On their first visit to the four and a half acre former tree and shrub nursery in August 1999 Dan Thomas and Peter Skerrett were unable to walk further than a few feet. A market garden in the 1950’s, and latterly a garden centre, in the 1980’s the site was closed for business and lay untouched for 10 years. The remaining stock had taken root through it’s pots creating an almost impenetrable forest of plants with self sown willows for added density. Trees were growing through the roofs of the glasshouses and the 2 acre field of daffodils and Christmas trees at the back of the nursery was an unreachable sea of brambles. It really was ‘the lost sleeping beauty nursery of Constantine’ – ‘ the plantsman’s paradise that time forgot’.
They purchased the land in January 2000 and the hard work began. Rather than clearing the whole site, the overgrown specimens were used to form the shape of the garden. Using secateurs, saws and a winch in preference to diggers and chainsaws, and with literally a tree every foot, the progress was slow but absorbing, debates and decisions taking place over each tree.
A fine beech hedge was carved from rows of hedging stock, reduced from 25 foot to 6, a small woodland emerged in perfect rows of birch, maple and cherry with even a solitary unsold peach tree and a willow leaved pear. While plum trees and crab apples were saved in the step by step clearance conifers were removed, the last one standing being reprieved as after all it was offering something useful, shade from the hot July sun!
An enormous commercial glass house was dismantled in 2002, pane by pane, bolt by bolt and salvaged for another project.
As the space gradually opened up, full sun areas were planted with scented and grey leaved lavenders, Santolina, towering jewel Echiums, Mediterranean herbs, streams of Nasturtiums and the beautiful South American Francoa appendiculata, all able to flourish in the mild climate. Plantings of bright Alstroemeria aurea, the magestic pale yelow giant scabious Cephalaria gigantica, edible flowered Hemoraccallis, shaggy maned Inula, and unusual Knautia macedonica weave in and out of the shady areas.
Lawns were leveled and sown on ground that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.
New planting of fruit and vegetables was able to start, medlar, quince, gages, damson, mulberry, fig and even olive looking conspicuously like the new boys on the block were shoe horned into newly cleared spots. Standard gooseberries and currants in red, black and a rare pink variety were mingled with beds of herbs, tomatoes, strawberries, rhubarb and leafy Swiss chard making it a tasty as well as visually pleasing garden to browse.
The two smallest glass houses were cleared and transformed into a propagation house and a cafe with plants for sale. The largest glasshouse – a huge commercial 100 footer – was planted with rescued figs found growing sideways from fallen over pots, Physalis or cape gooseberry and the even more unusual member of the Solanaceae family the tamarillo or tree tomato.
During this time crafts people rented the redundant workshop space, students have used the outside space to make sculpture and most impressively Mark Harris made a beautiful 20 foot sailing boat.
In 2007 an impressive wooden studio was built demonstrating the sustainable design skills of architect Peter, clad in local cedar it sits comfortably helping the garden sit in the context of a ‘dwelling’ and provides a sunny courtyard for playing boule.
In January 2009 Mark and his partner Saffa joined the project and are taking the lead in the garden’s future.
The propagation of plants now takes place in the far end of the largest glasshouse where they also grow salads, squash, beans and sweet potatoes!
The old wooden ‘prop’ house now has been converted into three studios. Other workshops have been upgraded with new electrics, roofs and wood burners and the Potager family grows.
Over the winter of 2011/12 a group effort saw the complete renovation of the café greenhouse – it’s now double glazed and we have an excellent new kitchen. In finishing the landscaping around the new café, the old rainwater collection tanks have been refurbished and all our irrigation and toilet flushing needs are taken care of with water from the greenhouse and workshop roofs.
As the café has become more popular, and after discussing it for a few years (it’s best not to rush into things!), we made a new entrance in field below the garden and built a new car park in winter of 2013/14. With a bit of infrastructure work done, we were able to turn our attention back to the garden – renewing planting, removing more conifers to allow more light in, extending the vegetable plot…
Under the leadership of our new Head Chef, Daisy Hillier, the café at Potager is thriving and as well as the regular daytime hours, there are more evening events. An outdoor pizza oven built in 2018 adds an extra element to what we can offer.
It’s been very rewarding of late to open up access to community organisations. A collaboration with the Sensory Trust has seen the establishment of a dementia friendly gardening group – ‘The Potager Peas’ and the Little Tree Forest School have moved into the woods at the bottom of the site, providing outdoor education to little ones.