There will be a first for Neil in 2013. He won’t be winning a gold at the prestigious RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May. How can we be certain? He’s not going this year and so the astonishing run of ten consecutive gold medals since 2002 when he and his team first displayed the nursery's grasses will come to a temporary end.
“We need a rest, “he says. “We are selling more plants than we can grow and I’ve a feeling that we would be too stretched.”
Exhibiting and winning so spectacularly at Chelsea has, he admits, been critical for his nursery and his whole business.
“The world is at Chelsea and to achieve success there has been wonderful. It’s a 13 month preparation time for the show and its physically very demanding, so we’ve just decided to take a year out.”
The success and expansion of the nursery and garden is a world away from his first job as a civil servant, which he gave up to become a gardener for the Torbay parks department. He moved to work for the South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. He was head gardener by the age of 21, in charge of the daily efforts of eight staff.
In the early 1990s, Knoll Gardens entered his life. His mother saw the garden advertised for sale. It was originally a market garden called ‘The Knoll’ and was open to the public as Wimborne Botanic garden with a nursery specialising in Australasian plants which explains the framework of Eucalyptus trees in the garden. The owner then was a plantsman, John May, who had a passion for plant breeding. In 1988 the gardens changed hands with the owners changing the name to Knoll Gardens and built a large water garden and developed more formal garden areas.
Neil, his mother and his step-father bought the site in 1994.
“It was a three way partnership”, he adds.
His parents ran the catering side while Neil tended the garden and nursery.
It was a popular tourist attraction with a reputation for an excellent cream tea but Neil wanted to expand the horticultural side of the venture. He started to specialise in growing grasses and his reputation grew internationally.
"I became aware of the value of grasses when landscaping for Torbay. They have great form and line, and long use."
“They are also very tactile; very 'touchy feely'. Take for example the popular pony tails grass, Stipa tenuissima, with its narrow bright evergreen hair like foliage moving with the slightest breeze, it just calls out to be stroked!”
From a gardeners viewpoint there are two basic groups of grasses. The evergreens, which maintain their foliage year round; and the deciduous types, which go dormant for the winter, re-shooting from the base with new growth each year.
Neil talks about the grasses having a’ wow factor‘. These tall willowy focal points with masses of
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flower swaying in the slightest breeze are deciduous plants which prefer sunny open positions to do best.
“Visit us in spring…when the first vibrant grasses are studded with glorious seasonal highlights”, he enthuses.
The new season still motivates him.
“Last year was poor for so long with the wet weather. The grasses were a foot shorter than normal, lack of light affects the growth and it was just as difficult for propagation in the garden-just difficult to get going.”
Courses at Knoll Gardens this spring include:
March 14th Preparing for Summer: Neil explains how the grasses and borders at Knoll are prepared to produce maximum effect during the coming season.
The nursery is a testing ground and cultivars have to complete a trial period before they become available for buyers. It is what he calls the garden ‘worthiness’ of the plants.
It is, you feel, the real heart of what Knoll is all about. He is keen to offer a full service – not just growing plants, however great their quality.
“It’s about providing information to go with it. Where is the plant going, is it for a border, a shady area. Is it a roof garden or a small patio? There are so many things to consider, not just the sale of the plant. It’s also the design and planting plans and that’s the service we are keen to offer."
Knoll Gardens, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 7ND. Tel 01202 873931 www.knollgardens.co.uk
Gardens and nursery opening times Tuesday to Saturday:10am to 5pm. Last entry to gardens 30 minutes before closing time. Admission prices: Adult £5.50: Concessions: £4.75 Children (age 5 to 15) £4. Group rate (12 people minimum) £4.50 per person
Below: Grasses are he says ‘very tactile; very touchy feely’
April 25th Knoll Gardens Walk and Talk: from planting to cutting down, spring flowers to autumn glory, discover some of the secrets of Knolls year-round appeal. Tour starts at 2pm and lasts for approx one hour.
May 16th Another Walk and Talk.
Knoll Gardens Foundation - (knollgardensfoundation.org
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