Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Percy Picton

Percy Picton A.H.R.H.S. died, aged 81, in October 1985 after a lifetime devoted to growing plants professionally.
His career started in Sir Thomas Barlow's garden near Wendover,he then spent 15 years working at Gravetye Manor for William Robinson,the influential gardening writer and publisher. This was the period when Ernest Markham was the head gardener at Gravetye. Markham's enthusiasm for and knowledge of Clematis was passed on to the young journeyman gardener and love of the genus stayed with Percy throughout his life.

The great alpine plant grower, W.E.Th.Ingwersen was looking for a site to start an alpine plant nursery. His friend, William Robinson, made Birch Farm on the Gravetye estate, available. Percy Picton spent much of his spare time helping with the setting up of the new nursery and learned a great deal about alpines and how to grow them from the expert of the day. He always mentioned his tremendous respect for Walter Ingwersen's encyclopedic knowledge of plants.

Both Robinson and Ingwersen recognised that the young Percy Picton was a plantsman in the making and gave him every encouragement during his time at Gravetye. Percy was a member in the early days of The Alpine Garden Society and soon made contact with many of the best growers and exhibitors at shows and lectures. This specialised interest served him well when Miss Daisy Hopton was looking for a head gardener to take charge of her extensive garden in Herefordshire. The garden at Hagley Court included an enormous rock garden built by Walter Ingwersen. Prompted by Ingwersen and armed with a glowing reference from the great William Robinson, Percy Picton became head gardener at Hagley in 1934.
The garden contained very large herbaceous borders, rose gardens, trees and shrubs and a substantial, walled, fruit and vegetable garden. The conservatory held a Lemon Tree which supplied fruits to the Hereford hospitals during the second world war. Of course, Miss Hopton's main interest in growing and exhibiting alpine plants was the most important part of the work for Percy and his team of gardeners. At flower shows he met more and more of the country's growing number of alpine enthusiasts and widened his friendship with many who visited the garden at Hagley.When Miss Hopton died in 1946 her family decided to sell the property. Walter Ingwersen again took a hand in Percy Picton's future. The World famous breeder and grower of Asters (Michaelmas Daisies) Ernest Ballard was also an expert grower of alpines and a great friend of Ingwersen. Ballard's nursery in Colwall, on the Herefordshire side of the Malvern Hills, had suffered from lack of sales and staff during the years of the second world war. Ernest Ballard was in his 70's and needed a younger man to manage his nursery and put it back on a sound business footing. Since alpine plants were an important part of the Old Court Nurseries stock, alongside the asters, Ballard and Ingwersen considered that Percy Picton would be the ideal man for the job. Their candidate was not at all convinced, having spent his whole career in private service, running a commercial nursery would involve a very different style of work and format for growing plants. Eventually, he succumbed to the persuasive overtures from the two older men and, in 1947, began the task of revitalising Old Court Nurseries and the fortunes of Michaelmas Daisies.

Ernest Ballard had continued with his lifetime's work of raising new Michaelmas Daisies and several fields in Colwall held thousands of seedling plants. In the first September in his new post Percy helped Ernest Ballard select promising plants and in the following winter started the process of propagating large numbers of the few showing enough promise to be put on the market with names. By the autumn 1951 'Red Sunset' and 'Eventide' were displayed en masse in the nursery and exhibited at London flower shows. Such was the appeal of these varieties that all the available stock was booked within a few weeks. Ballard had been accustomed to selling relatively small numbers of each variety and was amazed to see thousands of plants leaving the nursery fields during the winter months.
Percy Picton started to introduce a wider range of saleable stock to Old Court Nurseries, including trees and shrubs and herbaceous perennials. This led to an increase in sales within the local area. In turn some of these customers wanted their gardens landscaped and planted. This became a profitable area of trade including many people who were seeking the highly specialised work of constructing rock gardens. Under Percy's tuition, many young workmen on the nursery, learned how to correctly place the various different types of rock garden stone.

Ernest Ballard died in 1952 and his widow kept the nursery until 1956, when the business was sold to Percy Picton.

From 1948 until the late 1960's Michaelmas Daisies enjoyed an even greater popularity than they had achieved in the 1930's and crowds flocked to Colwall each autumn to see the colourful display. Then, within the space of two years, interest in asters vanished as far as the general gardening public were concerned. Shrubs, conifers and heathers became the rage. Percy Picton was not daunted by this dramatic downturn. He simply turned his propagating skills to producing more of the plants the public wanted to buy. In fact he went a stage further and created a demand for the more unusual and rare varieties which were not widely available for sale. Through his contacts with growers (private and commercial) he was able to build an unique stock of interesting plants. It was not long before customers came to Old Court Nurseries asking to see rare and unusual plants. No one went away disappointed and a good many filled the boots of their cars. Most of the great gardeners and plantspeople of the day visited Colwall and enjoyed talking about plants with "The man who could make a billiards ball grow roots".

During his years at Colwall Percy Picton undertook the judging at many local flower shows. He, also, built a reputation as an immensely popular speaker about plants and how to grow them. He hated to use slides and a projector, always preferring to use live plant material in season to illustrate his talks. Famously, his specimens were contained in a giant cardboard box and as the evening progressed it seemed that it was a magic box incapable of becoming empty. His down to earth and amusing presentations spread his fame afar and his lectures covered most of the country.

This special skill of imparting his love and understanding of plants to an audience brought him to the attention of the producers of television gardening programmes. He appeared with Percy Thrower on "Gardening Club" when the programme was still transmitted in monochrome. Then, when colour T.V. came in, the asters at Colwall featured in the very first gardening programme in colour. In the 1970's, Percy Picton enjoyed making two series of "The Garden Game" with his old friend Valerie Finnis and Norman Painting keeping order as chairman.

Any visitors to the nursery in Colwall, who showed promise as good listeners, could spend many a happy hour in the propagating house and around the stock beds,as Percy aquainted them with the good qualities of each plant.One of his great missions was to encourage young people to take an interest in plants and possibly become skilled at growing them. He had long associations with horticultural education in Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

Since moving to Colwall, Percy Picton took an active part in organising the local flower show and in his later years was president of the Wyche and Colwall Horticultural Society. Following his death, the Society founded a registered charity called The Percy Picton Memorial Fund. The charity is linked to Pershore College of Horticulture, now part of the Warwickshire group of colleges. Monetary grants are available to students residing in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, with preference given to those in the Wyche and Colwall area. There is, also, an annual Percy Picton Prize. More details can be obtained from the college or Old Court Nurseries; or, by writing to the Secretary of The Percy Picton Memorial Fund, Mr. D. Hodgson, Phelps Cottage, Coddington, Near Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 1JH

List of pictures from the top:-
1. Percy Picton 1974
2. William Robinson at Gravetye 1930's
3. Hagley Court 1938
4. Aster novi-belgii 'Marie Ballard'
5. Percy Picton taking cuttings in Old Court Nurseries
6. from right to left. Percy Picton, Sir David Scott, Valerie Finnis, Arthur Branch

Clematis 'Percy Picton', seen below growing in a Colwall garden, was a seedling from Gravetye, brought to Herefordshire by Percy Picton in 1934

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating, coincidentally before contacting you Paul I had just been in the garden admiring my Oxalis magellanica which was sadly one of the last plants W E Th Ingwewrson sold last year before the nursury closed. I am particularly interested in Birmingham horticulture history and you may be interested to know that Percy Thrower lost his job at the BBC for advertisng Clifford Cultivators -- my website

Best wishes JP