Marchants Nursery, Sussex
Arriving at Marchants for the first time is an exhilarating experience. Down a little country lane, the renowned nursery beloved by plantsmen is discreetly hidden away. The eye is immediately captivated by great swathes of strikingly original planting set against the ravishing backdrop of the South Downs.
I first visited Marchants (www.marchantsplants.co.uk) well over a decade ago and was struck by the energy and creativity of plantsman Graham Gough and his wife, Lucy Goffin, (www.lucygoffintextiles.co.uk) a celebrated textile artist and a onetime artist in residence at Great Dixter.
Since then the garden has matured and the nursery goes from strength to strength appearing in numerous magazines, newspapers and even on the BBC’s Flying Gardener Programme.
Graham is best known for his love of ornamental grasses – ‘they are just fantastic plants’ – and the skilful way in which he mixes them with richly hued herbaceous perennials. He was one of the very first nurserymen to specialise in a wide selection of grasses. ‘I wasn’t trying to create a style as such but I am always thinking about what plants you could associate with grasses.
I didn’t want to give up on all those South African plants that won’t grow in Europe but will in England. It meant that our range is quite different from other naturalistic planting look devotees’. For instance you wouldn’t find a tulbaghia in a Piet Oudolf garden.
‘I always tell people don’t worry about the colour, think about the form and textures. If you get those right the colour will follow’.
He loves the tonal effect of grasses created by the refraction of light, particularly the low autumn light. ‘Just look at those miscanthus – the tiny little hairs on the flowers capture and filter the light.
. Their tonal qualities are continually changing through the day. It is a quality unique to grasses. They are magical,’ and making a nod to Lucy he adds ‘They are like a textile’. As one wanders through the garden his dictum is proved right time and time again.
The overall effect of the garden is one of theatrical exuberance both in colour and height. All the time one is conscious of the Henry Moore-like folds of the downs on the far horizon. The meandering paths and mounded flowerbeds echo the surrounding landscape, enfolding the visitor. Both Graham and Lucy grew up in Sussex and one can sense that the whole ensemble of Marchants and their light-filled house (home of a fine collection of studio pottery) is hefted to the Sussex Weald. ‘We have a strong emotional attachment to the landscape’ admits Graham.
Graham’s first passion was music. While he was studying at the Guildhall School of Music, he used to long to escape to Sussex at the weekends. ‘I ached to be outside and decided it would have to be gardening’. One day he saw an ad in the local newspaper for gardening help in Seaford. ‘Before my interview I sat my mother down with a Sutton’s catalogue and learnt eight plant names. At the interview (the lady was the Lighting Engineer at Glyndebourne) asked me what you would do with this bed… I reeled off all the names I learnt, salvias, and petunias and so on to which she said ‘You do know a lot’. That is how I got started, gardening for old dears.’
Fortitutuously one of the old dears, Katie Pickard-Smith introduced him to Elizabeth Strangman, the legendary hellebore expert of Washfields Nursery. He began working for her two or three days a week. It was a 75 mile round journey 2 or 3 days a week. Happily for Graham and (for us) he soon became full time. ‘It was the beginning of my plant education’.
Graham like so many other people who have followed a career path without any formal training has that unfettered infectious enthusiasm which makes it a joy to be with him discussing plants. Marchants is open until the end of October, do go and visit and you will undoubtedly leave with a clutch of healthy well-tended plants but also a spring in your step. The range of plants is thrilling from a host of kniphofias to epimediums to agapanthus, another favourite of Graham’s.
As Carol Klein writing in her new book ‘Making a Garden: Successful Gardening by Nature’s Rules’ says of Marchants: ‘Very few gardens make you smile continually’. What more could one ask for?
Marchants, Mill Lane, Laughton, East Sussex BN8 6AJ
Open Wednesdays to Saturdays 9.30-5.30 until the 24th of October 2015.