THE EARLY YEARS
Percy Picton was born on 17th February 1904 at The Lee, near Great Missenden. He grew up in the Chiltern Hills, where rolling pastures and wooded slopes were rich with wild flowers. When he was a very young boy he would gather bunches of these flowers and take them home for his mother to identify. British native flowers were an interest that stayed with him throughout his life. By the time Percy left school his desire to learn more about plants went beyond the boundary of those in the family cottage garden at Kingsash. He was the youngest child in a large family and several of his brothers had followed their father in becoming gamekeepers. Percy was ready to follow the same route; but, Mrs Picton decided that the family comprised of sufficient keepers and was determined that her youngest boy must have a different career. So, as the First World War at last came to an end, having claimed the life of one of her sons, she took Percy to visit the head gardener at Boswells, where her husband was manager of the game farm. The lad’s first step on the gardening ladder was in the garden belonging to Sir Thomas Barlow, Royal Physician to Queen Victoria and King Edward V11. The young trainee quickly discovered that a great deal of hard work had to take place before there was time to admire the flowers !
MOVING ON TO GRAVETYE
After a couple of years Percy had gained much knowledge about Fruit, Vegetables and Flowers, including the care of grapes and melons. It was time to move on to a larger garden. One of his brothers was working in Sussex and had news of a vacancy for a young gardener at Gravetye, near to East Grinstead, one of the best gardens in the country. Armed with a good reference from the head gardener and Sir Thomas Barlow and, his own obvious knowledge of plants and gardens, Percy was soon living in the bothy at Gravetye, working for William Robinson, the renowned gardening writer and publisher. At this time the head gardener at Gravetye Manor was Ernest Markham who became well known for his ability to grow the extensive collection of Clematis gathered from around the world by Robinson. With some encouragement from his employer, Markham wrote one of the classic works about the diverse genus. Percy Picton had to learn how to plant, grow, train, prune and propagate Clematis, in addition to knowing their names and what part of the world the native species came from. He fell in love with these attractive plants and they remained as favourites throughout his life. Another speciality at Gravetye was a collection of dessert Pear varieties trained as espaliers, cordons and fan shaped trees on the circular walls of the kitchen garden and other walls around the house and courtyards. Robinson employed an expert from France who came over every year to prune the army of pear trees. Percy learned all about the numerous varieties, how to grow them well, when they should be harvested and how to ripen them to perfection in a fruit store. Pears became and remained his favourite fruit.
Gravetye was the perfect garden for a young plant enthusiast to further his education, based upon the principles of design and planting which were so vigorously promoted by William Robinson. His best known book “The English Flower Garden” was in print for decades in various editions. Percy Picton worked in all the sections of the garden from fruit and vegetable,woodland,rhododendrons, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, heathers, and climbing plants. For most of this period Robinson was confined to a wheelchair. Having observed how quickly his young gardener was progressing he chose Percy to wheel him around the garden and accompany him when other great gardeners and plantsmen came to visit. On such occasions Percy was allowed to take part in the discussions about plants. Trips to many well known gardens also took place. Warley Place, Nymans, Wakehurst and Aldenham were among them. He carefully noted useful information from the owners and head gardeners.
The range of plants Percy became interested in was increased when he made friends with Walter Theodore Ingwersen and his family. Walter Ingwersen (1883-1960) was born in Hamburg and came to England before World War 1, where he started his first alpine plant nursery. This venture was short lived because he was interned on the Isle of Man during the war years. Later he was in charge of the rock garden department at Wisley for a short time, following which he went into partnership with fellow plant collector and enthusiast, Clarence Elliott, at Six Hills nursery. In 1925 William Robinson offered Ingwersen the lease of Birch Farm on the Gravetye Estate for the construction of a nursery for alpine plants. As this work got under way, Percy was sent along to help create the frames and stock beds and erect the alpine greenhouses. The nursery opened in 1927 and quickly became a mecca for the increasing number of people who wanted to grow alpines. Walter Ingwersen and his son, Will, were experts in the art of building rock gardens and travelled all over the country to construct them for clients. Many were notably large features, which are rarely to be seen in the 21st century. Percy frequently recalled Walter’s encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and where they flourished in their native habitats around the world. Will became very well known as a gardening writer. Walter’s younger son, Paul joined the family bisiness and took over completely in 1986.Will Ingwersen died in 1990 and Paul retired in 2008 which meant the end of a much respected nursery business. Paul died in 2016.
In 1933 William Robinson, who had no immediate family, knew the Gravetye era would soon be at an end and joined with Walter Ingwersen to ensure that Percy advanced his career in horticulture. A Herefordshire lady, Miss Diana Hopton, was a customer of the Ingwersens and they had constructed a very large rock garden for her. She was now in need of a new head gardener. Armed with references from two of the great names in the plant world, Percy’s appointment was something of a foregone conclusion. The move to the Welsh borders, where growing conditions were quite different to Sussex, must have presented quite a challenge, as did the responsibilty for the garden and management of several gardeners. However, great improvements were made to the garden at Hagley Park during a six year period from 1934 until the outbreak of World War 11. Miss Hopton was an early member of the newly formed Alpine Garden Society and a keen exhibitor at their shows. As the professional gardener, Percy grew the plants for his employer and many awards were won. It was through attending shows and lectures that he met many other enthusiasts who remained friends in later years. A great feature in the garden at Hagley was the almost essential border of Gentiana acaulis stretching across the front terrace. The idea being to see which of the local gardens could produce the most flowers in each year.
Percy Picton’s pre war years in the (at that time) small village of Bartestree including meeting Joan Everett who became his wife in 1938. Miss Hopton had a small cottage built for them on the Hagley estate. He was an active member of the local club where his prowess at billiards and snooker made him a useful team mate. In common with his father and brothers he was a very good with a sporting shotgun and was often invited for a day’s rough shooting with local farmers. Most of Joan’s family lived in the area and the couple made lots of good friends in the wider community. All seemed to be in place for a long, settled period at Hagley. The first disaster to disrupt the idyll came with the declaration of war in 1940.
Before long the staff of gardeners had been conscripted into the armed forces. Percy went into Hereford to sign up for the army. But, the authorities decided that his knowledge of growing and the availability of suitable land at Hagley meant that he should be producing food. Percy was left with one or two lads, who had just left school, to keep the ornamental garden together and, more importantly, to help him grow large quantities of vegetables and fruit. The boys were willing workers; but, had little or no knowledge of gardening techniques. Percy worked long hours cultivating the crops and teaching the boys. He also joined the local Home Guard and was platoon sergeant. This meant that most evenings were involved in exercises and patrols.
The war came to an end in 1944 with food and most other goods in very short supply, almost everything was rationed. A couple of trained gardeners returned to Hagley and everyone was hopeful that life would soon go back to the situation of the 1930’s. Of course this was not to be. Worse still for all of the Hagley staff in house and garden, Miss Hopton became seriously ill and died in 1946. Her family decided that the estate must be sold and in the interim they were unable to keep any staff on. Characteristically, Miss Hopton had included a clause in her will for a bungalow to be built for each of her two main house staff, who had been with her for many years. Percy was left a sum of money to help him relocate when he found new employment.
Finding a new position was not going to be an easy task. But, good friend Walter Ingwersen came up with a solution, although it was not one which greatly appealed to Percy. Ernest Ballard was an alpine grower and long standing friend of the Ingwersens. He was a member of a large family, descended from the famous canal and railway engineer, Stephen Ballard. The family ran a large fruit farming and canning business on the western side of the Malvern Hills. Ernest had set up his own business as a nurseryman in 1906. From his home at Old Court he specialised in growing Michaelmas Daisies (then members of the genus Aster and now with many species classed as Symphyotrichum). Ballard also had a wide range of alpines for sale, including lots of Ramonda hybrids, in various flower colours. In addition to the nursery field opposite Old Court there were at least three other fields growing thousands of seedling michaelmas daisies as Ballard’s breeding programme progressed. He eventually raised over sixty new varieties. The whole enterprise was very labour intensive and needed about six workers. During the war years the employees went down to one elderly man and a lady who was a family friend. Most of their time was taken up with growing vegetables. As the war ended, Ernest Ballard, now approaching 80 years of age, was in desperate need of a new workforce and a manager to revitalise the business and, hopefully, have time to restore his large garden.
Percy was not at all keen to become a nurseryman, after spending the whole of his working life in private service and being used to the routine and perks. Ingwersen and Ballard were very persistent in their arm twisting and Percy agreed to work at Old Court Nurseries for a trial period, while still living at Hagley. Towards the autumn of 1948 he had decided that Old Court Nurseries could have a successful future and the family moved to Colwall in the same year.
OLD COURT NURSERIES
The most immediate need for Old Court Nurseries was to create income so that more staff could be employed. Re-generating and creating new gardens for clients, within easy range of the nursery, was a good way of doing this as the decade drifted into the 1950’s, because a lot of garden owners wanted to smarten things up after years of neglect. The other matter which Percy took in hand was the sale of Ballard’s new varieties of Michaelmas Daisies. Previously, Ernest Ballard had sold his new varieties when only about twelve plants of each was available. This did not work well in those days before plant breeders rights existed. No sooner had another nurseryman got his horny hands on your plant than he was propagating and selling it. Percy built the numbers up into the hundreds before any new plants went to shows and were sold. Many old customers were amazed to be told they could have as many plants as they wanted, after years of hearing “sorry, that variety is all sold”. Big displays were put on at autumn flower shows, especially those held every fortnight by the Royal Horticultural Society, in their Vincent Square halls in London, Their Great Autumn Show was a major event for Old Court Nurseries, usually resulting in full order books. After the austere years of war and rationing the gardening public were in need of a blast of colour. So, they flocked to Colwall for the open weekends through the michaelmas daisy season. Sadly, Ernest Ballard did not live long enough to see the full glory of the ressurection of his life’s work. In 1951 he moved from Old Court to his cottage at Staplow, in the Herefordshire countryside and, died there in 1952.
For a short time Ernest Ballard’s widow was in charge of the nursery. Unfortunately Marie Ballard and Percy were unable to agree about very few matters related to running a plant production business. In 1954 Mrs. Ballard sold the business to Percy, while retaining ownership of the land, for which Old Court Nurseries were to pay an annual rent. This seemed like a good arrangement. But, it actually led to a great deal of ill feeling when the value of building land in Colwall started to rise. Understandably, Mrs. Ballard wished to profit from her asset and there was constant pressure for the nursery to be moved to a new site. The fields other than the home site were sold. Following Marie Ballard’s death the Picton family were able to buy the site, by means of selling some of the acreage for building.
Michaelmas Daisies were always going to be the bread and butter product for Old Court Nurseries; but, Percy Picton could see the need for some jam on top. He expanded the range of plants into Shrubs, Trees and Herbaceous Perennials. This was the era when flower arranging took off in a big way and many of the plants grown for sale were geared to the people (mainly ladies) who were joining clubs and enjoyed growing their own foliage plants.
Percy was a skilled propagator of plants and produced an incredibly wide range of stock for sale from trees down to tiny alpine Daphne species. He had a wide group of contacts who specialised in growing desirable, often rare plants. Many of them were happy to share their treasures, in the knowledge that Percy would propagate them and make these unusual plants available to the gardening world. Old Court Nurseries became a Mecca for plant hunters. A friend once told Percy that he could make roots grow on a billiards ball. Fairly apt, because he was a skilled billiards and snooker player. He was among the first commercial growers to grow large numbers of coloured hybrid Helleborus. Stock of species and early hybrids came from friends such as E. B. Anderson, Valerie Finnis and Nancy Lindsay. Ernest Ballard’s daughter in law, Helen, had plants raised by Percy and went on to achieve great success with her own hybrids. Helen and her husband, Philip, collected plants or seed from native sources in Europe and Eurasia, adding much variety to the beautiful hybrids available to gardeners.
Before the second world war Philip Ballard often joined his father on plant hunting trips and had developed that very special, keen eye that could distinguish a good and different plant from its host of siblings.Thus, he was well placed to be among the early batch of modern “galanthophiles” with Richard Nutt, Ronald Mackenzie and Primrose Warburg. Philip had a large collection of snowdrops growing in a north facing border, against a wall of his farmhouse, The Old Country. Helen grew magnificent clumps of the first yellow hybrid hellebores in the same border. Ribes laurifolium grew against the wall and Sarcoccoca filled the air with its powerful scent. Two of Philip Ballard’s sisters lived near to Old Court Nurseries and the trio of Ernest Ballard’s children did much to support Percy Picton in his ambition to make a success of the nursery business.
Young trainee workers at Old Court Nurseries were always encouraged to attend day release courses at Pershore College of Horticulture. A few of them might well have been more interested in table tennis and the female students. But, the majority of the Picton trained horticulturalists did very well in their careers. Some became professional gardeners, including two head gardeners. John Richards progressed to run his own wholesale nursery, which is one of the best in the UK.
Percy Picton had several good friends in the world of horticultural education. Clifford Lewis, from Worcester, had an unexpected influence on Percy’s gardening career. Cliff was employed by the county council as a director of H.E. involving schools, colleges, a conference centre and plant production nursery. He also worked with the BBC as an advisor for their gardening programmes. Both men had a special skill in common, they had the ability to hold the attention of audiences when talking about plants and were popular speakers around the country.
At this time, Percy Thrower was at the height of his broadcasting career as the nation’s head gardener. He presented the television programme “Gardening Club” which was broadcast live in monochrome. Cliff Lewis, in his advisory role, was always looking out for new contributors to appear on the programme. He persuaded Percy Picton to create a small border of Michaelmas Daisies in the Pebble Mill studios and join Percy Thrower in discussing their qualities. The two men had much in common, they were both born in Buckinghamshire, were of a similar age and, had followed careers in horticulture from school leaving age. At this time, Percy Thrower was Superintendent of Parks in Shrewsbury, a position he held for many years until he retired to run his own garden centre. He had superb ability as a presenter on radio and television, lectured around the country and wrote many books. The publicity surrounding Percy Thrower made him a good ambassador for the the town of Shrewsbury, as well as the gardening world.
Percy Picton proved to be a natural on television, talking to the camera as if he was speaking to a visitor to his potting shed in Colwall. Just what the programme producer, Paul Morby, was looking for and Percy appeared in more “Gardening Club” programmes as well as some early screenings of “Gardener’s World”. The michaelmas daisies at Old Court featured in the the very first of the programmes to be made in colour. A number of sequences for various programmes were filmed on site in Colwall.
The national publicity was a great boost to Percy Picton’s sub-career as a gardening lecturer. Although, he hated making use of projected pictures and much preferred an enormous cardboard box filled with plant material. The effect was just like a magician pulling an impossible amount of items from a hat. He always had some unusual plants in the box to make sure that the audience were seeing something new and his enthusiasm made people want to grow more plants. The flowers and foliage were usually passed around the audience for closer inspection and given away at the end of the talk. Many people up and down the country can recall rooting cuttings from material acquired at a Percy Picton talk.
In 1975, Percy was invited to take part in “The Garden Game” a BBC television quiz show which was created and chaired by Norman Painting (Phil Archer, in the long running radio series). Percy’s old friend, Valerie Finnis (Lady Scott) and a young horticulturalist, David Poole, made up the team. The programme was produced by Edmond Marshall and ran for five years as very pleasant and well remembered series.
By 1980, with his son, Paul, in charge of the nursery and ever expanding stock garden, Percy was able to spend time visiting his many friends and their gardens. He rarely returned to Colwall without large quantities of cuttings, which he liked to prepare and insert in the mist unit.
In 1984 Percy Picton died, aged 80. The garden with his collection of plants was named “The Picton Garden”. In 1987 “The Percy Picton Memorial Fund” was established as a registered charity to help and encourage trainee gardeners.
Today, Old Court Nurseries and The Picton Garden are cared for by Percy’s grandaughter, Helen. The team includes husband, Ross Barbour and Helen’s mother, Meriel. With father, Paul, still pottering around.