Keeping the Magic Alive
Graham Gough and Lucy Goffin look back over 25 years of innovation at Marchants Hardy Plants, as they prepare to pass the reins to a new team who will continue its enchanting legacy
The English Garden Magazine, September 2022
When I embarked on my mid-life horticultural career change, I asked garden designer Jinny Blom – to whom I’m tenuously related – for advice. “Jinny,” I said, “I seem to be in danger
of becoming a gardener, can you help?” “There’s only one thing for it, Max,” she replied, “you need to meet Graham at Marchants. I’ll take you.”
And she did. When I set eyes for the first time on this breathtakingly beautiful nursery and garden, cradled in the lap of the Sussex Downs, I felt I had ascended to some heavenly realm. Over a decade later, and here I am helping Graham Gough and Lucy Goffin celebrate 25 years since they found the two-acre site that would become Marchants Hardy Plants. There are mixed emotions today, because the nursery is also marking a changing of the guard as the couple step back from its day-to-day running and contemplate ‘retirement’, whatever that might mean.
Graham remembers the day he first set eyes on the plot. “It had the most amazing view, which we fell for hook, line, and sinker. And the gentle slope down to the bottom of the field; with that I just knew you could make a good garden.” Not that it was all bucolic vistas and gentle gradients. “There was nothing in it,” says Lucy. “There was a lot in it – a lot of weeds!” counters Graham. “And old rusting cars!” Lucy winces at the memory. “And, of course, the wind,” adds Graham. “That wind!”
Thinking back to those early days, Graham insists that the only skills he had were his musicianship (he’d embarked on an early career as a singer in the classical music world, but it had soon begun to wear thin) and being a plantsman, which he’d learned over 16 years at Washfield Nursery alongside celebrated nurserywoman Elizabeth Strangman. “So, you see,
there really was no other option!”
Graham and Elizabeth began experimenting with herbaceous plants and grasses. It was during this time that they went to stay with a relatively unknown plantsman by the name of Piet Oudolf. “This was right at the beginning, and of course Piet rose out of that whole Dutch wave because he had this formidable talent. We saw all this beginning to emerge, a great cross-fertilisation with all those European growers, and it was so exciting.”
Not that Graham wanted to be tied down by this new, naturalistic, prairie-style planting. “I’ve always maintained that this climate in England is so fantastic for plants, so why limit yourself to one style? I think the best thing to say about Marchants is that it has always been eclectic.”
Just a year after Graham and Lucy had acquired the land, the fledgling nursery opened to the public. A year later and they also had a garden. “I literally mapped out and shaped its contours with a lawnmower,” Graham says.
Trying to distil what it is that has made Marchants stand out from the crowd for the last quarter century is a complex equation. But for Graham and Lucy it boils down to three main things. First, they have always propagated all their own plants, something that is becoming increasingly rare among nurseries. Second, the garden is ostensibly one giant stock bed from which the nursery takes cuttings,
collects seed and makes divisions. Again, quite rare.
Third – and to my mind most significant – Marchants is about an aesthetic, an artistic sensibility born of a singular vision. Everything
is touched by it. The garden, whose painterly combinations of herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses create layer upon layer of movement and texture, colour and contrast, builds to a late summer crescendo as the paths close in and the plants reach skywards with vertiginous vigour. Swathes of long grass and sensitive meadow plantings. The sine-wave curves of box, beech and
yew hedging that echo the contours of the Downs. The nursery itself, with its own artisan vernacular. And those views. It all adds up to something special – which is no accident: “I wanted to work at the idea that this would be a beautiful place to visit,” says Graham. “Obviously, it was also about making a living, but it was the aesthetic that motivated me.”
If this all sounds rather romantic, Graham and Lucy are quick to remind me that it has also been a lot of hard work, beset with the challenges that have faced all nurserymen and women over the
past decade, from shifting tastes to climate change and economic
uncertainty. Hearing Graham and Lucy’s story, of how they shaped
this nursery and garden from a wild Sussex field into a thriving business, I suggest that their recent decision to hand over the reins to a new team can’t have been easy.
“We’ve been very lucky really,” says Graham, “because we’ve been able to remain in the place that we love and choose the team who will
take Marchants forward.” The pandemic, which ironically gave the nursery two of its busiest years, also saw new blood arrive, including professional gardener Henry Macaulay and long-time Marchants devotee Jean Christie. Together with nursery manager Hannah Fox, who has learned her craft at Graham’s side over the past eight years, these three are the new linchpins of the Marchants management team, ably supported by a small, dedicated group of volunteers.
What will it be like to have to fill such big shoes? For Henry, “It’s a bit like being given a Ming vase to hold,” – a rare privilege but also a huge responsibility. That said, they are determined to experiment and move forward. “We want to introduce new plants, to keep it fresh and exciting,” says Hannah. In the long-term they see Marchants developing as a place of learning and skill sharing. It’s also about becoming a beacon for sustainable horticulture in the era of climate change, Jean tells me: “We’ll think hard about what direction
gardening takes now.”
“We all talk about the magic of Marchants,” says Henry. “You expect a certain standard of how things look and feel; people come for that as much as they do the plants. It’s part of the experience, and we aim to keep the magic alive.”
I imagine for Graham and Lucy, that this must be music to their ears. “It’ll be a big learning curve,” reflects Graham, “but they are continuing our legacy; the Marchants ethic and ethos remain and that’s what’s important to us and our customers.”
Marchants is famous for its propagation of exciting new cultivars. Here are five of Graham’s favourites
I was introduced to these wonderful plants early on, and the love affair has continued ever since. I recommend Agapanthus ‘Marchants Night Sky’ – so dark you can’t negotiate with it
in a border – and the brilliant, rich blues of our ‘Fox’ series.
I’m particularly proud of Salvia ‘Marchants Chalk White’, a chance seedling with large flowers in white – actually quite a rare colour for this genus.
From the beginning, we led the field with these striking, clumpforming, meadow plants. Our elegant Sanguisorba ‘Burr Blanc’ is hard to beat for a white variety.
We’ve received three AGMs for our sedum selections. My own Hylotelephium ‘Purple
Emperor’, with its deep maroon leaves and clusters of pale pink flowers, got the whole scene going.
These ‘society garlic’ are loved for their small lilac, purple and white flowers, which bloom for ages. Tulbaghia ‘Fairy Star MK II’, with its pale pink, star-shaped flowers, is my pick.