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If you purchase a clematis plant from a garden centre in the UK, then there is around a 40-50% chance that it started life at Raymond Evison’s Guernsey Clematis Nursery. From this nursery in St Sampson some of the finest clematis in the world are created, produced and shipped to garden centres in the UK, Europe and North America.
The story of how Guernsey came to be such an important location for this popular and versatile garden plant dates back to the winter of 1984. Raymond Evison was the managing director of Treasures of Tenbury nursery in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, when the brutally cold winter of 1984 wiped out more than a third of his plants. Looking for a fresh start, Raymond settled upon Guernsey as the ideal location; being so far south and a small island the climate is much milder and the growing season longer (by a month at either end) than on the British mainland, and following the decline of the island’s tomato growing industry there were many empty glasshouses available. He bought one such glass house and began raising clematis, in the first year producing just a hundred and fifty thousand plants. The Guernsey Clematis Nursery now produces and exports in excess of 2 million plants annually, and Raymond has received numerous awards and prizes, including 28 gold medals from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (thirteen of which have been consecutive).
We visited The Guernsey Clematis Nursery in St Sampson just before this year’s Chelsea Flower Show and met with manager Pete Ingrouille to find out more about this incredible success story. Occupying purpose built premises, Guernsey Clematis Nursery’s glasshouses now cover around one and a half hectares (four times the size of Raymond’s original space). It is the third glasshouse built on this land, the first having been one of the earliest multi-spans first designed in 1917 as a wooden glasshouse. That was knocked down and replaced in early 1950s at the height of Guernsey’s tomato-growing boom. The current glasshouse was built between 1999-2005 and was custom built for the Guernsey Clematis Nursery operation. The nursery is exclusively off-the floor production, with potted clematis plants grown on fully mobile container benches so that they can be moved between different climate zone glasshouses at different stages of their development.
“Off-the-floor production is the most efficient, and also more considerate of the environment. We’re very close to a conservation area here and there is no spillage from nursery onto the floor below. We could pack up and move out tomorrow, and there would be no evidence of this growing operation on the ground or in the soil. We’re also self-sufficient in terms of water, harvesting rainwater off our roofs then circulating and re-circulating it around the nursery. Moreover, everything used in production is either recycled or recyclable.”
The clematis plants produced here start their life in a propagation climate zone for the first thirteen weeks, then are moved through a sequence of slightly different climate zones to ensure optimum growing conditions as the plants mature. When they leave the nursery the plants are between 9-12 months old, but are still around a year off going on sale in a garden centre. They are shipped to special nurseries near the final point of sale for this final and less critical stage, with around 50% of the plants being washed free of soil and refrigerated so that they are in a semi-dormant state for transportation to North America.
“We typically grow about 140 different varieties here, around 60% of which are actually bred in Guernsey under the Raymond Evison Clematis brand, although everything is produced in Guernsey by vegetative propagation. These bred clematis are the result of a designed cross-pollination programme that seeks to bring out certain floral and growth characteristics such as the size of the flowers or the number of flowers per plant. Every year we introduce several new varieties to the market that are the result of years of hard work.”
Despite the huge variety of choice available, Paul says that around 80% of their sales are made up of the most popular 20% of the varietals that they cultivate. The search for brighter, bolder colours and the elusive buttercup yellow, and the development of clematis suitable for patio containers and the needs of modern suburban homeowners means that the Guernsey Clematis Nursery will continue to develop new varieties of this garden standard, and export Guernsey-grown produce around the world.