VP's VIPs: Tom Mitchell and Evolution Plants
It seems my visits to Evolution Plants are destined to be wet and windy if October and last month are anything to go by. However, the lure of a new nursery, a plant hunter cum owner in the shape of Tom Mitchell, and all happening less than 10 miles away means I can't keep away.
I'm delighted Tom's agreed to let me follow him and Evolution Plants in its first year of trading. You're welcome to join me too and you can add your questions (via comments, Twitter etc) to those I'll be asking over the following months.
So, how has the nursery been faring over the wettest winter on record? Follow me...
First impressions are that everything's remarkably intact. "We're reasonably sheltered here", Tom reassures me. Don't worry, this is the normal look to a nursery in February. For some reason I love seeing them at this time of year; their stripped down readiness for the coming season makes me excited about the months to come.
Our talk turns to 'that' snowdrop, Tom's initiative which resulted in the world's most expensive bulb being sold on eBay. "I had a lot of very detailed enquiries about that, from people who were obviously weighing up it's merit and whether it was worth adding to their collection. But in the end, I think it went to the right person. Its timing was with Valentine's Day and the winning reason for bidding was the embodiment of love across the generations. It's a lovely story and I know they're very happy with the bulb's new name."
The auction's success has given Tom a few things to ponder. For instance what to do next? "If I repeated the auction, its novelty would soon be lost, so that's not a long term plan", he explained. It also means some thought needs to be given to the pricing of subsequent sales - how much of the bulb's value was in its naming versus the worth of the bulb itself? That question's still being considered...
At October's launch, I remarked it was a strange time to get going. I remind Tom of this and he grins. "Actually it's been a good thing. I've been able to pay great attention to getting the sales process working properly without the stress of lots of customers ordering plants. I'm prepared to ship all over the world, so working through the subtleties of various import regulations and establishing a good relationship with FERA are important to get right. There's been strong interest in Japan too, so I've had to look at getting a multilingual website working properly."
Tom freely admits there have been some teething problems. "I now have a new web developer on board and we've moved the site onto a new web platform which is more robust and better suited for handling multiple currencies. We've also had delays with a few of the plants at their destination customs, but I'm confident we now have the right paperwork needed for each location."
Have there been any other surprises in the first few months? Another grin. "I thought I'd be spending my time over the winter writing the detailed descriptions I want for the plants coming up for sale. Instead, I've found myself giving a lot more talks. We were very busy over the weekend [mid February] as I was in Ireland and we also had the specialist snowdrop fair in Shaftesbury to attend. Then there was a talk at the Hardy Plant Society, I had surprisingly few plants left to bring back after that." [see the above photo for the few crates he brought back] So has he been invited to the University of Bath Gardening Club yet? "Yes, I'm booked in for 2015." Hurrah :)
Most nurseries start a good proportion of their stock from seed, but there aren't that many who've collected theirs from the wild. This is what fascinates me and Tom has 5,000 different new plants to introduce to us in the coming years. So how can we be sure they'll be viable for our gardens? "That's why I'm writing detailed notes for each plant and I've also set up lots of trial beds (see above) to see how they perform in the UK. I have a few hellebores in there at the moment, but these are coming out soon and it'll be looking very different here when you come back."
So, how many of the 5,000 are on sale? "We started with 120 at the launch and we're up to 140 now. The aim is to reach 500 this season." Quite a way to go then and it highlights how last year's launch wasn't an overnight thing, "It's taken 5 years to get this point", agrees Tom.
At this point it's time for us to go our separate ways. I'm given a free rein to look around and take photos whilst Tom attends to his day to day tasks. The nursery may have been left relatively unscathed by winter's weather, but its mildness has brought the threat of disease to the polytunnels. "We're constantly on the lookout for Botrytis, especially as the fans keep stopping." Our tour has highlighted the latest stoppage, so Tom hastens away to get them going again.
Note that Evolution Plants isn't usually open to the public (though of course its website is) so you'll only be able to see how it changes and progresses via my subsequent posts. There is an inaugural open day on May 10th, with an exciting lecture set up with the fab Dan Hinkley at nearby Belcombe Court, which rarely opens to the public. All for a mere fiver! Redeemable against plants on the day! What are you waiting for... head over here to sign up!
In the meantime I'll be returning at the end of March, so watch this space...