One of the slightly more unexpected side-effects of my move to Somerset last year has been that I find myself at the heart of what seems to be an area with a gravitational pull for outstanding nurseries.
Bulb beds carved from a field but full of treasure
Desert to Jungle, Kelways in the Somerset Levels, the walled gardens of heritage vegmeisters Pennard Plants and Hewitt-Coopers of carnivorous plant fame are all within half an hour’s drive. Jekka McVicar is a bit further up the M5, and Joy Michaud and her chillies are a short hop down towards the Dorset coast.
The dahlia bed: every possible variety (and that dark-petalled one)
Any of these would be a pilgrimage for me. But the one I was most thrilled to find as a near neighbour is Avon Bulbs.
I make a beeline for Avon every time I arrive in a floral marquee. I don’t think I’ve ever come away from their stand without discovering a new treasure to squirrel away in my list of plants I must grow one day: they have unwavering and exquisitely good taste in plants.
Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’
So last weekend they became the first of my pilgrimages, largely because they generously opened their doors for a rare open day in aid of Friends of African Nursing (a small but tirelessly energetic charity doing marvellous work training African nurses in better hygiene practices: look them up, and help them if you can).
Knee high Kniphofia ‘Light of the World’
Owner Chris Ireland-Jones and his family started Avon in 1990, in a middlingly derelict 7-acre former dairy farm in South Petherton (a stone’s throw from Margery Fish’s garden at East Lambrook Manor – told you I was in a good gardening area).
Dahlia coccinea var palmeri
They’re exclusively mail order (apart from voracious visitors like our group last weekend) and make 2/3 of their annual income between early September and mid November. I was tempted to ask Chris why he wasn’t in a shed somewhere feverishly packing bulbs instead of wasting time with us lot, but I suspect he was quite happy to have a break.
Chelsea is the lodestone for the whole of the nursery’s year. They have three chilling sheds with which they time the bulbs to flower in that last week in May. His description of the routine for tulips – lift in March, bring in to 2-3°C to stop them growing, when the weather forecast says cold, you move them outside to keep them green, as soon as the temperature rises you bring them in again… well, it had me tired just thinking about it.
Nerine x bowdenii ‘Zeal Giant’
The stock beds are long, thin strips cut out of a field, punctuated with high wall-like hedges to absorb the wind. It kept reminding me of my old allotment; except here the crops are bulbs, bulking up in great blocks of foliage and flower.
Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’
Most of course were getting ready to die back for the winter (if they hadn’t already); but there were some wonderful late summer bulbs still in glorious bloom. Eucomis, dahlia, camassias, kniphofia and some sultry Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’: a lesson for anyone who thinks bulbs are just for spring.
Eucomis pallida en masse
We had an absorbing and hugely enjoyable day, made all the more so by Chris’s affable and knowledgeable company. I’m afraid I disgraced myself by failing dismally to stay with the group and do as I was told; well, who in their right mind would walk past a bed brimming with dahlias, including a glimpse of one spidery dark one which was ravishingly lovely, and not stop?
So: without further ado, here’s the list of plants which caught my eye and tempted me off the beaten track.
Nerine x bowdenii ‘Zeal Giant’: the most in-yer-face nerine I’ve ever seen. Lipstick pink and huge.
Dahlia coccinea var palmeri: towering tall but airy and graceful, dancing with clear orange flowers.
Eucomis pallida: thick, upright spires of cream over strappy green leaves, tall and imposing
Eucomis villosa: shorter, at 2ft, and scented: the pale flower has a button-like darker centre
Kniphofia ‘Light of the World’: the tiniest, daintiest red-hot poker, little more than a foot high
Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’: no flowers now, but worth it just for the handsome foliage
Dahlia ‘Dark Desire’: jumped out at me from the dahlia bed: slim near-black petals and a buttery eye
Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’: spires of dreamy white over deeply-toothed leaves of deepest purple.