Lake District Gardens - Halecat Nursery

PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 July 2014

Looking across garden

Looking across garden

Linda Viney

On a hot summer’s day in August, Tom and Abi Attwood made the life-changing decision to take on Halecat Nursery in the picturesque Lyth Valley. By the following February of 2009, when they had the lease of this two acre site in their hands, they started to think: ‘What have we done - are we mad?’

Abi and Tom in the garden at HalecatAbi and Tom in the garden at Halecat

Over the previous decade, mother nature had taken over, swamping the original stock beds of perennials which had become lost in weeds of every variety and at a height you could only imagine. By early spring, a combination of youthful enthusiasm and naivety prevailed and gave them the strength to tackle the task which lay before them, sometimes wondering where their strength came from.

Every decision initially cost money as major works had to be prioritised through rapidly dwindling funds. For several weeks contractors moved thousands of tonnes of soil and stone, chiselling out a rocky bank to enlarge their growing area as well as constructing 80 metres of retaining walls. Initially, the local dog walkers appeared nervous. Now completed, it looks as though it has always been there with the natural stone walls and quiet seating areas allowing you to relax while deciding what your garden needs.

Horticulture had been an early passion for Tom. Helping his parents transform a large untouched field into a garden when he was just 12, Tom decided he needed to be outdoors and in his mid-teens got a job during school holidays working at a traditional nursery which specialised in trees and shrubs. He applied to go to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh where he gained an HND before going to Kew where he gained the Kew Diploma in Horticulture.

During this time he met Abi, a fellow plantaholic. Following on from here he became head gardener at Rydal Hall near Grasmere, overseeing the extensive restoration of the gardens which had been designed by Thomas Mawson. Here he developed a self sufficient community vegetable garden within the old kitchen garden.

A mixed borderA mixed border

‘It was a very exciting if not somewhat daunting challenge - different to this one though! When I applied I didn’t think I stood a chance but the two year project, although a huge learning curve, was extremely satisfying,’ Tom said.

He then went to Newton Rigg in a lecturing role and was there when, in 2009, they took on the nursery, which is known as Abi and Tom’s Garden Plants at Halecat, a business surrounded by ancient woodland on the Witherslack Estate

Abi, the daughter of now retired doctors, gained her passion for gardening when she was eight on discovering she could dig up plants from her parents’ garden and sell them back to them. Since then she has never stopped growing and propagating. While still at school she met up with hardy plants nurseryman Rob Hardy at the RHS Tatton Flower Show and he invited her to go down to Hampshire and spend some time working in his nursery. While at Oxford University studying for her biology degree she took every opportunity to work on projects linked with the botanical gardens there.

‘During this time I met Tom and we both dreamed of running our own nursery. On our many visits to the Lake District we often visited Halecat and said it would be amazing to get hold of the site, never believing our dreams would eventually come true,’ she explained.

Tom Attwood and Eric Robson opening of Rydal Hall 2007Tom Attwood and Eric Robson opening of Rydal Hall 2007

They took the tough decision to close the nursery for two years while they cleared the site. ‘I can’t believe how many bonfires we had,’ they both laughed. During this time they were also working full time to help fund the project.

They wanted the nursery to feel like a garden where people could see plants growing as well as knowing they had been grown here and they would survive whatever the weather threw at them. They now have nearly 750 different varieties, varying from the most compact alpine to those demanding a large stage from which to be seen. For them it’s a truly uplifting experience watching the progress of a seedling develop into an adult plant and one they will never tire of.

Despite a dearth of income during the winter months, the dogged determination of people to buy plants in the spring brings the business to life for the couple, who have an 18-month-old daughter. Tom said: ‘A local sheep farmer told me that we were in a similar game to him, though our flock shuts down for the winter and his doesn’t. Sometimes, this thought keeps me going if I feel like a grumble.’

A growing knowledge

Tom and Abi hold half day and full day workshops at Halecat Nursery, Witherslack, Grange-over-Sands, LA11 6RT. These are practical hands-on days from propagation, seed collecting to pruning. Courses for the rest of the year include: ‘Walk on the Wildside’ Saturday 26th July 10.30am to 3pm; ‘Juggling the Herbaceous Border’ Saturday 9th August 1.30pm to 4.30pm; ‘Planting Like a Professional’ Saturday September 13th 2pm to 4pm; ‘Reap What You Sow’ Saturday 20th September 10.30am to 3pm. Numbers are limited so you need to book. Tom also gives talks. Telephone 015395 52946 email info@halecatplants.co.uk.

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