When Laura and Jack Willgoss met as horticultural trainees at RHS Wisley back in 2006, they didn’t think they’d be winning gold medals at the prestigious RHS Malvern Spring Show. The couple, now married, dreamt of owning a specialist plant nursery and beautiful garden, and that dream has virtually been realised. The walled garden at Millichope Park is still being transformed, but the two now run Wildegoose Nursery in Shropshire and attend a series of gardening shows around the country annually from spring till autumn. This year is an especially exciting one for them. Spurred on by their Malvern success, the couple will be exhibiting at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and have been busy propagating, pinching out plants and moving them in and out of polytunnels to encourage peak performance come late May.
Rather than sell a large range of plants, Laura and Jack have chosen to specialise in violas, and now offer over 180 different varieties. They were first attracted to these diminutive perennials on a visit to a local nursery. Though it sold all manner of perennials, their spring trip revealed an impressive display of violas with smiling faces and a cheery disposition. The couple avidly began collecting varieties – specifically hardy, perennial varieties of Viola cornuta and other viola hybrids – initially from this nursery, and then from Bouts Cottage Nursery. This was home to an impressive collection put together by Mark and Stephanie Roberts. Since 1978, the couple had dedicated their lives to ‘all things Viola’, preserving rare and endangered varieties as well as introducing many new ones. Mark and Stephanie retired in August 2011, and Laura and Jack were delighted to be asked to become custodians of this precious collection. The couple are keen to add to it with new selections of their own. ‘Violas are very promiscuous, and are constantly cross-pollinating, so we’re always on the look-out for chance seedlings,’ says Laura.
Hardy violas make excellent companions for other cottage garden favourites such as geraniums, scabious and astrantias. They naturally form dense mats of ground cover and so have frequently been used as an under storey for roses and other summer-flowering shrubs. Laura and Jack are also experimenting with more contemporary combinations with short grasses such as Hordeum jubatum and Stipa tenuissima. Having evolved as a meadow plant, Viola cornuta grows short stems to hold its flowers above the grass. It can begin flowering from March and, with proper treatment, continue right through until September. With varying parentage, the flower colour can vary enormously and be displayed in a range of speckles, stripes and bicolours. The blooms are edible, and so Jack and Laura often combine their plants in vintage or terracotta pots with salad leaves and culinary herbs. As well as being useful for decorating salads, the flowers can be crystallised to be sprinkled on top of cakes, or frozen into ice cubes for summer drinks. Many selections are scented – generally this is reminiscent of honey, though hints of vanilla, clove and even citrus can also appear. The plants take well to growing in containers, making them popular choices for those of us with smaller gardens.
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How to grow hardy violas
Pot cultivation is the simplest method: ensure your container is large enough to keep the roots consistently cool and moist. Use a loam-based compost with extra grit added to ensure sharp drainage.
Both sandy and clay plots can be tolerated provided ample organic matter is added to the soil. Any light level is acceptable, except deep shade.
Feed plants with a balanced liquid feed at the beginning of the season and then, as summer emerges, with a high-potash formulation, to encourage maximum flowering.
Trim plants back in mid June, once blooms naturally begin to fade, then water and feed well. Within two weeks they will be back in flower. Cut back in early autumn, too, as this ensures compact plants the following spring.
Jack and Laura’s viola collection can be viewed, and plants purchased, at numerous events this year. For details of shows that they are attending, visit the nursery website at www.boutsviolas.co.uk