'Once you start, you can't stop growing more'

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Sue Martin wasn’t looking to start a National Plant Collection of geum but from a casual purchase some 20 years ago the retired music teacher, cellist and life-long gardener now nurtures 120 different varieties in her ¼ acre garden in Frittenden, Kent. This race of hardy perennials is grown for their colourful, early-summer flowers on wiry stems above rosettes of rounded, toothy foliage. Commonly known as avens, they’re closely related to strawberry and potentilla, and come from Europe, including the UK, Africa, North and South America, Asia and New Zealand. Many are well-established and useful border perennials, with ‘Lady Stratheden’, ‘Mrs J Bradshaw’ and more recently Chelsea darling ‘Totally Tangerine’ being among the most popular.

“I first started by buying Geum montanum, an alpine species, which quickly died in my damp Kent clay,” recalled Sue. “Undeterred, others I bought were more successful and after coming into contact with previous National Collection holder Alison Mallett I visited her in Devon. Looking to retire she asked if I wanted to take on her collection, which I did. In 2006 I joined Plant Heritage and was given National Collection status.”

Sue concentrates on varieties, than species, preferring the simpler, more natural, nodding blooms of G. rivale hybrids, to the more flamboyant, double forms of G. chiloese. She has bred one variety herself, a dainty soft primrose, pink-flushed variety called ‘Dawn’. Sue grows her plants in beds sited around the garden, trying varieties in various places to gauge how they perform. An avid propagator, she also developed a small nursery from where she sells spare varieties and other perennials from her garden. “It’s a bit of a disease, once you start you can’t stop growing more!” said Sue.

How you can be a plant hero

You can help preserve unusual plants in your garden! The Plant Heritage charity works to conserve the nation’s garden plants through the National Plant Collection Scheme and Individual Plant Guardians, and is looking for Garden news readers to get involved with its crucial work.

Contact collections@plantheritage.org.uk for more information or visit www.plantheritage.org.uk.

‘I've got ten terrariums in my bedroom!’

A deep love of nature and wild plants so fuelled young Beth Otway’s desire to help protect the natural world she decided to grow miniature types of orchid inside her Surrey home.

Terrarium-maker and fanatical orchid grower from Surrey

Terrarium-maker and fanatical orchid grower from Surrey

Aerangis luteo-alba and Angraecum elephantinum

Aerangis luteo-alba and Angraecum elephantinum

Horticulturist and writer Beth started collecting miniature orchid species a few years ago, buying plants from specialist nurseries, the Orchid Society of Great Britain of which she’s a member and growers, especially the Writhlington School Orchid Project in Somerset, run by teacher Simon Pugh-Jones. Specialising in aerangis and angraecum from Africa and phalaenopsis from Asia, enterprising Beth grows most things in terrariums, repurposed from glass containers and vases, turning them into miniature plant worlds that mimic the cloud and rainforests in their native homelands. “I’ve so many terrariums, at least ten in my bedroom!” said Beth “I’ve designed some myself, fitting them with artificial illumination, ventilation fans and misting equipment.” It was soon after founding her collection that Beth joined conservation charity Plant Heritage, receiving National Plant Collection status in March 2018.

While the moth orchids or phalaenopsis we see for sale in garden centres are specially bred for the houseplant trade Beth developed her National Collection of miniature moth orchid species to help raise awareness of the threats and dangers these orchids face in the wild. “Many need our protection, as human expansion and activity has greatly impacted the natural world, with areas of forest or scrublands cleared for farming or industry,” she said. “Some plants have become extinct before they have even been discovered, recorded, or described, while others have become rarer as a consequence of human activity. Orchids could have a big potential for medicine, who knows what powers these little plants possess? It’s important to protect these fascinating plants and safeguard their future.”

How you can be a plant hero

You can help preserve unusual plants in your garden! The Plant Heritage charity works to conserve the nation’s garden plants through the National Plant Collection Scheme and Individual Plant Guardians, and is looking for Garden news readers to get involved with its crucial work.

Contact collections@plantheritage.org.uk for more information or visit www.plantheritage.org.uk.

‘I caught gardening bug from my son’

Ann Can, a Plant Guardian and passionate plant propagator based in Devon.

Ann Can, a Plant Guardian and passionate plant propagator based in Devon.

While most people are influenced by parents or peers, passionate gardener Ann Cann caught the growing bug from her son. “Although interested in gardening from an early age, it was only when my son David became interested and started bringing all these unusual plants home that my sister and I fell also under their spell,” said Ann, who has a small, windswept hilltop garden in Crediton, Devon.

One of the plant societies she joined 25 years ago was conservation charity Plant Heritage, and  she started propagating unusual varieties from her garden for its branch plant sales. In 2013 she decided to catalogue all the plants in her garden on her computer. On checking her list against the RHS Plantfinder, an online database of garden plants in cultivation, she found many of her plants had two or fewer stockists, with some not available anywhere.

“This was when I became a Plant Heritage Plant Guardian,” said Ann. The charities Plant Guardian members register and care for individual garden plants known to be rare or threatened. The first plants she registered were Hebe lavaudiana from New Zealand and shrubby gum weeds Grindelia chiloensis and G. integrifolia from South America.

“I was amazed when the number of threatened plants reached over 100!” said Ann. “My favourite is Hebe lavaudiana a shrubby evergreen from southern New Zealand. It grows over a sunny wall and is so beautiful in spring.”

She also loves Klasea lycopifolia syn Serratula lycopifolia, a tall stout plant with white, thistle-like flowers. “Although I have no formal training I love propagating plants and am willing to try anything, from cuttings or seed. It’s so important these special plants are not lost to cultivation.”

Grow your own

This rare hebe is ideal for wall tops

This rare hebe is ideal for wall tops

This 20cm-50cm (8-20in) tall evergreen shrublet is only found growing on the Banks peninsula in New Zealand’s South Island where it inhabits rocky granite outcrops and exposed cliff faces. Threatened in the wild through habitat loss and over grazing by goats, it’s also rare in UK gardens. Clothed in small, red-edged leaves it produces dense clusters of pale pink flowers in spring. Generally hardy, it needs an open, airy, sunny, well-drained position and is effective on wall tops, pots or troughs. Lightly shear off spent flowering shoots to keep plant neat.

Available from: www.botanicaplantnursery.co.uk
Tel: 01728 747113

How you can be a plant hero

You can help preserve unusual plants in your garden! The Plant Heritage charity works to conserve the nation’s garden plants through the National Plant Collection Scheme and Individual Plant Guardians, and is looking for Garden news readers to get involved with its crucial work.

Contact collections@plantheritage.org.uk for more information or visit www.plantheritage.org.uk.

Robbie's banking on banksia

A childhood fascination with the prehistoric world spurred Robbie Blackhall-Miles’ passion for ancient plants. While his brothers were enraptured by dinosaurs, Robbie was enthralled by the world they inhabited and plants living in those times. That spark never left him, and after taking a degree in environmental management and a seven-year spell as propagator at Crug Farm Plants near Bangor in North Wales Robbie is now pursuing his dream by working as a horticultural consultant. He is currently leading the redevelopment of the garden at the Natural History Museum and travels to see plants in the wild.

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“Among 1,118 different plant species squeezed into my tiny garden and small nursery I’ve developed one of the largest collections of the protea family in the UK,” said Robbie. He holds the Plant Heritage National Plant Collection of banksia from South East Australia, shrubs that have changed very little over millions of years of evolution. He currently grows 12 species, and one variety, Banksia ‘Birthday Candles’, which he considers the easiest to grow.

He’s also proud of his wollemi pine, Wollemia nobilis, a prehistoric relative of the monkey puzzle tree Auraucaria araucana, discovered in a remote gorge near Sydney in 1994. “It was a little boy’s dream when it was found,” recalled Robbie, whose own plant has reached 7m (22ft) in eight years. “The secret is an acid soil and high rainfall,” said Robbie. “Those growing in drier conditions don’t do so well.”

His analytical approach to growing involves developing a complete understanding of how a plant reproduces, grows and survives in the wild. Said Robbie, “I want to establish protocols for future generations to reproduce and if necessary restore a critically endangered plant in the wild.”

How you can be a plant hero

You can help preserve unusual plants in your garden! The Plant Heritage charity works to conserve the nation’s garden plants through the National Plant Collection Scheme and Individual Plant Guardians, and is looking for Garden news readers to get involved with its crucial work.

Contact collections@plantheritage.org.uk for more information or visit www.plantheritage.org.uk.