Now that is a question! How do you en-masse a collection of over 600 different varieties of Pelargoniums? A collection that to this day, is still growing!
Well read on, this is the story of how the oldest dianthus nursery in the UK suddenly also became a pelargonium specialists, with an amazing collection of varieties most of which you are unlikely to find in any garden centre.
Our Pelargonium collection was started by Jack Cox - who is Jack Cox? I hear you ask, well he is my Grandfather, and just in case you don't know who I am, well I am the current owner of Allwoods, my name is David James and this is my story....
Jack Cox lived in Oliver’s Battery on the edge of Winchester, so named as it was associated to the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s siege of Winchester in 1645.
Jack was a commercial nurseryman and on his retirement he expanded his passion for growing, he loved plants and became a keen amateur grower and exhibitor for societies ‘BEGS’ (British & European Geranium Society, now known as ‘PAGS’ Pelargonium & Geranium Society). He exhibited at various shows and won countless awards and even bred a few himself, in particular that we still grow are Jacey and our newly listed variety Downlands - This variety has even more special meaning as it is the name of the school that all my children have attended!
On Jack's death in 1972 my parents Derek & Janet James took his collection of pelargoniums back to their small 10 x 8 greenhouse situated in the back garden at Harefield and as with all hobbies it expanded, we had to move to a house with a bigger garden and found a former pub called “The Vernon Arms”, and so a family of four children living in a de-licensed pub with a back garden filled to the brim with glasshouses – no ball games were allowed!!
Mum then left her teaching job to take on nursery growing full time and Dad soon followed after being made redundant from his job as a civil engineering draughtsman, this hobby was now too big and became a business and “The Vernon Geranium Nursery” was born.
In 1984 we moved again to bigger premises and found a site big enough to house the ever expanding collection this was in Cheam, Surrey. It was now too big for just mum & dad so my brother Philip & I got involved and helped with the running and expansion of the nursery and as with all family-run nurseries other members of the family got roped into help and soon my sister Liz and brother-in-law Richard became permanent staff on the nursery.
Then back in 1994 by chance conversation I heard about the imminent (possibly permanent) closure of Allwoods and couldn’t let that collection just end so I decided that working on the Vernon nursery was great, but being surrounded by all my family had it’s moments! so I took the plunge and set off on my own and bought Allwoods.
This worked for both companies really well. Allwoods is a long standing world renowned firm and Vernon's became Europe's most famous Geranium nursery, the range of varieties were unsurpassed and they were an amazing firm, unfortunately time doesn’t stand still and my parents, who were now well into retirement age and suffering some ill health and neither my brother or sister wanted to carry it on so the decision was made to sell the Vernon business.
A buyer was soon found – ‘Thompson & Morgan’ – the deal was done in 2010 and the The Vernon Geranium Nursery was no-longer a part of our family. Thompson & Morgan were mainly interested in the huge database of customers that Vernon's had and not the plant collection.
So most of the amazing collection of plants were left behind in Cheam, the greenhouses were left in disarray and there was no-one but my elderly parents to look after them and the plants suffered – this is when we got involved, we couldn’t stand to see this amazing range of plants be left to go to dust so we said we would take over what was left of the plant collection and incorporate it into our business – it took a week, making 3 to 4 trips a day for us to transport the pelargonium plant collection to our nursery. However there was an added complication as we at that point didn’t have a greenhouse big enough to house them so we had to expand our growing area (and quickly) and added an extra 100 x 120ft greenhouse and hoped that would be big enough.
We also got lots of pots, trays and boxes (well after 25 years of trading in Cheam they had amassed quite a lot of stuff!) so we had the daunting task of emptying the nursery at Cheam this took many skips and umpteen trips to the tip.
But on the plus side the amazing Geranium collection that my grandfather originally started came into being at Allwoods and remains in the family! And what a collection it is, some 600+ different varieties from tiny micro-miniatures to varieties that can grow into standards and all sorts of colours & scents and yes like my grandfather we keep adding to our collection by breeding our own new varieties, in 2016 we launched a brand new Regal Treasured Memories in memory of my wife’s father who passed away after his short battle with Pancreatic Cancer. And in the Autumn we launched our new dwarf zonal Allwoods Lemon Drizzle a stunning buttermilk yellow flower on low compact foliage.
This autumn we have several newly listed varieties being added to our range from the award winning scented leaf variety Orange Fizz to something a bit more flash there's Chelsea Morning or Good Vibrations that ticks the box, check out our website for our full "newly listed" varieties.
But where’s Vernons? We here you cry… well after several years of Thompson & Morgan trading as The Vernon Nursery we believe they have now closed the firm down as we cannot find it anywhere and there is no mention of it on their companies pages. So we are even more thankful that we were able to rescue and maintain the original collection of plants my grandfather and parents spent years tending and nurturing especially as some of these varieties date back to the 1700 and 1800s and if we didn't keep them going they could be lost - forever!
Well that just leaves me to say thank you for taking the time to read this – I don’t often get the chance to write as I am usually down in the greenhouse, so I’m making the most of it!
I hope you found it informative and enjoyable and would welcome any feedback.
Derek & Janet James had four children of which David is the youngest son, his passion for growing plants started at a very young age, and after his Mum & Dad put a greenhouse for the ever increasing Pelargonium collection on his vegetable plot in the garden, he had his own allotment in the local village at the age of 14. This passion for growing has continued and he is never happier than in the greenhouse or with a cup of tea (or both!!).