Interview - David Clark, former managing director, Notcutts Nurseries

Former Notcutts Nurseries managing director David Clark will be given the RHS's highest accolade, the Victoria Medal of Honour (VMH), at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show on 2 July. Only 63 horticulturists hold the VMH at one time. Clark is known worldwide as a plant propagator who helped develop container production in the 1960s.

David Clark, former managing director, Notcutts Nurseries - image: Top Floor Studio
David Clark, former managing director, Notcutts Nurseries - image: Top Floor Studio

Q: How influential were you in introducing container plants to the industry?

A: I think Bypass Nurseries in St Albans, which is now nonexistent, was accredited with starting the trend in the late 1950s. Notcutts started quickly after, but I wasn't working there then. We took it up at Blakedown, where I was working.

Q: How influential was container production?

A: It was certainly influential. The 1962-63 winter was incredibly hard and did a lot of damage, and that set the container industry on its way because winter went on to the end of May. With potted plants available to sell, it was the beginning of the growth of the container industry

Q: What developments have you seen in the industry?

A: There have been massive changes. Obviously, garden centre groups continued to grow, but the whole industry suffered around 2000 with competition from Europe - not just Holland but eastern Europe - when the pound was reasonably strong.

Q: What are the biggest changes you saw in your career?

A: There were incredible changes, especially in the early days. Even then, we were using supplementary lighting to improve tomato growing. We grew a wide range of plants and made our own composts from stacks of turf. There was no polythene then so it was all glass, which is remarkable when you think of the amount we use now. The introduction of mist propagation was important and the first herbicides were a drastic change. Container production coming in was a big change too. It is good to see the continued introduction of new plants. In those days, relatively few people were actively breeding new shrubs, but in recent years that has increased. The majority of plants that I'm associated with occurred as sports. With Physocarpus 'Diablo', for example, I found 12 growing on a nursery in Germany and brought three plants back. All the purple Physocarpus originate from them.

Q: Who were the most influential bosses you had?

A: Mr Johnson, who I worked for aged 11. I never knew his first name and he died when I as at college. Also Bob Bent at Blakedown, which I joined after I left Pershore College. He was a great character and such a generous person. I was propagator and at 24 he made me a director of the company. The third was Charles Notcutt. They were all very strong characters but very different.

Q: Notcutts is now solely a garden centre business. How do you feel about that?

A: I was very sad to see Notcutts' nursery close. But it's great that it's John Woods Nurseries now and has gone from strength to strength.

Q: What do you think of the way garden centres have gone since your retirement?

A: I'm sorry to see some of them go so heavily into some goods that are away from gardening. It's interesting to see how some specialist plant nurseries have continued to flourish.

Q: What should garden centres be focusing on?

A: I think it's difficult to get the balance. There are some very good garden centres with very good planterias. It's good for them to maintain the staff throughout the year and to focus heavily on Christmas. That keeps staff employed.

Q: Can you tell us about your work for the RHS?

A: I've worked on the woody plant trials committee at Wisley and enjoyed meeting up with friends and talking about plants. I was very surprised and honoured to be offered the VMH.

Q: How do you see the industry looking ahead?

A: The climate in the UK is always going to be reasonable for container production but it is limited because of the unreliable weather. But I'm quite optimistic. My biggest worry is the number of people coming into the industry and the training. Going back 30 years, there were three colleges with outstanding diploma courses. At Notcutts, we used to have students who were doing their intermediate college practical year out of college. The route I came through produced well-rounded nurserymen with good technical backgrounds and some commercial background. It's a worry where these semi-qualified future managers are coming from.

Q: What sort of things do you get up to now?

A: I'm a member of the Horticultural Golfing Society, which is one of the oldest golf societies in the country, and we play on some outstanding courses each year.


1967-74: Garden centre director, Notcutts Nurseries

1970-71: Chairman, Garden Centre Association

1972-73: Chairman, International Plant Propagators Society, Great Britain

1974-84: Production director, Notcutts Nurseries

1984-99: Managing director, Notcutts Nurseries

1995-96: Chairman, NFU nurserymens committee

1999-2001: President, European Nurserystock Association

1999-2007: Nursery consultant

Current member of RHS woody plant and trials committees.

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