I was super lucky to have a half day tour of the Hillier growing site in Hampshire with Charles Carr recently, as we checked production, chatted about new plants and bestsellers, and also checked out their growing for the BBC Gardeners World Spring Fair at Beaulieu.
I’ve written about their new introductions for 2023 over on my substack, but we also wanted to give some old favourites some much deserved airtime. Hillier now have 22 garden centres, which they grow exclusively for. All plants grown in Hampshire are peat-free and with biological control at the forefront of everything they do; sensors keep greenhouse plants growing successfully and efficiently by monitoring moisture, temperature and feed levels. Not only does this site keep the garden centre fed with top quality plants, but they’ve also begun offering through an online shop too.
Sophora ‘Sun King’
One of those plants that you probably recognise but can’t name… A plant that Hillier introduced in the 90s after it oddly appeared in a packet of Nothofagus seed. Believed to be a hybrid between two Chilean species, and remarkably hardy, even bouncing back if parts die off. Just be patient with it during May!
Why don’t we plant more of this beauty?? It blooms from February, has a frothy exotic appearance, and can be wall-trained or allowed to find its own way! All it needs is a bit of sun… like me during a prolonged English spring.
Pieris ‘Flaming Silver’
A perfect performer for that uninspiring shady spot, especially if it stays moist during the summer. A quite familiar sight on the garden centre bench, and probably as popular in spring as Hebe are in summer, especially for first time garden centre visitors. Most may not realise that Pieris needs an acidic soil to thrive, so many first timers might come unstuck when they re-pot for the first time.
But, blimey, it’s just so lovely – I can’t decide which turns me on more – the lily-of-the-valley type flowers or the new foliage shimmering in pinky-red…
Quite new to be on a ‘bestseller’ list, but this well-behaved Eucalyptus is remarked as being the neatest on the nursery. Charles and I also discussed whether it could be used for topiary, since Box is becoming a thing of the past.
With a top height of five metres, which is actually short for Eucalyptus, it’s also hardy down to -20C, which I think should be ok for UK gardeners.
If you prefer, Lamprocapnos (thanks to a recent name change), but either way this ‘Valentine’ is a gem of a plant. I actually spotted it from afar and urged Charles to take our 4 seater van on a short detour. It’s a shame the spectabile species only flowers for a blink-and-you-miss-it season, as the red etched stems of this variety make it a real standout, especially as blooms have a deeper tinge too.
Selected in The Netherlands a few years back, and great for a woodland corner, sprinkled with tulips and promiscuous forget-me-nots.
My 10 year old self would be quite excited at seeing ‘Candytuft’ all grown up, as a cutting-raised specimen, on the commercial stage. A plant that Charles and the team had wanted to hybridize for years, without success. Finally, they just left a few plants in a greenhouse with some maggots bought from the fishing tackle shop, and the flies subsequently carried out the pollinating magic.
A cracker of a border plant, with a seemingly endless flowering season. It’s a frothy filler for almost anywhere! Like a rent-a-crowd type of border plant, if you will.
Hydrangea ‘Runaway Bride’
You can read more about this amazing Hydrangea here, but it’s a winner from all directions. A great looking plant, especially on the garden centre bench, an excellent, memorable and ultra descriptive name, and something very different for a Hydrangea.
Bred in Japan, from the same stable as Petunia Surfinia no less. ‘Runaway Bride’ OBVIOUSLY scooped Plant of the Year at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years back. It kept selling out on QVC, in garden centres, and was always top of Google (mostly as people searched how to prune it!).
‘French Bolero’ is it’s (kinda illegitimate) brother, which does all the same, but in pink!
Polemonium ‘Bressingham Purple’
A flowering plant where I’m not bothered if it flowers or not! ‘Bressingham Purple’ is a selection of oft-overlooked perennial Polemonium. Kinda iridescent foliage, sexy ferny and purple. Flowers contrast amazingly with their cobalt blue tone.
Although a popular cottage garden plant, I wouldn’t kick this out of a flower bed full of the usual bedding, or even a concrete flower planter. This plant is epic, in other words.
Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.