Ravenscroft, who ran the country’s biggest garden centre from 1963-2006, when he sold to Wyevale, has set up Cherry Tree Arboretum & Nursery on 20ha next to the Bridgemere site. He plans to use proceeds from selling grafted trees from the arboretum to keep the business going in the years to come.
Q Why are you working so hard on this new business now when many people would be contemplating retirement?
I would regard it as a really significant achievement in my life if I could get this viable before I drop off the perch. I’ve never had any other interests. This is something worth doing and I hope I can find a way. My children are in London, Holland, Essex and Australia, but that’s an excuse. I really do the magnolia grafting because I love doing it. I hope to find garden centres that really appreciate what it actually is.
Q Why did you choose magnolias and unusual oaks?
Gardeners could have much more fascinating stuff than they do. The only reason why they don’t is because it has not been on offer. The quality of magnolias today is hugely different to years ago. Because they’re grafted they are tolerant to different soil conditions and they flower at a younger age because we take them off 10-15-year-old plants rather than from cuttings.
Why not have a magnolia where most people have a crab or cherry? They flower from March until mid May. Spring frosts do damage them, but they damage most things. The breeding has been in California and now New Zealand. Their climates are ideal. There’s not much European breeding. The market in the USA is much bigger than here so it’s slow for them to get distributed, but we’re aware of many different varieties there now. We will be producing 3,000-4,000 a year and as many again in trees.
Q Why are garden centres not offering these trees already?
An offering like this can lift the tone of the garden centre in an age when everywhere is selling the same thing. Plant articles in the consumer press are not necessarily being met by the trade. The main reason is because of the investment it takes. We have been in production here for four years and have been here for seven years in total, and sales are only just getting going. If you weren’t rather obsessed like I am, you wouldn’t do it.
Q How do you feel about garden centres now?
People go to garden centres to have their spirits lifted and if it’s just products in rows and no-one talks to you it’s not the same experience. Garden centres have got more standardised because the number of suppliers is not huge now. There are maybe 10 suppliers in the major crops and with the concentration on stock turn and profitability that will carry on getting smaller.
Q Where is your arboretum stock from?
Many of my magnolia in the arboretum are from the Wespelaar arboretum in Belgium. I have more than 1,000 trees in the arboretum now. Because I’m in a hurry I’ve filled in some places and I can clear them out later. I started planting here six years ago from scratch. We take the grafts from the mother plants in the arboretum. There are two people plus me to maintain the arboretum and I’ll do it as long as I’m fit. I need to make sure there’s sufficient cropping to ensure a good long-term future for the arboretum. Our passion is arboreta. The economics of what we’re doing is very important. A lot of the early stuff came from Bridgemere because I knew I would be doing this. I have magnolias and cherries for spring, wild flowers for summer and autumn foliage for autumn.
Q What were your key points when you were in the process of setting up the arboretum?
The trees must be free of competition and have sufficient space for machinery to get in. The important thing is to keep the views open and get the machines in between. I go to lots of arboreta where you can only see the tree in front of you. I don’t want a National Collection — that would involve more administration than I have the capability to do. We have organised groups round but we can’t do too much because otherwise we’d never get any work done. I come here every day, though I don’t start so early these days. There’s a lot that’s automated here. We have our own borehole and two-inch main throughout the site. The combination of landscape, valley and trees is why we’re so fond of this place. We’ve planted a lime wherever there’s an ash. We’re doing this for generations to come.