Five magic beans

Like Jack in the children’s story, Steve Hickman changed the direction of his life with a fortuitous swap – although in Steve’s case it was 500 Agapanthus plants in return for a selection of mixed perennials.  After a life long interest in plants starting with succulents as a child; supplementing his income by selling conifers when he was a student at Askham Bryan College in York; VSO in Fiji growing vegetables; and working in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, Steve set up Hoyland Plants with his wife Elaine, selling a range of plants.  Fifteen years ago his daughter bought him a couple of Agapanthus plants, one blue and one white and this prompted the initial batch of traded plants.  Now Steve and Elaine are regular medal winners for their show displays and hold two National Collections, Agapanthus  and Tulbaghia.

Steve Hickman at Chelsea 2011

All last summer on my trips to Northumberland, I tried to visit Steve at the nursery.  But he was always either loading up for a show, exhibiting at a show, or preparing for the next show – starting with the RHS Westminster Show in February through to Courson in October – it’s a full diary.  He suggested that I should come and see him in the winter; there would still be plenty to see.

First of all Steve showed me how he keeps his collection of Agapanthus, at least 3 plants of each cultivar clearly accessioned.

With no flowers to distract me, the variegated leaves of some of the evergreen plants was striking.

Agapanthus 'Blue Horizon'

Steve grows plants in the open, but the stock he wants for propagation is stored in trays and will be split into saleable plants during the spring.

But to get the number of plants needed, tissue culture is used.  Plugs purchased last year may flower this year but will certainly flower next year.  This method of propagation gives disappointing results for variegated plants with only about 50% retaining the variegation of the parent plant, presumably contributing to the scarcity of this type.

Roots on tissue culture plugs from 2011

The plants are kept dry through the winter and just a week before I arrived the watering regime had started.

Steve was given some rare plants by a fellow grower who subsequently lost all of his in a greenhouse collapse a couple of winters ago.  He can now return the favour and fulfil the ‘conservation through cultivation’ remit of Plant Heritage.

Cultivars saved by being shared with Steve

Tulbaghia, is not currently as widely grown and is a member of the ALLIACEAE family so there was a slight wiff of onions in the greenhouse. However many of the flowers are sweetly scented and are a delicate addition to the summer border.

Tulbaghia at Chelsea

Steve has developed and trialled a special high potash fertiliser with trace elements for use on his plants and judging by his show displays it does the job.  I will see Steve again at shows through the summer and now appreciate the back story to this nursery.

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