Since the nursery’s first flower show in Bedfordshire in 1989, the name Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants has been synonymous with exquisite displays of herbaceous plants in garden settings. It is a family-run nursery, born when Rosy Hardy and her husband Rob combined their talents – Rosy’s for plant propagation, selection and combining, and Rob’s for landscaping and logistics – to become the renowned Hampshire nursery with a staff of 13 who nurture more than 1,200 types of herbaceous perennial.
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The story of how Rosy became one of the UK’s most trusted growers of plants that have become stars of borders and containers in so many gardens starts in Northumberland where her parents settled, after various postings abroad. She was an outdoors girl, and inquisitive. “By asking my mother I got to know every single wildflower in the countryside around us.” When it came to career choice she thought she wanted to work on a farm but was told she was the wrong sex for that. Horticulture was then suggested and she had the luck to be in a school that offered an O level in the subject and had a walled garden. A degree in commercial horticulture followed, then two jobs in vegetable production. When she met Rob, a farmer’s son, he had already been helping his sister Anne Liverman with her landscaping business in Derbyshire. Anne was to become an important member of the family nursery, as was Rosy’s mother, and splits from many of her cottage garden plants became some of the most desirable items at the car boot sales Rosy and Rob attended. “People loved these plants, so we decided to specialise.”
They quickly built up a presence at local flower shows, always presenting the plants in landscapes that incorporated zones requiring a range of conditions – damp, dry, sunny, shady. Right plant, right place is central to Rosy’s gardening ethos, and this message is one of the reasons she continues to embrace the physical demands of exhibiting at shows. Initially selling at shows was an economic necessity, as they didn’t have a premises, but even after they settled in a walled garden in Hampshire, they continued on the circuit. “I prefer face-to-face selling, telling people how the plants work and where to put them.” she says. One of her bugbears at shows, such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where to date Hardy’s has been awarded 24 gold medals, is when top designers make combinations that just wouldn’t work in a real garden setting. Occasionally, Rosy admits, she feels compelled to let one of the judges know.
Two qualities Rosy demands of her plants are that they are strong – they need to be able to survive in northern gardens as well as in the south, and are allowed to dry out between watering sessions – and make good companions. Having introduced such exceptional performers as Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and Gaura lindheimeri Rosyjane (= ‘Harrosy’), it’s clear Rosy has a very keen eye for selection. But, she explains, there is also a rigorous checklist for every plant that she is considering: is it different in colour, habit, height or thrives in different conditions to related plants; does it re-bloom; does it have particularly good foliage? And for the past ten years she has only taken on new plants by British breeders. It’s part of the nursery’s sustainability policy, which now includes being 99.5 per cent peat free (they still haven’t found the ideal peat-free compost for the different types of cuttings they do), increased biological controls in the tunnels and compostable pots for mail order plants.
Rosy’s skill at combining plants comes from having spent many years observing plants closely. “Sometimes you can put plants together that most people would consider as being opposing colours,” she explains. “But if you look at the centres and they are the same colour or they have similar tones – and the plants are a completely different shape and height – then they will work and you can blend them.”
Understanding how each plant behaves in its natural environment is also key. Most years Rosy manages to go botanising abroad, which she would much rather do than visiting gardens. “If you see a plant in the wild and see how it naturally grows, and the different forms of it, depending on seedling variation, you can understand how to keep it going in the garden.”
She is focussed on re-introducing native plants such as silenes, some umbellifers and geraniums to gardeners in the UK. “They are more wildlife friendly, and should naturally be in our gardens. But not everyone can have a weed patch, and enjoy it, so I am finding native species that are more showy, and will suit specific areas such as shady or dry.”
Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, Priory Lane Nursery, Freefolk Priors, Whitchurch, Hampshire RG28 7FA. Tel 01256 896533, hardysplants.co.uk