“I used to come here with my grandparents,” says Abi Atwood. “It’s where they’d come to buy plants when I was a child.” Over the years, growers had run the two-acre nursery but it had deteriorated by the time she revisited the place with her husband Tom. “The stock beds had every pernicious perennial weed,” she says. “It was in a dreadful state, so overgrown and mad. Tom and I said to each other, ‘Wouldn’t this be amazing but you’d be an idiot to take it on.’”
Abi’s parents own Summerdale House, a garden and nursery near Carnforth, and it was there that Abi worked after her biology degree at Oxford. Tom did a two-year HND in Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – “The best possible introduction to the plant world," he says –followed by the Kew Diploma at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. They'd both been hooked on horticulture since their teens so when Abi's dad saw Halecat was for rent they just had to risk it. They decided to take two years transforming it before opening in 2011.
By high summer the spring exuberance of cottage perennials and massed tulips has given way to a more exotic mood. Languid banana palms arch over fiery coleus and bronze canna leaves. Coppiced paulownias stand tall above silver Plectranthus and spiky agaves. Shuttlecock ferns splay open gracefully around a stumpery next to a cast-iron bench.
“We live in a flat in the house, so the nursery is essentially our garden,” says Abi, “This is the place where we can indulge all our plant passions. We experiment with borders and rotate our seasonal collections of pots to keep things fresh. In the beds around the pond we grow semi-hardy varieties that we cajole through the winter in the greenhouse.”
“This is a frost pocket though,” says Tom, “So locals know the plants we sell are tough. We grow 1,200 perennials. Plant choices are based not only on their own merits but on how they might combine with others.” When customers want help they ring a bell that hangs on a corrugated iron shed, exhilaratingly painted in pillar-box red.
Aesthetics and function combine to make the nursery an inspiring place to wander as well as to buy plants. It’s a quirky and delightful blend of traditional and modern that never fails to lift the spirits.
Around Abi & Tom's Garden Plants
Throughout the nursery Abi and Tom have planted up containers with surprising combinations and quirky choices and dotted them around the space, such as this oval galvanised planter, which tones with the grey wood of a beautiful old bench. Light catches the tops of a variegated eryngium (sea holly), Eryngium planum ‘Jade Frost’, its delicate, cream-edged leaves mingling with a pleasing fretwork of the darker purple spikes of Verbena rigida, anchoring the planter to its place.
Different-sized terracotta pots staged on a galvanised trough create an exuberant and quirky pyramid of planting. An ornate terracotta urn creates the focal point; silver-grey spikes of agave rising out of a froth of Mexican fleabane daisies give the impression of a water feature.
A new twist on the traditional hanging basket, the curious purple flowers of Rhodochiton atrosanguineus tumble through variegated ivy and Bidens aurea. The complementary colours of purple and yellow are used subtly thanks to the small size of the flowers and are further softened by the delicate trails of ivy.
Two old farm troughs have been artfully arranged using contrasting foliage to create drama. The deeply cut leaves of Fatsia polycarpa rise above the frosted fern, Athyrium niponicum and serrated Kirengeshoma palmata. The quirky triangles of Persicaria runcinata ‘Purple Fantasy’ dance below a pot-grown rhododendron.
A greenhouse is used to overwinter potted bulbs and alpines or the tender display plants that stand outside in summer. Situated behind a wooden gate and partially obscured by floor-standing pots filled with dahlias and cannas, these are overarched by tall stands of Eutrochium purpureum and Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’, creating a floral tunnel effect on the approach.
Tom and Abi’s private garden sits behind a paling fence, the perfect place to relax with their young children. There’s a wooden summerhouse, raised beds of vegetables intermixed with bright annuals and a magnificent bug hotel.
Eight favourite plants from Abi and Tom's Nursery
Achillea ‘The Beacon’
Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’
Tall and imposing, this vigorous perennial has daisy flowers with reflexed petals and chartreuse conical disks. Combines well with ornamental grasses. 2m x 90cm. AGM*. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
The Japanese angelica tree is a deciduous shrub or small tree with thorny stems, pinnate leaves and large billowy panicles of creamy- white flowers. 5m x 3m. RHS H5, USDA 4a-9b.
The fast-growing foxglove tree with light lilac-purple flowers. Tom coppices his annually to produce extra-large, heart-shaped leaves for the tropical-garden look. Up to 12m x 8m. AGM. RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’
Variegated feather grass with green-and-white striped leaves. Thin stems topped in narrow, purplish plumes turn biscuit-coloured in autumn. 1.2m x 60cm. RHS H6. Read more about the best ornamental grasses to grow.
Bistorta amplexicaulis ‘Rosea’
With its fine wands of bell-shaped, soft-pink flowers, this easy-going bistort or persicaria has a delightful airy looseness. Attracts pollinators especially hoverflies. 90cm x 90cm. RHS H7.
Hylotelephium telephium ‘Strawberries and Cream’
A lovely clump-forming orpine, which Tom and Abi use in their planters, valuing its purple-tinged leaves and sprays of starry pink-and-white flowers. 50cm x 50cm. RHS H7, USDA 3a-9b. 8
Delavay’s meadow rue is an elegant perennial that throws up delicate sprays of lilac flowers with cream stamens above blue-green leaves. Floats cloud-like above a border. 1.2m x 50cm. RHS H7, USDA 4a-7b.
Address Abi & Tom’s Garden Plants, Halecat, Witherslack, Cumbria LA11 6RT.
Tel 015395 52946.
Open Daily, 9.30am-5pm, (10am-4pm, Sundays).
Join Tom Attwood for the Gardens Illustrated tour of Lake District gardens in September.
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