In the grounds of Powderham Castle, the ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Devon, just south of Exeter, the gardener, author and television presenter Toby Buckland has found a dream spot. There is a beautiful walled garden, replete with Victorian glasshouses and sheltered, south facing beds right on the edge of the River Exe which he and his partner Lisa are turning into their lifelong ambition: a plant nursery.
“I had been looking for land for such a long time,” Toby told me as we had coffee together in the café near the current plant shop, “but it is genuinely difficult to find a spot that has all the right conditions and is not invaded by rabbits.”
One day he happened to be attending an event at the castle when, in conversation with one of the organisers, they mentioned that the walled garden was available. It only took one look for Toby and Lisa to realise that all their hard work and searching had come to fruition and The Toby Buckland Nursery at www.tobybuckland.comwas born.
Standing inside Toby’s enormous glasshouse you realise immediately that he is a very keen foodie and cook: lemon grass, chillies, tomatoes, herbs, strawberries and even bananas plants grow in abundance out of the soil that he has brought in to start his plantation off.
“When I first arrived it was absolutely boiling hot in here, and the quality of the soil was quite poor, so I did wonder how anything could grow. But now all the air vents are open and I use the hose pipes to water and cool everything down,” he told me.
He sits on a giant pumpkin, nicknamed “Priscilla” to have his photo taken and I do all I can to stop shaking with laughter. He started it off from seed, and it has just grown and grown to the circumference of a wagon wheel. It cannot be taken out of the greenhouse because it is now too wide, so will probably be cut up and eaten for Halloween. He even wrote a Blog post about it, to tell others how they too could grow a similar one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/gardening/2011/08/growing-giant-pumkins—part-2.shtml
Toby is back doing the job he loves the most: being a plantsman, a nurseryman and a grower. His horticultural training spanned years at Bicton College in Devon, Hadlow College in Kent and Cambridge University Botanical Gardens, after which he worked for television, wrote for gardening magazines and was the author of five gardening books. But he has never lost the love of grafting and experimenting in the garden: he is first and foremost a practical gardener.
“I think that maybe one of the reasons why my gardening media career has lasted so long is because I offer people useful, practical, technical advice on how to grow plants more successfully. I have always tried to de-jargonise the science behind horticulture, to pass on skills and knowledge and to confer passion and enthusiasm. I really do believe that inside all of us there is a gardener. We can all grow our own food, flowers and shrubs if we put our mind to it.”
At first the nursery will run through its online platform, but as he and Lisa, assisted by a new apprentice, work to create new beds and more potted plants for sale, the public will be able to visit the walled garden and buy plants directly from the polytunnel.
“ We are going to start with ornamental plants at first, but the plan is to also offer fresh herbs, fruit and vegetable plants as well as orchard trees. Powderham Castle is home to an entire food making machine: there are really beautiful Victorian kitchens in the Castle which are used for demonstration workshops for schoolchildren; the River is a source of salmon, trout and oysters, there is shooting on the estate and in the olden days, of course, the walled garden would have produced food for the whole family and their staff.”
The walled garden is shared with a whole menagerie of ducks, geese, chickens and aviary birds, and Toby really enjoys the camaraderie of working with the Castle team. He is by nature very open, chatty and friendly. I ask him whether, when he is on a train or going round the supermarket people feel they know him, and come right up to ask his advice about their plant troubles. He laughs,
“Yes, they do just that! People think that because you have been on the television, they know you, because you have been “in their home”. I enjoy it, though, to tell you the truth. It’s all about the banter and the personal interaction for me. Gardening is core to so many people’s wellbeing and sharing a love of plants connects people. That is what I am looking forward to most in opening my new nursery.”
He uses Twitter to keep in touch with gardeners who are either unsure or struggling, “It provides me an immediate and international insight into what other gardeners are experiencing: they can ask questions and I can get a really good overview on what sort of issues they are tackling in their everyday allotment or back garden activities.”
As Toby has met lots of different chefs in his career, he is full of ideas for recipes and special hybrids to go in particular dishes:
“This year my Padron chillies, my Apero small cherry tomatoes and Newton Wonder apples have all been such a great success. I really love hot and spicy food, but I also have a very sweet tooth. I love all the different chutneys and pickles. We travelled to Italy this Summer and I love looking to see what other gardeners are doing whenever I go abroad, to expand my repertoire and learn new ideas.”
He is looking happy, healthy and energetic as he shows me all the plants he is getting ready for sale and points out his embryonic plans, designs and initiatives. Born and raised just a few miles down the road, this Devon boy has come home to a corner of paradise that is as beautiful to look at as it to eat from. Foodie gardeners have something really special to look forward to: a centre of excellence within one of Britain’s finest stately estates.
Toby Buckland’s website: www.tobybuckland.com
Follow Toby on Twitter: @TobyBuckland
The Toby Buckland Nursery
The walled garden
Devon EX6 8JQ
Powderham Castle website: www.powderham.co.uk