VPs VIPs: Derry Watkins of Special Plants

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Derry Watkins at her home, garden and nursery - the acclaimed Special Plants - just a few miles along the road from me. I first met Derry at one of her open garden days last year and was keen to find out more about her wonderful garden and running an independent nursery. She specialises in tender perennials and regularly goes on plant hunting trips to find new treasures, particularly in South Africa. As well as running Special Plants and opening her garden under the NGS scheme, Derry holds day courses at her nursery, hosts Special Tuesdays from April until September, lectures and has written a couple of books.

How did you find your way from Connecticut to the UK? I'd started a biodynamic vegetable garden in Connecticut and we used to have people come along at weekends to help out. A particular young man turned up: he returned many times and at the end of the summer I married him.

So it was all down to love? Isn't that the best way? I initially came over for just 2 years whilst Peter [Clegg] finished his studies at Cambridge. But then he came over here to set up his architectural studio in Bath with Richard Feilden. We eventually found this place and so over 20 years later, here I am.

There's quite a difference between vegetable growing and specialising in tender perennials though. Yes, my mother was a very keen plantswoman and I resisted following in her footsteps very strongly. Then when we first came to Bath, we built a wonderfully large conservatory onto our house because I was desperate for one. That's when my love of plants really took off. Tender plants are much more beautiful than hardy ones: their foliage is more interesting and they flower much more prolifically. My one regret about this place is not being able to have a large conservatory, but with way the site slopes here that's impossible.

How are your plants coping with the severe winter we've been having? I won't know until much later in the year [around May]. Of course, I've taken lots of insurance cuttings, which are overwintering in the greenhouse. But then it doesn't really matter if I lose something, I can try something else. I love trying new things.

Isn't there one plant you'd really regret losing? Well, there's my Melanoselinum decipiens. It's an monocarpic umbelifer which I've been nurturing for two years and it should finally get to look its best this year. If it's survived. [we had a quick peep under its protective fleece in the garden later and there were encouraging signs of green - fingers crossed it stays that way]

How do you look after all your plants and cuttings over the winter? The less tender plants are in the area at the top of the nursery under plastic (to keep the rain off), which gets pulled back most days to give them plenty of air. The tender ones are in the heated greenhouse which gets ventilated during the day. If it's below -2 degrees [centigrade] it's opened up slightly, above that temperature the doors are fully open. I believe in tough love: it means my plants are hardened up and ready to grow well come spring.

Is everything being kept on site here? No, Maureen [a former neighbour who has the use of a large greenhouse close to where she now lives and who popped in whilst I was there] also overwinters plants and grows on some of the seeds for me.

How do you prevent pests and diseases? Tidiness and good ventilation are the key to mould prevention [whenever we went outside Derry's fingers were constantly busy pulling off dead leaves and tidying up whilst we were talking]. I have to use chemicals to prevent vine weevil: as a nursery owner I cannot afford to sell a plant which is diseased or comes complete with pests or weeds. I use Neem oil (organic) in the greenhouse to prevent red spider mite and whitefly.

Are you using peat free compost? No it's around 20% peat. I haven't had good results with peat-free compost. A particular compost brand can be very variable and I need consistency to ensure good quality plants.

Do you grow all of your plants? It's around 80%, either from cuttings or saved seed. The other 20% are plants which I find difficult to propagate and I buy them in, or new seeds which I'd like to try. There's some wonderful Coreopsis 'Jive' young plants ordered for this year [as shown recently in the new Coreopsis featured in The Garden magazine].

Now is a quiet time gardening-wise, what do you do at this time of the year? I make sure the nursery is cleaned and tidied up, then there's the accounts and tax returns to do, website updates, putting together the catalogue, press releases, arranging group visits and just general organising. I love the natural rhythm of the year from this quiet organising time, then seed sowing and the garden clean-up starts next month and goes on into March, in April everything gets staked, in May there's the Chelsea chop, then the nursery gets really busy...

It's a while since your famous Black and White garden at Chelsea in 1999, do you have plans to do another exhibit there? Back then I used to do about 47 shows per year all over the country, and sometimes I'd do more than one over a weekend. I decided I wanted to get my life back, and I'd not previously exhibited at Chelsea, so it was a kind of fond farewell. At the time everything in the Floral Marquee was blowsy and colour, colour, colour. Mine was a complete contrast. The Head Gardener at Highgrove saw it and now there's something similar there. Lots of people found it inspirational because it was so different. I just do a few local shows nowadays, about one a month. However, whilst Chelsea was a goodbye to doing the big shows it was also the start of something. You can't sell plants at Chelsea, but you can sell seed. Chelsea was the start of the seed catalogue side of my business.

You also put together the programme of speakers for the University of Bath Gardening Club, how did your involvement come about? I just was just a member at first around 20 years ago when everything to do with the club was done by just one woman. It had very good speakers in those days too and was very popular. Then one year she stood up and said she wasn't going to do it anymore and the club would fold. There was a howl of protest and three of us volunteered to take things forward. That's the best way to get help with this kind of thing: threaten to give up and leave and a few people will volunteer.

Do you choose the speakers yourself or does the committee decide? I have a totally free rein and I get to choose the people I want to hear. It's great, they come on over and some of them stay here. It's the fun job to do on the committee. I'm thinking about asking the Head Gardener from the Inner Temple for next year's programme, what do you think? [Fantastic!!!!]

Where in the world inspires you? South Africa is my absolute favourite[and several of Derry's lectures are about South Africa]. You stop at the side of the road and you immediately see at least new 10 plants you don't know. I've just come back and I just love it there. We also do a lot of mountain walking: the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda were rewarding but extremely hard going, I've never seen such deep mud on the steepest of slopes! Peter and I will be going to Libya in the spring: I think there's a lot of North African flora that's relatively unknown and worth exploring.

At this point we went outside as I was keen to contrast my visit with last September's. I wanted to get more of an idea of the structure Derry's husband had put in place when designing and constructing the garden before she set to with planting up the borders. I just wish there was more of an opportunity to do this kind of thing at this time of the year: plants are lovely, but they do wave about and can get in the way of studying the structural elements of a garden!

I'll tell you more of what I found, plus a winter's look at the nursery soon. However, just before I go, Derry posed an interesting question during the close of our chat. We were mulling over how you get to meet the nicest of people when it comes to gardening. Her question was this:

Does gardening make us nice people, or is it only nice people that do gardening?

Now it's over to you...


  1. Oh I am jealous now VP. Derry is one of my gardening hero's. So much energy and enthusiasm and I just love her garden. I think I may need to be banned from the nursery too!

    Great post.

    RO xx

  2. No, No, No!!

    I cannot read this - I am seething with envy, I will return when I am calmer.

  3. 'South Africa is my absolute favourite' I am feeling throughly gruntled. How can this gardener be anything BUT nice?

  4. Very interesting! Being over here across the pond, I don't know some of these amazing gardeners from over in Europe and the UK. So this was an illuminating post for me.

  5. Oh fascinating stuff VP, thanks. Controlling my envy as best I can like Karen!

  6. Very interesting indeed. What a treat to meet a lady like that.

  7. Dear VP, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this lively yet informative posting in which you 'interview' Derry Watkins. She has certainly made a name for herself and her collection of rare seed is widely acknowledged and appreciated.

    I have friends who have attended her day courses who found them most instructive and down to earth and very much enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.

  8. I'm with Karen - you are torturing us. I will have to really try this year to get to one of the day courses or special Tuesdays - maybe we could meet up at one

  9. A fascinating interview VP and I learnt a great deal from her too, so thanks for that :)

  10. A great post VP. Skimmed through this last night but have come back with my specs for a proper read today. You are a lucky lady to have had an in depth chat with such a plantswoman. Looking forward to your next post and seeing the bones of Derry's winter garden.

  11. I liked the complaint that plants wave about a bit!

    I know there's a conviction around gardening blogs that gardeners are almost inevitably nice people (for whatever reason) but in literature / folk tradition I've always got the impression that gardeners are grumpy and old and don't want anything to do with anyone else (except Robins).

    Don't suppose either is the truth!


    P.S. The VW is 'drymarg'. I wouldn't want any of that on my toast.

  12. Edith - welcome to Veg Plotting. I'll hop on over to yours soon as I have a question to ask you :)

    Derry was most generous with her time and asked me lots of questions too. I'm glad you've enjoyed the results and I'll be bringing you more soon

    Intersting point Lucy. I've met really nice people at garden shows and at nurseries, but there are a few cumudgeons at the allotment - though that might be due to all the back breaking work and bending over that goes on!


Your essential reads

Jack Go To Bed At Noon

That blue flower: A spring spotter's guide

Salad Days: Mastering Lettuce

Testing Times: Tomatoes

Salad Days: Salads for Damp Places

The Resilient Garden

Chelsea Fringe 2014: Shows of Hands - Episode I

#mygardenrightnow: heading into summer with the Chelsea Fringe

Introducing the #mygardenrightnow project