berries. All parts of the plant are toxic.

Pho­tog­ra­phy: Richard Faulks

Look­ing af­ter the plants at The Herb Nurs­ery. Clock­wise from top left: the un­usual Egyp­tian ‘walk­ing’ onion; var­ie­gated thyme ‘Archer’s Gold’; eau de Cologne mint; a new basil, del­i­cately flavoured ‘African Blue’.

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