Where do British garden designers get their ideas? From Derry Watkins, owner of Special Plants, near Bath, in southwest England. By only selling plants that she is “crazy about,” Derry has a persuasive way, and her nursery has become the insider’s favorite. But Derry herself is a Connecticut native, which means she also has the outsider’s edge.
Photographs by Jason Ingram.
Above: Special Plants is a small nursery set far from the road down a long narrow track. Designers from near and far make the trip, and when they do, they are typically not buying for clients or for shows, they are buying for themselves. Like all gardeners, they love acquiring plants and are looking for something unusual. A pilgrimage to Bath, however, isn’t essential: Derry specializes in selling seeds, and ships all over the world. Her packets are priced at £2 each.
Dig deep into the world of plant fashions, and it becomes clear that Derry Watkins, with her boutique selection, is the crucial first step in the trend-setting process. Of course there are other heroic plants people who play a vital role, but they tend to cover specific horticultural groups. With Derry, anything goes as long as she loves it. Shown here: Silene armeria ‘Electra.’
Every trendsetter needs to have the courage of their convictions, and a willingness to forge ahead. Though Derry is barely aware of being a leader, plant hunting is one of her great joys. A three-month traveling grant via the Winston Churchill Fellowship set her off on the plant-hunting path 20 years ago. She now goes on a foreign expedition every year, keeping an eye out for what could be the Next Big Thing. Shown here: Linaria ‘Peachy.’
“I’m a very naive gardener and I like flowers,” says Derry modestly. She particularly favors plants that have a long flowering period, drawing her to the tender varieties over the hardies so dear to the hearts of many British gardeners. “Tender plants bloom for more than five months,” she argues. “Most hardy plants bloom for one month.” Shown here: tender Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’.
“It’s an unnatural cruelty to expect a human being to live through an English winter without a greenhouse,” says Derry, who has co-authored two books on greenhouse gardening. She beats the weather by taking cuttings and watching them bloom six months later. Shown here: Dianthus ‘Elizabethan’.
Above: If there is a plant that everyone seems to like, such as Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ there is a good chance that Derry will have found a version that is uncommon and more intense. This crocosmia is a new variety called ‘Hellfire.’ As she has written on the label, it is “the reddest!”
Above: The next “it” flower could be lurking on the trestle tables of Special Plants.
For more garden-side reports from the UK, see our gallery of British Style.
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