16 January 2012 By Marina Christopher
On February 28th 2002, I moved into Paice Lane in Medstead to the site known as Eastfield Plant Centre. I renamed the nursery Phoenix Perennial Plants.
This move was my third reincarnation in the plant trade; I emerged as Firecrest Nursery during the mid-eighties in Southampton growing native plants and others, which would attract wildlife especially beneficial to insects. The site backed onto a railway line and a sunny bank where slow worms basked during the summer months. The conifer hedge separating me from my neighbour was often host to firecrests and I spent many happy hours observing the antics of these tiny little birds from which the nursery took its name.
I soon outgrew the space of this back garden enterprise and a fortunate meeting with John Coke of Bentley, Hampshire was to provoke my next incarnation as a partner in Green Farm Plants from the early nineties into the new millennium. During this period we moved from Green Farm south of the A31 to a new site at Bury Court to the north of the new road. This windy site with its incredible views was to eventually cause my demise and elicit what I hope was my final move. Growing plants in small pots in such an inclement and destructive environment where the wind appeared to blow the year round was severely demoralising. I looked for a site which was more sheltered and after a couple of years discovered Eastfield Plant Centre was on the market, some 90 metres higher than Bury Court but sheltered by mature trees of oak and ash with a lower storey of hazel.
This new site does have its problems; it is a frost pocket with a clay soil, has a 30 year average rainfall of 36” and a high water table and remains dank, grey and frozen for most of the winter months. Why on earth did I move here I sometimes wonder in the depths of winter? Plants start into growth almost a month later than they did at Bury Court which was on light free-draining upper greensand. My sticky clay site is just a few houses away from chalk. I have always wanted to garden on chalk - the flora of chalk downlands is for me the richest and most beautiful in the country and the buzzing of insects on a hot summer’s day is an integral part of my memories of many happy hours of wandering. Not all is lost however, as I am lucky enough to have Marbled White butterflies flying over the nursery from their chalk habitat a few fields away. In 2010 I had 60 tons of raw chalk delivered in a huge mound on my lawn, the Phoenix Folly, hoping to start a colonization project of plants specifically attractive to insects especially bees and butterflies. In my first season in Medstead I recorded 21 species of butterfly including the migrant Clouded Yellow, Painted Lady and Red Admiral. Before the advent of the chalk I had reached a total of 29 species of butterfly; perhaps the chalk will attract a couple more such as the Small Blue and Chalkhill Blue. Once again, I am concentrating on growing plants that are especially attractive to beneficial insects that will pollinate my flowers and gobble up aphids and other destructive pests. They in turn feed the multitudes of birds, amphibians and other wildlife which share my land.
So why Phoenix Perennial Plants? Not only is this my new incarnation but I have run a Robinson Moth trap for almost 20 years. This consists of a light which confuses moths into thinking it is the moon and they fly drunkenly into the trap where they are provided with warm, comfortable egg trays to snooze under until I release them alive and well, albeit a little drowsy, the following morning. ‘The Phoenix’ and the ‘Small Phoenix’ moth are both residents on this site and fly around July. The former has larvae that feed on currants and the latter on various species of willowherb of which I have many - too many! They are both attractive moths.
My philosophy has always been to create a balanced ecosystem within the garden without the use of chemicals. I grow my plants hard without extra feeding although some plants such as Delphiniums and roses will respond well to good living. I feel that gardens should be about stimulating all the senses, not just visual, so that scent, texture and sound are all part of the experience.
This year, 2012, is the tenth anniversary of Phoenix Perennial Plants and it promises to be an exciting season. I am growing plants for 5 show gardens at Chelsea Flower Show, supplied several North American prairie plants to the Olympic stadium and hope to forge greater links with Alitex throughout the year. Another 30 tons of chalk is waiting to be delivered to my site as soon as the ground is dry enough to support the tractor and trailer. Drought was not an issue last year at Phoenix – in fact it was so wet that the hay was never cut. Each year brings different challenges, disappointments and thrills – what will be in store for 2012? Follow the blog to find out!
Visit Marina at:
Phoenix Perennial Plants, Paice Lane, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire, GU34
Early openings 2012: Friday & Saturday: February 3-4th and 17-18th, March 2-3rd and 16-17th (11-4)
The nursery reopens on Friday 30th March – Saturday 27th October. Friday & Saturday (11-5)
Visitors welcome at other times by appointment - firstname.lastname@example.org