Picton Garden, Colwall

PUBLISHED: 17:59 29 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Michaelmas daisies

Michaelmas daisies

The Picton Garden is home to one of the world's largest collection of Michaelmas daisies, producing an abundance of late summer and early autumn colour.

The Picton Garden is home to one of the world's largest collection of Michaelmas daisies, producing an abundance of late summer and early autumn colour.

Rachel Crow spoke to garden owner, Paul Picton, to learn more of the history to this colourful corner of Colwall

Photography by Alan Wilkes

The Pictons are busily putting the finishing touches to their garden in Colwall before it opens to the public from August 5. It is only from late summer that the garden's National Collection of more than 400 varieties of Michaelmas daisy begins to come into bloom.

Michaelmas daisies (autumn flowering asters) have been nurtured in the soil at Old Court Nurseries in Colwall since the beginning of the 20th century, starting in 1906 Ernest Ballard began to hybridise new varieties of this popular perennial.

"It was all tied up with the horticultural writer, William Robinson changing English gardeners' views on how they should set out their gardens. Rather than the formal, traditional Edwardian and Victorian gardens, they were encouraged to plant in naturalistic drifts for a misty autumn effect," says Paul Picton, who has been working on the garden and nurseries for the past 50 years, following in the footsteps of his late father, Percy Picton.

Up until the end of the 19th century there weren't many hybrids of the North American Michaelmas daisy, but Ernest Ballard began to notice natural changes taking place in his own garden and hybrids emerging when the plants self-pollinated. Growing newer and newer varieties, initially as a private breeder in a field opposite his home, this was to become Old Court Nurseries when Ernest's family business of cider vinegar production collapsed with the introduction of malt vinegar, and so he instead concentrated his efforts on developing his specialist nursery business, which was to earn him worldwide acclaim.

"Michaelmas daisies were immensely popular because they flower at the end of summer and into autumn when other flowers are fading and reached a zenith just before Second World War," says Paul, whose father came to manage the nurseries in the late 1940s. Percy took over the nurseries following Ernest's death in 1952 and continued to breed new asters alongside developing one of the country's foremost collections of rare plants of all kinds. "In fact, as a personal choice my father was interested in just about every other plant that was not a daisy, so he specialised in producing rare plants of all sorts including trees and flowers," says Paul, who took full control of the nurseries in 1974.

Up until this point a traditional plant nursery, Paul and his wife Meriel developed the Picton Garden in the early 1970s, originally to grow stock plants of the wide range of hardy plants and shrubs collected by his father. "By this time nobody was really buying the Michaelmas daisies because people's ideas of the plants they wanted in their gardens began to change."

But in the1980s, Paul and Meriel: "decided we needed to shake the gardening world up a bit and make Michaelmas daisies popular again."

Using as a basis their existing collection, they started to build upon it, chancing upon two ladies in Bristol who had developed a substantial private collection and gradually added to their own until word spread and they began receiving contributions from as far afield as New Zealand. "That way we got a lot of the old varieties back," says Paul, whose hard work was eventually recognised by Plant Heritage who attributed it National Collection status. "We still breed new varieties and still look for new sorts to put into the National Collection.

"The garden over the years has grown like Topsy and has changed in that it is now principally to show the Michaelmas daisy and the living history of the plants from the 19th century up to present times."

Evolving over several decades, the garden is intensively planted with both traditional borders and areas of more modern and natural planting schemes. More recently, they have planted many specimens of trees and shrubs to create an interesting backdrop to the thousands of herbaceous perennials, including a large collection of Japanese maples and bamboos, as well as creating features of raised beds surrounded by dry stone walls. "We have tried to make the garden interesting for its layout as well as being interesting for Michaelmas daisies," explains Paul.

"My great pleasure is early morning or evening when it's Michaelmas daisy flowering time and it is just one big purple haze in front of you. August onwards the whole garden starts to take shape, although the real Michaelmas daisy doesn't start to get there until the end of September to early October. It's particularly delightful at the end of the day when the sun is low and you get this lovely intensity of colour, even if it's the pale lavenders and whites and violets," he adds.

Now nearing retirement, Paul is hoping daughter, Helen will continue the family tradition. "Meriel and I have enjoyed what we've done and it's nice to think another generation is going to continue it."

Picton Gardens is open from August 5, Wednesday-Sunday and every day in September until mid-October. The garden will be open as part of the National Garden Scheme with contributions going towards the Percy Picton Memorial Fund for horticultural students. For more details refer to www.autumnasters.co.uk or www.ngs.org.uk

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