A new horticultural venture is a cause for celebration in itself, but doubly so when you happen to know that the venture in question has been rattling around inside your friend’s head for some time. Ed had mentioned Garden Sage to me in passing several years ago, initially as an idea for a service offering gardening advice and assistance that would be flexible enough to allow Josie to work it around caring for their young family, with Ed helping out whenever his duties as plant manager for a local garden centre would allow. That the concept has touched down as a fully fledged nursery in its own right comes as no surprise when you consider the couple’s combined 42 plus years of experience, Ed’s spent latterly in horticultural retail, and Josie's as a landscape gardener in London, and then senior gardener at the National Trust’s Scotney Castle in Kent.
I arrived just in time to witness the unloading of a huge lorry full of mature trees and shrubs. Not your run of the mill stuff either, beautiful Malus 'Evereste', huge pleached hornbeams, and shapely standard wisterias, to name but three. Ed’s honed his eye for fabulous topiary and expertly-trained trees over the years as he’s visited many a European grower, so it should be no surprise to see such wonders arriving here, though it might seem wondrous to some to encounter specimens of this quality on a commercial unit off the A293. Just one more reason to visit.
Josie and Ed will deliver these monster plants to your address, but there’s plenty of smaller fare should you want to drive away with something for your garden. As the temperature steadily rises over the coming weeks, the scent of sarcococcas will be replaced by the fragrance wafting from the benches of Mediterranean subshrubs, the lavenders, rosemarys, but if you’re after something a little different, you could snag yourself some Antipodean charm with Grevillea victoriae, a tough, low maintenance relative of the proteas, with silver-grey leaves, and clusters of red flowers in summer. “It’s a great one for catching out my students on plant IDs” says Ed. “The leaves look a bit like brachyglottis/senecio, but then you get these crazy red flowers.”
Back outside, where the shrubs share a space with the larger trees and trained fruit, I spied another ideal plant for bringing some colour to the back garden. Very probably we’re all a bit tired of that landscaper’s favourite, Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin', but it's smaller cousin, 'Little Red Robin', is relatively unused and, to my mind at least, presents a far more charming prospect.
Growing to no more than 3 feet in height, it exhibits the same flame red colouring on the new leaves as its larger relation, but the foliage as well as the plant, is much more compact and delicate. It will tolerate hard clipping, ideal for a hedge, or even topiary. I’m desperate to see it planted somewhere with Nandina 'Flirt', so desperate that I’ll probably have to do it myself, just as soon as I can find an appropriate location for a black, dark green and red colour scheme.
Ed explains to me how he and Josie are aiming to create a nursery with a difference. “So often, when you succeed in tracking down something a little out of the ordinary, you come home with a couple of sticks in a 9cm pot, but you often need a fair bit of skill and know-how to nurture a plant at that stage through to maturity. We want to present customers with interesting plants that they may not have come across, but in more usable sizes, to give what they buy the best chance of survival.” Presumably, then, this means there are plans to do a lot of growing on. “Absolutely. I’m in the process of assembling a rather posh Cambridge glasshouse for that purpose, and we have the option to expand into the tunnels behind the current nursery plot. Eventually at least fifty percent of the stock will be grown on site.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given Ed’s background, there’s a real understanding of the retail experience here, no more so in evidence than in cafe space, where you can find the most excellent coffee. Here customers will be able to take a break, mull over their prospective plant purchases and discuss their gardening requirements with Josie or Ed in a comfortable setting. “We also wanted to provide a space in which landscapers and designers would feel happy to bring their clients, where they could discuss their plans with the plants in front of them, and where we’d be on hand should they want to talk through alternative solutions, or the finer points of sourcing something particularly special.”
It’s early days yet, but you can feel the excitement in the air at The Garden Sage. I drove out of the car park feeling energised with a huge smile on my face – which may have been attributable to the triple espresso I’d had from the coffee maker. But I think it’s more likely a result of seeing a gardening dream become a reality, and the prospect of everything to come.
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