This time last year, Gardeners’ World host Toby Buckland didn’t know what was about to hit him. After returning BBC2’s flagship show to its practical gardening roots, Toby was suddenly ousted by the Beeb after just two-and-a-half years as the nation’s head gardener.
The AG columnist wrote openly about the crushing experience: “I will always have gardening and that’s what will get me through feeling so let down and humiliated,” Toby said in January.
True to his word, Toby set about starting his own business and last month Toby Buckland Nurseries opened up shop on the internet.
So how did it all come about? Toby explains: “After Gardeners’ World, I had a lot of plants that I’d grown for Greenacre [the Gardeners’ World garden]. I’d propagate perennials at home and take them up to Birmingham.
“So I ended up with a garden full of flowers with nowhere to go. That formed the basis of my stock.
“I knew that, at Greenacre, everything was going to be given away or ploughed, and I decided I was not going to allow plants that I’d grown to go to waste.”
Before finding fame, Toby had worked as a grower specialising in roses and pinks. Now, with wife Lisa, the couple “felt the time was right” to start their own nursery. The search for land to buy or rent was on.
While attending a charity event at Powderham Castle in Devon, Toby said his ears “pricked up” when a worker mentioned that the estate may have the perfect location. It was a large Victorian glasshouse and a polytunnel for lease, set within a walled garden that’s now used as an animal sanctuary.
“It’s an old Victorian tropical house,” Toby says. “It was designed to catch as much heat as possible but had been out of use for years. Nothing had grown in the soil for decades. There was lots of rubbish – and rabbits! All had to be cleared out, and the ground made good to grow in.”
With the heavy work over, the Bucklands concentrated on their passion – growing and selling plants. “We’re offering bare-root herbaceous plants,” says Toby. “It’s the traditional way plants used to be sold: dug up from the ground, soil shaken from roots and wrapped in moist newspaper – then sent out through the post. In the professional trade, that’s how it’s done.
“It’s a method that I’m keen to bring to the amateur market because it makes plants more economical to buy. It means there are no plastic pots cluttering up your garden and no need to use peat or peat-free compost. So it has a lower environmental impact. Bare-root doesn’t work for every type of plant, but with the ones it does, you get a larger lump and spread of roots than you would if it was growing in a container – so plants will get their feet down in to the soil quicker.”
Toby will specialise in some of his favourite plants: ones he describes as “trouble-free long flowerers that give year-round colour” and are also favourites with wildlife including Astrantia ‘Shaggy’ and ‘Buckland’.
He adds: “There will be roses, including natural-looking Persian varieties that cope with dry soils, such as ‘Eyes for You’ and West Country good-doers like ‘Proper Job’ and ‘Hot Chocolate’. For late and high-summer, my pick are Aster ‘Little Carlow,’ ‘Sedum ‘Red Cauli’ and Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii. And for winter interest, there’s Tierrella ‘Iron Butterfly’ and Stipa arundinacea – plus what I rate as the best heuchera of all: ‘Purple Petticoats’”.
Gardeners’ World has been pretty much organic and peat-free for some time, so will Toby be following in the show’s footsteps now he’s off-screen?
“I’m about 99 per cent peat-free but if we grow plants in plugs then that can only really be done in peat-based compost,” he says.
“I’m working on different blends of my own peat-free compost as well as trialing what’s out there on the peat-free market.
“Being dogmatic about how you garden is a mistake. Some plants do not grow well in peat-free compost, but a great many do.”
But what about pesticides? “I always garden in the most natural way possible but I’m not so interested in calling myself organic. I would use biological controls. Derris is a great example of a plant-based chemical that’s now considered not to be organic – it’s natural but it’s far more dangerous to fish than synthetic products would be. You have to take a scientific approach. There’s a lot of ill-considered misinformation about the green debate. We’re going to use cutting-edge technology, good science and good growing practices to keep pests away,” Toby sums up.
Although the nursery is operating via mail-order over the internet, plans for a plant centre are in the pipeline. A section of the Victorian glasshouse has already been set aside for gardening classes.
“It’s something I’d like to do in the long run. It’s nice to come together to learn a new technique, or stage a chilli festival, pumpkin festival or maybe a tomato or strawberry variety-tasting session.”
However Toby won’t be joining the flower show circuit just yet: “Maybe one day!”
Possibly the most striking centrepiece at the nursery is Priscilla, a giant pumpkin that’s been nurtured from seed.
“It’s the most unusual green manure in the country!” Toby says. “I wasn’t sure if the soil had any life in it so the pumpkin went in to see if the soil was fertile – and clearly it is!
“Unfortunately Priscilla has grown too large to get out of the greenhouse doors, so I’m going to carve her into a coracle and do the first manned pumpkin voyage across the River Exe.”
We wish Toby’s new nursery, and Priscilla Pumpkin, all the best on their maiden voyage!
Go to www.tobybuckland.com to visit the nursery’s website.