The couple is well known in the horticultural world for their entertaining and knowledgeable talks, and are always ready to offer tips and suggestions of new and old plants, how to grow them and their uses. They extol, for example, the many varieties of basil – Sweet, Greek, Purple and Thai – and exotic herbs such as Vietnamese coriander. They also recommend Stevia (rebaudiana), a sweetener substitute. Stevia can be up to 150 times more intense than its counterparts, including aspartame, saccharin and sugar, without the latter bad health side-effects. Stevia leaves can be added to hot or cold drinks. Another useful herb, they advise, is Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata), much valued for taking the acidity away from preserved cooked fruits.
Bearing in mind the waterlogged soils of many parts of Sussex, the couple suggest growing herbs in raised beds or pots, reminding us that most herbs don’t take much space. As for ornamental grasses for difficult soils, they suggest Stipa tenuissima and Stipa arundinacea, two plants which have been quite in vogue recently for their beauty and long lasting displays.
Arthur, a former surveyor, started in the 1980s growing tomatoes and traditional cooking herbs. Over time, the hobby “grew out of control” as their range quickly expanded. Soon they were cultivating parsley, thyme, chives and basil beyond the growing season. Innovation for them is a key-word. Nowadays the nursery is well-known for its plant breeding project and holds rights over a dozen plants. It started a decade ago ago when they found the secret of growing from seed plants of Pennisetum x advena “Rubrum”. As a hybrid the plant should have never come true to type, so they raised different plants which were then put forward for selection, for which three varieties were chosen.
These were tested for three years to ascertain whether they were reliable to type in readiness for production. The grasses were released a couple of years ago,
and work carries on to try to find additional varieties.
Arthur says: “When I first started I had people wanting information on how I was doing things as they were unable to raise plants from seed. Some even bought plants off me thinking I had found varieties which produced seeds that were easy to germinate.”
The hard work has paid off and the three new varieties of Pennisetum – “Chelsea”, “Knightsbridge” and “Mayfair” – are now registered as Highdown’s creation. All have striking purple coloured foliage and a more elegant and compact habit than the originals.
Besides Pennisetums, the nursery has also introduced and holds patent rights for dozens of other plants, including several thyme. Among these, worth mentioning are “Orange Spice” and “Highdown Lemon”, with lemon or orange-scented leaves and striking flowers which last over a long period, from spring to summer, and are loved by butterflies and bees.
Other than breeding and propagating new plants, Arthur and Janet are also keen plant hunters, travelling all over the world seeking new varieties. In 2015, they visited Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Given their expertise and passion for horticulture, one can expect more unusual and fabulous plants from far afield.
Highdown Nursery is open to visitors from March to October.
New Hall Lane, Small Dole, near Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9YH