Family dedicated to herbs
For four decades, a sunny courtyard has been home to a growing selection of rare and unusual herbs
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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’.