Horticulture Week Podcast transcript - Legendary plantsman Adrian Bloom

Below is a transcript of the Horticulture Week podcast with legendary plantsman Adrian Bloom.

With more than half a century of plantsman's knowledge and a VMH in 1986, legendary plantsman Adrian Bloom has reissued his book Bloom's Best Perennials and Grasses 10 years after its first publication.

Bloom discusses the value of the plants highlighted in his latest book, of Bressingham introductions to the gardener and plantarea manager but warns that there are "far too many" new plants being introduced these days.

HortWeek editor Matthew Appleby and Adrian discuss history of Blooms at Bressingham, its 2026 centenary and a wide range of matters of horticulture interest, including his international perspective from his US experiences and his appeal for grafters to not be lost to gardening.

TRANSCRIPT

Speakers:

Matthew Appleby (MA)
Adrian Bloom (AB)

MA: Hello and welcome to the Horticulture Week podcast. I'm horticulture week editor, Matthew Appleby. And today I'm with the legendary plantsman Adrian Bloom. Adrian has more than the half a century of plantsman's knowledge and was awarded a VMH in 1986. He has reissued his book Bloom's Best Perennials and Grasses 10 years after its publication.

And in it, he chooses his favorite perennials and grasses, and includes a a hundred page directory. And it's both a practical guide and a coffee table book. So welcome, Adrian.

AB: Thank you. Matt.

MA: Excellent. Now I just wanted to ask you, how did you go about choosing all those plants? You had 400, you had 60 odd and you even whittled it down to the small number of 12.

AB: About 2010, the Encyclopedia of Perennials, which is a very good reference book, came out and it had 5,000 different perennials and grasses in it. And I thought, well, great as it is, it's not an ideal thing for somebody who's perhaps a beginner gardener and wants to know what they should plant is going to have success in their garden.

And so I felt that perhaps it would be a good idea to select a more limited number, hence going for initially 64 plants, although I didn't actually count them out. One chapter's called Take 12 and that was just 12. I thought it would be a bit of a challenge to choose 12 plants that more or less gave you a year round colour, and this is just with perennials and grasses, not with any woody plants at all. That isn't to say that one shouldn't mix annuals and perennials and grasses of course have continued to be popular into the present time, very much so.

MA: Can you tell us a bit more about those 12?

Yes. I probably can't remember them in order, but some of them like the grass, Hakonechloa macra 'Alboaurea', that has, summer-long interest from its foliage, bright golden yellow varigation, good in a pot. And Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. That's a plant that, I've used a lot at Foggy Bottom and elsewhere. And so you've got two plants there that have foliage for a long period of the year. 

Bergenia 'Bressingham Ruby' is another and Helleborus orientalis or hybridus is for the spring. So it's having them overlap and join up. Things like, Miscanthus 'Morning Light', as well as the Panicum, and of course, Geranium 'Rozanne' had to be there.

MA: So tell me a bit more about Geranium 'Rozanne', now that's a big name plant which sells many, many thousands. Do you think that type of plant is having more influence these days?

AB: Well, I think it's got to, It has to be on everybody's recommendation list. We were instrumental in introducing it when the breeders in Somerset came to me or sent me the plant and I had it for a few years looking at it and just thinking it was a better plant. And when it was introduced in 2000, I called it the plant of the millennium, and there's no reason after even 20 years to think that it isn't still that plant.

And I'm looking at it at the moment, here we are getting towards mid-November, and it's still in full flower, so quite an amazing hybrid that. So whilst we perhaps owe something to breeders today who are doing something more studied, that was a more or less of a chance seeding and if they hadn't really brought it to somebody who was able to introduce it, then it may never really have found the place in garden history that it deserves.

MA: I think the RHS branded it as the plant of the millennium too so I think you're right there. Now the book is useful for professionals too, for plant area managers would you say?

AB: Well, I think it is and that's one of the reasons that I had it reprinted under Foggy Bottom Books. The rights reverted to me and I felt that it still had a still fairly well up-to-date. And the advice, as one reviewer said, was timeless.

And I think that there is a case for certain books perhaps having a longer period than the publishers would be able to give them. Everybody's looking for the new as they are with plants and so I think that having it republished is useful and I think probably it would be useful for plantarea managers because, again, if they need something that they recommend to customers, then hopefully this would be helpful in that direction.

Otherwise, most things are bought on impulse and, they wouldn't be necessarily recommending, every week or every month through the summer, something that just happened to be in flower.

MA: No indeed. So what has changed in the decades since the book was first published do you think?

AB: I think, as with many other things, there's probably been more of a change towards bigger outlets, bigger retail garden centre chains. Probably the whole of the new plant breeding side has become, in the hands of some of the bigger distributors of young plants, across the world really.

And who knows what either Brexit or COVID will have, what sort of effect it will have on that? Obviously, we are facing the Brexit problems of export and import which are going to be quite a problem for the trade at the moment. So I think after COVID too, there's been an appreciation, I think, of horticulture, gardening and so on, but whether that will be translated into more success for garden centres and so on I'm not sure. It's an area of some turbulence. I'm not quite sure where it's going to settle.

MA: Do you think new plants are coming out as strongly as, as ever? or will they next year after the pause with the pandemic?

AB: I think it does seem to still have some resonance with the public and the RHS plant of the year.

I think if we were to look at some of the plants that have won it, and some of those that have been sent in, I'm not sure how many of those have actually stood the test of time. Not many, I think. And of course they have to be looking their best, ideally around that sort of time, May, which means they have to be forced or they have to be held back or whatever in order to show them.

So I think new plants are there, but I think of course they have also been overdone and I think there's far too many new plants coming out all the time, so much so that if you had the national collection of Heucheras, you'd be tearing your hair out I think. With 20 or 30 varieties coming out each year, it's just impossible to to really decide on which are the best ones. It's only over a period of time that you can start to select those, by which time it goes, some of the best ones may not have made it and maybe chucked out.

MA: No, it is useful that you have selected the best, with all your experience. Now, the people who don't know you are who you are - I don't know who they would be - but can you tell us a bit about how you got into gardening, to horticulture and into plantsmanship. What's what's your background?

AB: Yes. Well my father, Alan Bloom was very well known for introducing perennials and he knew from the age of 13 or 14 years old what he wanted to do - to grow perennial plants, not just cut flowers and so on. And so he started a nursery in 1926 with his father and then moved to Bressingham in 1946.

We had two years in Canada and came back and he had to rebuild the business. I went to school locally. I had been dragged around a bit around nurseries and was not particularly interested in horticulture, but didn't know what I wanted to do. So after working at home on the nursery - we already had 70 employees at that time - I went to the US on an immigration visa in 1960, had a couple of years out there doing all sorts of different jobs, ended up by trying to sell encyclopedias in San Francisco and thought that maybe I better have a go at horticulture after all. I came back, worked in Denmark and Switzerland, mostly on perennial nurseries, and then came back in 1962 to join the company, which was of reasonable size and a specialist in hardy, perennials.

I wanted to add something different to the business, which was conifers and heathers, which I thought would offer year-round interest and appeal. And so I sort of developed and built up that side of the business. Also we were among the first to introduce new plants and patent new plants and that sort of thing.

And then we started a mail order business - I'm probably getting too complex - and the wholesale business grew and we supply garden centres around the UK. So I think it was a lucky time in a way that we were developing alongside many other nurseries. The garden centres, of course, grew tremendously quickly all over the country and so the business grew behind it. I think it's quite a different matter these days.

MA: It's certainly a very famous name. What have you got now? People know the Blooms of Bressingham name and the Bloom's name. So what belongs to you and what is now sold into other areas of the industry?

That's very good question, and I know if you listen to almost anything these days, somebody says, well, that's a good question. But anyway, we sold the business back in 1997 to company called Flying Flowers. We got an offer we couldn't refuse, sort of thing. And I really have no regrets, although it did have a long-term effect on our business. People still associate us with Blooms of Bressingham, and that was basically sold and taken over by this company who then got into financial problems themselves and sold various bits of the business to others.

So we still had 400 acres of land and also had the gardens and we had the original company that my father began called Bloom's Nurseries Limited, which actually is coming up for its 100th anniversary in 2026. And what my father did was start the gardens at Bressingham, in 1952, I think it was.

Then I started a garden called Foggy Bottom in 1967. So we've got in total about 17 acres of gardens, and it's quite unusual for probably nursery people to actually have gardens and be so dedicated to the plants that grow in them. But I think both of us in our way, wanted to test and increase our knowledge of the particular plants that we grew and show ways to grow them and so on.

They are probably underestimated, to some extent, as to the interest there is in the gardens. There's about 8,000 different Taxa in total and that's keeping us more than involved.

My elder son, Jason is in the business, managing and running the much smaller nursery now. He does some wholesale to garden centres, particularly the plant-orientated garden centres of which there are fewer and fewer around. But also we do a mail order business that we're developing more, under the Bressingham Gardens name. We've also diversified into weddings and events at Bressingham Hall and also the Barn.

So we've got something that hopefully will help the cashflow out a little bit, a more balanced business than perhaps many nurseries in particular, because garden centres are diversified of course.

MA: It's certainly a very interesting portfolio that you've got. And I guess the mail order side is, is doing pretty well at the moment as it is doing across the industry.

AB: Yes it is. And I think that what we want to do, and to some extent what we did years ago, was to bring the gardens more to people. Technology is there now. If you check on our website, you can see the gardens and that was something that wasn't available two years ago - and always social media and everything else of course, so you can reach across continents in a way that you could never do so before.

So although there's threats and changes, there's also opportunities. And I think that the modern technology has got a tremendous opportunity for us to try to bring attention to people, to gardeners, but hopefully try to encourage more people into gardening.

Which is another aspect that I've been interested in; trying to get more people  interested in switched on to gardening.

MA: Well, as we've heard you've always been quite an internationalist in terms of gardening. How important do you think that is, to have that international perspective?

AB: I think I've always felt it was important. And it was perhaps because I was abroad a couple of times when I was younger.

I was interested in the American market and of course the Blooms of Bressingham brand was something that I started with our business and also goes with some of the new plants. Remember Potentilla 'Red Ace' that we introduced back in '76. That went global rather than viral, perhaps.

But that pushed us forward with introducing new plants and gave us much more of a contact with people in other countries. And I certainly felt that, we shouldn't allow what my father had developed, with the Blooms plant, go without at least an attempt to have the Blooms of Bressingham brand, and some of the perennials that he introduced, introduced into America at the same time.

So I did go over there two or three times a year for 20 or 30 years, and I think we built the brand up reasonably well, but I think it was not sustainable in the way that it was done and probably needed much more financial clout than we were able to have. But I think that it helped get our name there.

Of course, with the gardens as a centre we do get many visitors, but not that you could rely on that particularly in the last couple of years.

MA: Well it certainly is a famous international name. Can you name a few more of the greatest hits, plant introductions that you've had over the years?

Well, we've had some successes and some failures. I think my father certainly had a one or two things that don't have the Bressingham name: Crocosmia 'Lucifer', which most people would know among all the Crocosmias there are, that was one introduced in 1966 and it went, of course, across the world.

And I'm not saying it's necessarily the best, but it's still the one that's offered by nearly every catalogue that's going. Of course in the early days, there were no plant breeders' rights, no patent and so on, but that one would have perhaps just helped us out with a few royalties at certain times.

'Red Ace' was one. Potentillas have sort of somewhat disappeared, interestingly enough and that was a big hit for us. We followed it up with Phormiums from New Zealand and they had their day as well. We had a few hard winters that sorted them out to some extent.

And and then there was another one that we introduced, which was a Bachelor Golden Cloud. It is still a good plant. They're still doing very well here, but it wasn't a garden centre plant and I remember sending it out to garden centres and of course the wind blew it over, the sun scorched the leaves and in no time it was looking pretty sad and sorry for itself.

But then we, we certainly introduced plants on behalf of other people. Hebe 'Margaret' was one and of course Geranium 'Rozanne' was very much another, and that has been probably the greatest success of all. It's good to garden with some of these things.

I think we were probably the first to have Cornus 'Midwinter Beauty'. I've always been interested in the year-round garden and plants that perform at that time of the year and so the Cornus really have become quite popular over time. And I think if you get with a good plant, I've tended to not, as you do, so often with an impulse plant, it's a new plant, you try it out and then you find out that it's not really that good over a period of time. But some of those that I've put in the garden here, like Hydrangea 'Annabel' as well as the Cornus and so on, I find more and more uses for them. So, you know, if you've got a bigger garden you can make more impact. But you could scale down, for instance, the Cornus 'Midwinter Fire', the Ophiapogon and also the Snowdrop 'Galanthus S. Arnott' - which is one I have split and divided over the years - those three plants could grace any particular garden or even into a patio container and that's something I've done too.

So I've always tended to think mainly because we had a mail order business and we were dealing with the public through garden centres, that if they could see something, get  ideas about a combination that might work in their garden, that's really one way to get some inspiration over to the public. And hopefully would gain from that and try them out and have success.

MA: Now, it did strike me that you talk about year-round interest on like the sort of Chelsea Flower Show 'moment-in-time' gardens. And that certainly comes through in the selection in the book. Now you've also mentioned a number of upcoming anniversaries. You've talked about 1962 when you started in the business. So it be 60 years next year and 2026 will be 100 years. Have you got any anniversary plans or any plans in general you can tell us about?

AB: We initially, as regard the anniversaries, I hadn't really triggered 60 years, but I suppose it is a sort of anniversary of sorts having joined the company for that long. 

The 2026 one, we're working on that at the moment. I think most companies, our own included, probably we never had time or never thought. You're always looking forward, you're always trying to manage for the day. And therefore you tend to, unless you're extremely profitable and therefore have plenty of people on your payroll looking at the history of the nursery or a garden or plants and so on, has not been something that we did be a top priority,

But we have got quite an archive and I'm trying to get together an archive, which we would have available in 2026, which would hopefully place the Blooms family - from my father and grandfather for that matter - into the 20th century as perhaps a nursery that was involved all the way through from say 1926 all the way to the end of the century and saw some of the changes happening. We were involved in some of those and I think that that would be something to be able to have enough information catalogues, etc. to be enabled to make a display and show at that time. So, you know, there isn't a budget for it, but we were looking at ways that we might be able to finance something like that.

MA: That archive certainly sounds very valuable. Now a couple of last things. You are looking for people who want to graft conifers. Is that right? What can you tell us about that?

Well, perhaps as one does get older - although one doesn't want to accept that necessarily - but you do see changes in the industry and it seems like on an educational front, the propagation front, that the grafting of conifers in particular, but many other plants too, is a declining skill, and particularly in this country.

I think it's probably the same in other countries too. But they started in a bigger way than most of us because years ago we used to get all the grafted plants from Holland or from Germany or France for that matter. But most of them still come from that area.

I think there were a few nurseries started up over here and did some grafting, but it can be hit and miss, and it's a bit slow in order to produce something. And then of course, you've got to charge a high price. There is a demand, but it's a limited demand perhaps. But I know that several conifers I have, which would only be propagated by grafting, if I have to get rid of them, there will probably a very few around elsewhere. So I don't think that it's going to be possible necessarily to think suddenly that we can get people in grafting over here; there's got to be a need for it. I think the industry as a whole, we'll probably lose if we don't have somebody who's able to graft and introduce some of those things, particularly as with Brexit and the plant health thing, it will get more difficult rather than easier.

So I I'm certainly sorry to see that disappearing and we'll be writing on it, but it may be, if anybody is out there, within the industry is very keen on grafting or has the knowledge of it, would be good to know.

MA: Let's hope that skill can get passed all. That'd be a really valuable legacy now. It's been fascinating talking to you Adrian but we always ask all our guests the same question at the end, and it's a really hard one for you with your vast knowledge of plants, but we talk about your 'desert island plant'. If you had to choose just one, what would you take away with you?

Yes, well that would be that way is obviously quite difficult, if you consider the desert island. Well, I tell you what I would probably go for. I mean, you could go for something like Hydrangea 'Annabel'. You could go for something like the Geranium 'Rozanne'. Personally, I think I'd probably go for am Ophiapogan which I know will do fairly well in hot summers and so on and put it in a shade.

It seeds and I would keep sowing, a seed, hoping that we might get some variation in some of the savings that come from it. So it would be something that would calm the nerves. You could put it into the shade and create all sorts of contrasts with other plants. So I think I would probably take that.

MA: It's been brilliant talking to you. And thanks for listening to the horticulture podcast with me, Matthew Appleby, who is being today with Adrian Bloom.

Now make sure you never miss a Horticulture Week Podcast. Subscribe to or follow Horticulture Week Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts or your preferred podcast platform. And if you're interested in producing a podcast with HortWeek, contact me, Matthew.Appleby@haymarket.com.

Once again. Thank you and goodbye until next time!


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