A Labour of Love (Alpines and Bulbs) by Rob Potterton

The speaker at our meeting on 15th October was Rob Potterton of Pottertons Nursery near Caistor in Lincolnshire. Rob’s subject was “A Labour of Love. Alpine, plants and bulbs.” His highly informative and entertaining talk was illustrated with excellent photographs and a great many pictures of alpine plants showing the huge range of plants and their vibrant  colours. The easiest way to be reminded of the plants that Rob talked about is to visit the nursery website (@ www.pottertons.co.uk)

The nursery was started by Rob’s father in the 1970s and currently occupies a five acre site developed over the last twenty-five years. Two thirds of the site is a garden open to the public at nursery opening times and the remainder is devoted to the nursery. The garden has a large pond a rockery and a variety of beds and containers demonstrating the many ways in which alpines can be grown. This is very much a family business run by Rob and his wife with the help of his daughter and two staff. 

In a quick introduction to alpines Rob said that many people will know alpines as rockery plants like aubretia, gentian, saxifrage and potentilla. There are also many bulbs that go with alpines such as crocus and miniature varieties of tulip, narcissus, iris and cyclamen. Alpines are small, compact plants with masses of flowers which bloom from April to July. They like well-drained soil, good light and exposure to wind to dry the foliage. Foliage is liable to rot in wet conditions and there are some alpines that need to be grown in an alpine house where the plants can  be kept dry  and where there is plenty of ventilation. Heat is not needed as alpines are very hardy. The best soil mix is two parts of John Innes No 2, one part peat substitute (such as coir) and one part horticultural grit. Alpines can be grown on  a rockery , in raised beds, troughs and a variety of containers, including old boots!  All containers must have holes for drainage. An attractive way of presenting alpines is in a ‘crevice’ bed where the surface is covered with grit (a good thing for all alpine planting) and  divided with low vertically placed pieces of stone paving.

The nursery also sells a range of small humus, acid or shade loving (woodland) plants  such as corydalis, daphne and jeffersonia and bulbs like trillium, narcissus, erythronium, hepatica and fritilaria.

Rob then spoke about and illustrated the history and construction of the nursey. His father  was original a ‘lumper’ (unloading fish) at Grimsby docks with  a love of gardening. Initially he grew carnations but, after a visit to Compton Acres garden in Devon he developed a love of alpines. He converted a greenhouse into an alpine house and,with  a friend Alan Martin, he started propagating alpines. They started a small part-time business which grew in 1978 to a full-time proper business on a one acre site with a large greenhouse. When Rob left school he had no interest in the business but took an office job and went travelling. It was in the course of a long visit to New Zealand walking all round South Island that he discovered New Zealand alpines and fell in love with them. On his return he joined his father and did good business selling New Zealand alpines. Shortly after that he met Jackie and, in time they married and subsequently took over the business. In 1994 they bought land adjoining the nursery and expanded to a seven acre site with a five acres devoted to the nursery and garden and land where they could build their own house

In a “behind the scenes” look at the nursery  Rob showed us the methods of propagation and growing on and the areas devoted to this and to packing plants for mail order. Growing a plant from propagation to sales-ready can take up to seven years although many alpines will grow from sowing to sale in two years.

For many years Rob took part in the major flower shows such as Chelsea, Malvern and Gardeners World, winning many gold medals. He has now stopped doing this and, instead, attends one-day shows and displays. On 24 May 2020 the nursery will be open for the National Gardens Scheme; following the success of an NGS Open day this year when he had a thousand visitors and raised  £3,000 pounds for the NGS charities.

Jeremy Arthern

A small selection of  photos from Rob’s talk:

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