Tending the future

PUBLISHED: 11:20 06 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:20 06 February 2017

Marwood Hill Gardens

Marwood Hill Gardens


Devon’s gardeners are breaking records, discovers Catherine Courtenay

Devon is home to many natural wonders with its varied landscape and its beautiful and diverse gardens, both public and private; but most people may be surprised to learn that it’s also in the record books for having by far the largest number of National Plant Collections in the country.

It’s a term often slipped into articles or programmes on gardening, but what exactly is a National Plant Collection?

Collections are held by individuals who collect and conserve the widest possible range of cultivated plants in a specified group; they may be heritage varieties or ones which are difficult to propagate or slow to grow. The idea is to save and protect as diverse a range of plants as possible, to hold them in trust for the future.

Collection holders may be nursery owners or head gardeners or simply keen home gardeners, but by building up a collection they become experts in their chosen group of plants.

The criteria for a collection is set by the charity which runs the scheme, Plant Heritage (formerly the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG).

“It was originally a spin off of the Royal Horticultural Society,” says the Devon group chairman John Twibell who has an Artemisia collection at his home in Sidmouth. “People wanted to do something about all these old collections of plants being lost, so it was started around the late 70s by a group of people in the RHS. Now it’s a separate charity.”

He explains that as garden centres and nurseries will only sell a limited range of plants, there is a danger of forever losing ones which are either harder to grow, or which fall out of fashion; but keeping plant diversity is not only appealing, it’s also vital for science and the environment.

“Each collection is a cache of knowledge,” says his wife and former collection holder Jean. “And it’s the only place you’ll get that knowledge. We have learned so much from other members, it’s amazing.”

C. repandum at H. CherubeerC. repandum at H. Cherubeer

Devon has the biggest membership of any group in the country and around 40 individual collections, the high number possibly being down to the county’s diverse landscape.

“Devon is very varied and there’s also a lot of garden history in the county,” says John.

The Devon group, which is split into three geographical sections, holds nine plant fairs throughout the year and also runs a horticultural bursary scheme awarding annual grants.

“If people are interested in having a National Collection, we’d guide them through the process,” says John.

People can also share a collection, or if they don’t have much room could become a Plant Guardian, looking after just one or two rare plants.

Several of the collections are in large public gardens, or in ones which open for The National Gardens Scheme, while others may be in plant nurseries. Common to all is the collection holders’ enthusiasm and desire to share knowledge of (and probably show off a little!) their collections, so people are welcome to visit, even if that means calling ahead and making an appointment to drop by.

Each collection is remarkable in its uniqueness, but this also gives cause for concern, namely what happens when collection holders need to retire?

Sometimes a collection is at risk because there is no one to take it on. That’s the practical consideration, but there’s also the loss of many years’ knowledge, built up by the individuals. John says it’s no easy task finding people to take on collections and Tim Penrose of Bowden Hostas, whose wife Ruth has a National Collection of hostas, echoes his thought when he says: “When collection holders have been around so long there’s nothing they haven’t seen, they can offer such a wide range of experience of growing plants.

“These collections are about saving knowledge, if we don’t do something they will be lost. Like National Trust properties, they should be saved for the nation.”


Garden visits

Just some of Devon’s gardens which house National Collections.

Stone Lane Gardens, Chagford. Five acre woodland and water garden. Alnus (alder) and Betula (birch)

Penborn Goat Farm, Bounds Cross, Holsworthy. Heritage herbs in a raised bed garden. Mentha (mint), Allium schoenoprasum (chives), A. tuberosum (garlic cives) and Melissa (lemon balm)

Marwood Hill Garden, Barnstaple. A 20 acre, well established valley garden. Astilbe, Iris ensata and Tulbaghia

University of Exeter, Streatham Farm. An award winning botanic garden that dates back to the 19th century. Azara.

Shapcott Barton Estate, East Knowstone, South Molton. Large garden set around ancient historic manor house. Buddleja davidii and Leucanthemum x superbum (shasta daisies)

Cleave House, Sticklepath, Okehampton. Mature garden with hostas, ferns and bamboos, alongside the nursery. Hosta .

RHs Garden Rosemoor. The RHS garden in Devon has a very wide range of plants in 65 acres. Ilex (holly) and Cornus (dogwood)

The Gate House, Lee. Streamside, tranquil garden, close to the coast. Rodgersia

Whitstone Farm, Bovey Tracey. Rare trees and plants in a south facing hillside site, overlooking Dartmoor. Eucryphia

Higher Cherubeer, Dolton, Winkleigh. All year appeal garden with woodland beds, herbaceous borders and alpine house. Cyclamen

For opening times and more information of these and all Devon’s National Plant Collections go to plantheritagedevon.org.uk

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