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Carnivorous plants snap up another gold at Chelsea

PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 July 2014

Drosera capensis

Drosera capensis

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Andrea Cowan visited Nigel Hewitt-Cooper to demystify the world of the carnivorous plant and find out what it takes to win gold at Chelsea Flower Show - for the 6th time!

Dionaea muscipula royal redDionaea muscipula royal red

When you think of a carnivorous plant you are probably, like me, imagining something that is a tropical plant, temperamental and hard to care for.

Specialist nursery owner, Nigel Hewitt-Cooper, is here to ‘bust the myth’.

“These beautiful plants are completely misunderstood,” he says. “The majority of the 1,000 species that I grow here are pretty hardy and some can be happily planted outside in gardens here in the UK in the right circumstances.”

Nigel has been very successful at Chelsea Flower Show over the yearsNigel has been very successful at Chelsea Flower Show over the years

The market for these beautiful, intricate looking plants is remarkably small, albeit loyal. “I think this is mostly because of the assumption that they are difficult to care for,” continues Nigel as a way of explanation.

“Admittedly you can’t put them in normal compost and give them tap water - there are specific conditions – but once you know what they like, they are really easy to grow.”

They like full sun and rain water, and are temperate: this means that they actually like our fluctuating seasons and enjoy hot summers and cold winters. “If you do keep them as an indoor houseplant, they will really appreciate going out in the garden, or in a cold greenhouse for the winter months where they will die back until the spring.”

So how has a father-of-three, living in a Somerset long house, become such an authority on carnivorous plants? “It’s a familiar story,” says Nigel. “My gran had a greenhouse in Morden and I loved visiting it as a kid. I was always amazed by the diversity of what she was able to grow in that small glass construction! So, having already developed an interest in plants, I was then given a Venus Fly Trap, and that was it – I was hooked.”

A few happy coincidences later, including a friend having a lot of plants they wanted to get rid of, Nigel began to build up his own stocks, specialising in the carnivorous plants that had caught his imagination. It takes from five to eight years to grow these plants from seed so this was not an overnight affair.

Living in Surrey at the time, and growing his plants in two poly tunnels, Nigel was also busy building up his ‘day job’ with his company Expressions Display, supplying modular exhibition stands and portable marketing equipment to the UK market. An online business, it meant he could live anywhere. And so began his search for the right property to bring up his young family and with the space necessary for his plans to expand his specialist nursery.

In 2004 the Hewitt-Coopers moved into the beautiful long house in West Pennard with 1.3 acres of garden.

Wandering around this beautiful gardens and vast green house, I was struck by how stunning these plants are and, now understanding a little more about to look after them, I began to look at them in a new light.

“It’s this reaction that keeps me returning to Chelsea Flower Show each year” says Nigel. “It’s especially effective when garden designers use them in the show gardens.” He is determined to inform and educate people.

“This was my 10th anniversary” he said of this year’s event, which ran from 20-24 May. And he is delighted to have been awarded a gold medal another year running, making a grand total of six, a great reward for all the hard work.

“It is always touch and go as Chelsea is very early in the season for my plants. As they are temperate, they die back in winter and nothing really happens until early April. Each year is different. A grey January means that everything will be late. By the end of February I have to judge if there are any plants that need a little helping hand to bring them on. Additional light and heat will encourage them to spring into action a little earlier than they might have done otherwise.”

To win a Gold Medal at Chelsea Flower Show, a panel of five judges looks at three areas of criteria for each exhibit; the plants themselves; the overall impression and the scale of endeavour. Then 11-12 points out of a maximum of 12 results in a gold.

You might imagine that Nigel would be planning his display for months in advance. In reality, it is slightly less organised.

“The stunning, impressive pitcher plants form the backbone of the display. The rest is rather dependent on what looks good when I’m loading up the trailer.”

So, maybe it’s time to take another look at these fascinating, mysterious plants and perhaps give them some garden space. And with such names as Cobra Lily (or Darlingtonia) and Sundew (or Drosera) it’s hard to resist.

“The only thing I’d suggest is to buy from a specialist. There are a few of us around. This is because they will have been grown harder and are therefore tougher. Mass produced plants from a garden centre will be tissue cultured plants, cultivated in soft grown conditions which means they might not be quite so forgiving. That’s when people become disheartened,” says Nigel.

Nigel is available to talk at WI or gardening club meetings.

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