Two-year-old nursery blossoms in young horticultural hands

Company: Halecat Nursery

Tom Atwood (31) and his wife Abi (29) have breathed new life into a popular but disused nursery and are celebrating its second year of opening with hopes of expanding it further.

With the Royal Horticultural Society concerned about the lack of young people attracted to the profession and independent nurseries reporting on hard times their story seems to be an exception to the rule.

Their two year old Halecat nursery in the south of the county, occupies a two acre site and sells over 550 different hardy perennials and 50 different shrubs. For the first time this summer it will offer short horticultural courses.

A part-time member of staff, 30-year-old Nick Deeble, and seven regular volunteers also work at the nursery which is open every day between March and October.

Tom and Abi Atwood were in their mid twenties when they became tenants of one of Cumbria’s much loved plant nurseries at Halecat in Witherslack. In its hay day it exported plants all over the world and was especially known for its 400 different varieties of hydrangeas, its hostas and hardy ferns and geraniums. By autumn 2008 it had fallen into disrepair, the plant collections were lost and it had ceased trading.

As Tom explained, “In February 2009 we had the keys to the site and we gave ourselves two years to clear and reconstruct it and make it function once more as a nursery. We also needed that time to grow our plants from seed. Right from the start we wanted to establish a reputation for providing a great selection of strong, own grown plants.

“It was very hard, physically demanding work which we fitted around part-time jobs. We had some amazing help from volunteers who still keep us going today. And when Abi’s mentor, Rob Hardy of Hardys Cottage Garden plants, arrived with a poly-tunnel he didn’t need, it meant we could start growing our plants - hardy perennials from seed. Our first seed order of 600 packets was based on how much growing space we had, the income we needed to live on, divided by the price we could charge for each plant. And then we just hoped they would sell.”

The nursery is sited on limestone and is surrounded by mixed woodland which provides a wonderful shelterbelt. It’s now two years since it opened to the public in March 2011. In that time Tom and Abi have reinstated old stock beds, planted up large nursery borders, amassed a tulip display alongside 95 different varieties of bulbs for sale and they have triumphed with display gardens at Holker Hall Flower Show winning ‘large gold’ medals on both occasions. The nursery’s border design service is also proving popular and the list of client commissions for this year is growing. Tom’s collection of Acers, over 120 varieties, is establishing itself too.

“As well as continually working hard to improve what we offer we are also keen to expand the nursery. There’s a bowl shaped area in the wood behind us. With a few years of hard work it could be turned into an exciting natural woodland zone” said Tom.

And added: “We are in a minority, in terms of our age, but hopefully things will change. I would definitely encourage young people to look seriously at what horticulture has to offer. To quote the RHS Director General Sue Biggs ‘Thousands of young people are missing out on incredible career opportunities – from gardening and garden design, the science of climate change and researching new pests and diseases to looking after the turf at Wimbledon or teaching children’. It is hard work but it’s so rewarding and fascinating. There’s nothing else to beat this.”

You can contact Tom or Abi at their nursery: 015395 52946 or 07904522665 or view their website

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