Meeting the taste for herbs: What it's like to run a nursery

By Heather Large | Features | Published:

Whether it's adding seasoning to a bowl of spag bol, soothing burns and stings or attracting bees and butterflies into gardens - herbs have many uses in our daily lives.

For centuries they have been grown for their culinary and healing properties as well as the fragrance of their flowers and leaves.

And today they remain just as popular with many gardeners simply treasuring these multi-purpose plants for their beauty.

Growing herbs is a real family affair for father and son Malcolm and Thomas Dickson who run an award-winning commercial nursery in Stone, near Stafford.

"Herbs tick all the boxes," says Malcolm. "They grow nicely, produce lovely looking flowers, have a wonderful scent and can be used for many things - that's why they are so popular," explains the 69-year-old.

Founded originally by Malcolm, Hooksgreen Herbs began its life growing bedding and other perennials as well as herbs.

This inspired Thomas to attend Pershore College where he worked towards an HND in horticulture before spending time working as a nurseryman in South Africa.

After he returned home to Staffordshire, armed with plenty of valuable experience, the pair decided to specialise by selling culinary, medicinal and aromatic herb plants and seeds in 2005, supported by Malcolm's wife Susie and daughter-in-law Jane.

Since then they've won numerous RHS gold and silver gilt medals, including a coveted gold medal at the 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show after teaming up with The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction, in Cumbria, to create a Peter Rabbit herb garden.


Herbs have endless and universal appeal, says Malcolm who regularly gives illustrated talks to groups and societies around the region.

"People are drawn to herbs because they know they look good and they hear about them on cookery and gardening shows.

"When a chef on a television cookery show mentions a particular herb we often sell out of it because people have seen them use it and want to try it at home.

"After Adam Frost talked about ginger rosemary on Gardener's World and because our website was first on the Google search page, we had 3,000 hits and sold out of all of our stock.


"As soon it was back in stock, it soon disappeared again," says Malcolm, who previously worked in industry.

They offer 600 different herb plants and seeds ranging from well-known varieties such as curled parsley, oregano, thyme, rosemary and basil to Korean mint, used to make herbal tea, strawberry spinach, which has edible berries, and Jacob's Ladder with its attractive foliage.

Pot grown herbs are available in two sizes and are sold through the nursery's website as well as at RHS horticultural shows, major regional shows and plant fairs.

Herbs are often used as a cost-effective and natural way to aid health and well-being such lavender and chamomile for calming, feverfew for relieving pain and high temperatures, houseleeks and aloe vera for burns, stings and skin irritations.

They are often called upon to flavour our favourite dishes and drinks and the nursery is gearing up to launch a new blackcurrant mint, which it has spent the past year cultivating.

Described as an ideal garnish for summer drinks or for making a tasty sauce to accompany roast lamb, it's due to be unveiled at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2019, which opens on Thursday, May 9.

It produces dark green leaves with a flush of blackcurrant colour in early growth and a profusion of tasty leaves during the growing season.

"It has very attractive purple shading on the leaves and there are hints of blackcurrant and spearmint scents.

"We've been cultivating it for a year to monitor how it grows and it's been doing very well.

"It is hardy and like most species of the mint family has a spreading habit," Malcolm tells Weekend.

The nursery is currently in the process of moving all of its potted herbs outside now that temperatures are rising.

Over the winter months they have been housed in the polytunnels and large greenhouse to protect them from the elements.

Herbs thrive in full sunlight and need well-drained soil, Malcolm says. "The main thing is to keep them well-watered but ensure they aren't over-watered,don't leave them standing in wet soil.

"They don't mind being cold and dry but when they are cold and wet that's when they plants will give up the ghost.

"They need good drainage so add grit or gravel to the base of the pot," he explains.

While they rest of us were melting his herbs were more than happy during last summer's heatwave.

"Everything grew very well last summer because of the hot temperatures. The hardest thing was watering because we didn't have enough water.

"We harvest rainwater but because there wasn't any rain we ran out and we had to buy from Severn Trent and it became very expensive," says Malcolm.

Growing herbs is both relaxing and rewarding, he tell us. "If somebody had told me 30 years ago, I would be selling herbs and displaying them at Chelsea, I would never have believed them.

"It's completely different to my life before but it's very enjoyable and it's really relaxing. The growing aspect is very rewarding, watching something grow from a seed and being able to sell it.

"I'm also enjoyed gaining knowledge all the time about the different herbs and learning their Latin names," he adds. .

For Thomas, being able to work outside all day makes it a dream job. "It really doesn't feel like a job, that's the best thing for me. I'm not going to sit in an office all day, I'm going outside.

"I like growing the plants too and going from having something that's tiny to something that's ready to sell in four weeks," say the 38-year-old.

The highlight of the year is attending the different horticulture shows and chatting to fellow growers and customers.

"It's good for us to talk to people to find out what they like and what they are looking for to make sure we are providing our customers with what they want," says Thomas.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.


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