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The Rare Plants Man

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rare plants man

When he could hardly move around his Henfield back garden for lack of space, Steve Law decided to relocate his nursery of rare plants.

With a generous start-up grant from one of his gardening clients, Miss Green, he moved to Small Dole in 2011 and built a whole succession of sheds, polytunnels and raised beds to commit to his passion – rare plants. He is still moved today when he talks about the help Miss Green gave him. “She was 97 and loved her plants. I couldn’t have done it without her”.

Working as a gardener half the week, he devotes himself to his small holding for the rest of the time.

“I am not a garden centre that sells popular plants. I appeal to the people who love their plants and want to discover the unusual. I attend Rare Plant Fairs, swap plants with other enthusiasts and most of my business is mail order. I get orders from around the UK and Europe”.

This is how I found him. For a particular garden design client, I needed some Silphium terebinthinaceum and couldn’t find them anywhere. Through RHS Plant Finder, the national database of plants and plant sellers, I found Steve and he delivered them within the day!

“Most of my enquires come through the RHS. I have to submit a list of the plants I intend to have on sale for the 12 months ahead by October each year.”
We walk around his nursery. As a garden designer I am delighted that there are so many plants that I have never seen before.

‘Some of what I do is experimentation, finding out how things will grow in this climate. I am lucky as this plot used to be a Market Garden and the area as a whole has great loamy soil, though I do concentrate on seaside and chalk tolerant plants as this is what most people have in this part of Sussex.”

“I tried selling at farmer’s markets but most people wanted to buy something in flower, whereas some of my plants looked like a few sticks poking out of a pot. They don’t know it will grow and have wonderful rare and enormous pink flowers!”

“I grow all my plants from seeds and cuttings, normally in batches of 12. Occasionally someone comes and buys a whole batch but normally collectors come and buy two or three.”

He points to a raised bed to the right. ‘That is my stock bed. They are not for sale as from that lot I grow next year’s plants”.

“That Incarvillea there”, he points to a small collection of black pots, “I named Brighton Pride for their deep pink flowers that I had never seen before”. He shows me around the greenhouse and raised beds. Every plant has a story which Steve generously recounts.
“There is a Salix bockii, the only willow to flower in the Autumn and in there,” Steve points to a poly tunnel, “is a Tibouchina”. He has a note of the collectors pride in his voice. I look in and see a plant just coming into bloom with the most lush and velvety purple flowers”

Steve goes on to describe his beliefs. “ I admire Beth Chatto as she was the first plantswoman who really committed to choosing plants that were right for the environment, rather than the environment having to be altered to suit the plant.” With his Masters in Ecology, Steve is the thinking man’s gardener who everyday gets his hands dirty, practising what he preaches.

“I don’t have favourite plants as such, though I’m fond of woodland plants. I try to grow drought tolerant species too. I wouldn’t sell a client a plant if I don’t think it would work in their garden. “With climate change, more and more plants are now moving into the hardy class. Some Begonias and Impatiens are now surviving in the UK all year round”
We stop near an extraordinarily pretty and spikey Cynara humilis albus.

I ask to take Steve’s photo. He tries to straighten his hair. But to no avail. He is as wild, rare and down to earth as his wonderful plant collection.

Steve is open to the public by appointment only. Please call 07955 744 802 to make an appointment. Downsview Nursery, New Hall Lane, Small Dole BN5 9YJ.

By Andrew Staib, Principle Designer of Glorious Gardens www.gloriousgardenssussex.co.uk

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