Nurseries used to be fairly functional places. They sold locally grown plants, maybe some sundries, but the emphasis was firmly on growing and selling plants. How things have changed. Darsham Nurseries around ten miles from Southwold on the Suffolk coast is a wonderful example of a new departure. It’s cheerful, stylish, friendly and innovative, with a shop selling everything from beautifully made tools to homesware, and a café that gets rave reviews in the national press and is as big a draw as the nursery’s wide selection of herbaceous perennials.
Perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that the owner of this vibrant enterprise David Keleel is from California. David started out as a professional bassoonist, but abandoned a musical career when the lure of making a living among plants became too great. “I had always loved being in the perfect little garden of my Lebanese grandparents,” he says. “So when a friend offered me a job at a nursery I gave it a go.” In the evenings, after a day spent in practical nursery work, David would read everything he possibly could about plants and gardens, discovering more of the poetic-sounding botanical names that had long fascinated him. In time, he was offered the chance to take over a small community garden in San Francisco, which in turn led to a series of garden design jobs. Among his clients were Ron and Christine Mickelsen, the owners of the Half Moon Bay Nursery in San Francisco, who have become friends of David and continue to mentor and inspire him.
Inevitably perhaps, David developed that feeling familiar to many gardeners that gardens would be greener on the other side of the fence – or in David’s case the other side of the Atlantic. “There were certain plants that I loved that wouldn’t grow in California, as they don’t chill properly over the winter,” he explains. “And, of course, I thought of England as the cathedral of all things horticultural. Then I fell in love with an Englishman, so I had to come.”
After studying garden design at the English Garden School in London, David spent three years working for Clifton Nurseries, before deciding he was ready to run his own business. So along with his partner, Willie Williams, the Englishman who had brought him to the UK, David began the long process of trying to find a bit of land. “I went all over the country, looking at nurseries for sale,” he says. “I found wonderful nurseries in difficult locations and wonderful locations with difficult nurseries.” Finally, in August 2007 a friend told him about a former garden centre in Suffolk, which ticked more boxes than most.
The process of preparing the site took four years and involved taking out 180 x Cuprocyparis leylandii and installing an extensive system of drains. “The site turned out to be on heavy clay,” says David. “We even had a digger that could not get into the ground in the summer.” Eventually, the nursery opened in 2011, with the café and shop opening a year later.
David specialises in herbaceous perennials, with an emphasis on fragrant species, and clearly has an eye for the kinds of plants that sell themselves. “I’m interested in promoting plants that will grow in many different conditions,” he says. “So they might flower but then have to pay the rent the rest of the year with volume, leaf colour and texture. Something appealing even if it is not flowering.” Plants also need to be fully hardy, as there is no winter protection at Darsham. “That way I can reassure people that if we sell it, it will grow in Suffolk.”
One thing David’s not interested in is pandering to fluctuating fashions. “Some people dismiss plants they consider unfashionable,” he says. “I had someone in the other day who expressed surprise at my growing hydrangeas, which she clearly thought terribly out of date. My grandmother was a great gardener and she grew hydrangeas, so for me that’s a solid recommendation. There are no unfashionable plants.”
Address Main Road, Darsham, Suffolk IP17 3PW. Tel 01728 667022. Website darshamnurseries.co.uk. Open Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm. Sundays and Bank Holidays, 10am-4pm. See website for café opening times.