Gardens Illustrated
© Jason Ingram

Nurseryman Dave Root on growing show plants and why he relishes a challenge

Published: June 22, 2022 at 2:28 pm
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The nurseryman who’s grown show plants for the biggest designers in the business, royalty and even Alan Titchmarsh, on why he always relishes a challenge – and the trickier the better. Words by Ambra Edwards, portrait Jason Ingram.

Most people seem to think that horticulture is a restful occupation – soothing, good for your mental health. Not Dave Root. For the longstanding owner of Kelways Plants in Somerset, growing plants has always been something of a high-wire act. But then, he thrives on risk. Faced with a comfort zone, he will strive to be out of it. His idea of leisure is to be out on his paddle board on a choppy Cornish sea.

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Having studied horticulture at Bath University, Dave’s first job was at a tree and shrub nursery in Wiltshire. Driving to and fro, he would sometimes pass the high iron gates of Kelways Plants, by then grown a little ramshackle, and wonder what lay behind.

Owning a nursery such as Kelways is like owning a stately home – no one wants to be the generation that finishes it. It’s easy to get burdened by the past.

Founded in 1851, Kelways was once the greatest of nurseries, famed for its peonies, irises and resplendent gladioli. Everyone from Gertrude Jekyll to Monet bought from Kelways. For three weeks each May, special trains would bring day trippers to visit its Peony Valley, blazing with blooms. But by the 1930s, the nursery, like the grand gardens it served, had fallen on hard times, and in 1993, it went bankrupt for a second time. It was rescued by Chris and Liz Johnson, owners of McBean’s Orchids, and in 1994, Dave finally pushed open those rusty gates, and began the task of turning the nursery round.

Their goal was to re-establish Kelways as the pre-eminent grower of irises and peonies, and over the next 14 years, Kelways became a stalwart of the show circuit, with dazzling exhibits that brought in a crop of Chelsea Gold medals. Then, in 2008, the Johnsons announced their retirement and invited Dave to lead a management buy-out. It was, as Dave puts it, a ‘curve-ball’. By this time he was running a specialist nursery in his spare time, specialising in the tree ferns, bananas and other spectacular exotics that were his first love. He had thought that exotics would become his future. It was with his heart in his mouth that he committed, instead, to Kelways.

We got a reputation of, ‘if you’ve got something for Chelsea that no one else wants to grow, give it to Kelways.

“I already knew that peonies and irises were not enough to pay the wages: it’s too small a market and we needed income at other times of year. Owning a nursery such as Kelways is like owning a stately home – no one wants to be the generation that finishes it. It’s easy to get burdened by the past. But over 171 years, things came and went. Life moves on and you have to adapt and change all the time, and never more so than in the past two or three years."

That change began within weeks, when Dave was invited to supply a massive order of tree ferns for Andy Sturgeon’s 2008 garden at Chelsea. It won Gold, as did a garden by Arabella Lennox-Boyd, for whom he grew titanic gunneras in 200-litre pots.

“As a result of that,” he laughs, “we got a reputation of, ‘if you’ve got something for Chelsea that no one else wants to grow, give it to Kelways’. So we had a few years of just doing the wacky stuff – bits and pieces that no one else wanted to touch.” The big break came in 2011 with the Australian Garden for the Royal Botanic Garden, Melbourne (a two-year collaboration with Crocus), followed by the spectacular Trailfinders Australian Garden for Phil Johnson that won Best in Show in 2013. Both were crammed with an impressive array of unfamiliar Australian plants. Even more challenging was the After the Fire Garden for James Basson, reproducing the pioneer vegetation of a burned hillside near St Tropez.

I’ll always try anything, even the craziest thing, as long as we’ve got a back-up.

Since then, Dave has tackled a huge range of challenging plants from very specific locations, whether tropical India for Sarah Eberle, a precise altitude in central Chile for Jonathan Snow, or a variety of Mediterranean ecological niches for James Basson. Not to mention the tricky subjects beloved by various designers, from painfully slow-growing Disporum to rare and fickle Schefflera taiwaniana, that will, for no apparent reason, suddenly turn its toes up in its pot.

“Some of the time,” admits Dave, “it’s terrifying – but it’s one of those adrenaline things. I’ll always try anything, even the craziest thing, as long as we’ve got a back-up.”

Years of experience – speeding plants up, slowing them down, growing to the precise size and shape required by designer, mean that Kelways is now in a position to pick and choose the show gardens it will supply – always a few more, Dave confesses, than good sense would dictate. So it’s a surprise that, at only 59 and with energy still unbounded, Dave has already set his sights on the day he can make himself ‘superfluous’, confident to entrust Kelways to his youthful management team. His plan is to move to Cornwall, where he has always loved the gardens (especially Trebah), to make one of his own. He plans grass trees, and tree ferns, and beautiful cinnamonbarked Luma apiculata. It will only be small, he insists, but it will be his ‘ultimate garden’ – where he’ll go on pushing horticultural boundaries harder than ever.

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Useful Information Kelways Plants, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ. Tel 01458 250521, kelways.co.uk

Authors

Ambra Edwards is a garden writer with a special interest in garden history, and above all, in the people who make gardens.

Jason Ingram is an award winning garden photographer based in Bristol, UK. He travels widely shooting for magazines, book publishers and advertising agencies. He also works with top international garden designers and Landscape Architects on private projects worldwide.

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