Interview - Derek Spicer of Kilworth Conifers

Derek Spicer, the owner of Leicest­ershire-based Kilworth Conifers, has grown and sold conifers for more than 40 years and has now used that experience to write the first comprehensive encyclopaedia on the subject, the RHS Encyclopedia of Conifers.

Derek Spicer, owner, Kilworth Conifers - image: HW
Derek Spicer, owner, Kilworth Conifers - image: HW

What can you tell me about your new book?

I felt the book is something the garden centre trade would like. I’m always being asked if there is a reference book and there wasn’t one. All the old ones selected certain cultivars and illustrations and left lots of gaps.

Was it seven years’ work or a lifetime’s work?

For the last two-and-a-half years I’ve been flat out, sometimes from 6am-11pm, doing all the checking of names. I wouldn’t have started if I’d realised. But on top of that it’s a lifetime’s work. I needed all that experience to be able to make judgements.

How did you get started in the industry?

I started in 1969, running the nursery under my own name, and changed to Kilworth Conifers a few years ago. I trained as a botanist — I did a botany degree at the University of Leicester, when you could do botany degrees. You can’t do them now. I did an MSC in taxonomy and while doing that I worked in a foundry and was a scrap-metal buyer.

How was this month’s HTA National Conifer Week?

Not as good as usual. One or two people came to me at the National Plant Show and said they would be ordering in the autumn but when it came to Four Oaks and Glee they said they were not going to bother because they had still got stock in. The other trouble is they haven’t got any money. A lot of garden centres didn’t sell much this summer and are being a bit cautious. But National Conifer Week has been very good for the last few years and was not bad this year. I’m usually flat out in autumn but I think it’s going to tail off a bit quicker this year, though we’re still putting orders out. We make nearly two-thirds of our sales in autumn, which is totally different to other nurseries, which look to spring.

What are your top conifers for a small garden?

It is difficult to choose from so many different ones but my top five conifers would be Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’, Picea glauca ‘JW Daisy’s White’, Picea pungens ‘Glob­osa’ and Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Minima Aurea’.

You are a regular exhibitor at trade shows. How have they been this year?

We reluctantly did Glee again. I’ve been going for 25 years and it’s at a good time for us. But it’s a shell of what it used to be. I remember when it had nine halls and hall nine was nearly all nurseries. The National Plant Show has been good but Glee was suffering anyway, so I’m not sure the National Plant Show is the whole story. At the National Plant Show I don’t take many orders but I don’t expect to because it’s at the wrong time of year for us, but its gives you high profile and the people are sensible and not time-wasters. I did Glas in Ireland too this year, but it’s the same with people with garden centres over there — they haven’t got any money.

Are conifers back in fashion nowadays?

I’d like to think they are on the way up for a couple of reasons. There’s a load of new varieties coming up that are colourful and useful. In the USA, Holland, Germany and Poland, people are quite keen on conifers. But we had spruce monocultures in Scotland and that put everyone off, and the double whammy of leylandii cypress all over the suburbs. So people were against conifers but they have no idea about the new stuff — dwarf and colourful things. I hope they get through and get more popular.

I’m hoping this book is going to create some interest. We’ve printed 5,000 and are looking at worldwide sales, particularly in the USA. The RHS has been very helpful and gave us its best editor/proofreader, Vicky Matthews, who is a taxonomist. I spent hours on the phone in the evenings making sure everything was thoroughly checked. The photographic side was mostly by my co-author, Latvian conifer collector Aris Auders. I made a start on a book 15 years ago, which was mostly text. I met Aris when he came over wanting plants. He’d heard of me and came to the nursery. He did all the design work and 90 per cent of the photos, and went over to China to oversee the first block printing. It’s paid off.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to do a revision in the next five or six years. I think the book will lead to a lot of interest and comment where nurseries and cultivars are mentioned and there’s not a lot of information. Also, a lot of new varieties out there have just appeared and not established cultivars yet, so it will need a revision in the next few years.


1961-64 Botany degree, University
of Leicester

1969 to date Owner, Kilworth Conifers

2003 to date Chairman, British Conifer Society

2012 RHS Encyclopedia of Conifers published, including all 615 species and 8,000 cultivars in 1,500 pages with 5,000 photos (RHS/Kingsblue) — see

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