Former lecturer Jeff Hutchings was a landscape gardener growing alpine plants until he spotted a gap in the market. He tells Fiona Finch how he became the nation’s supplier of an often overlooked plant - the hardy orchid, once a popular feature of meadowland.
First things first - the orchids Jeff Hutchings sells are not those you buy from the supermarket and perch on your window ledge.
While those are very lovely, thank you, Jeff’s specialism is in the hardy orchid - of which there are many species.
The one-time lecturer from Garstang left academia behind to work in horticulture and in so doing discovered a new passion.
He explained: “I spent 30 years lecturing in management at Myerscough College (near Preston) and then decided I had had enough. I got out - I was nowhere near retirement age. I actually set up a landscape business and as a sideline was growing and selling alpine plants. In 2002 one of the alpine growers sent me some orchids and they sold out at a show in one day. I thought this is different ..I thought there was a niche here.”
As a novice orchid grower he embarked on his own learning curve: “The biggest problem was I could get hold of the plants but how did you grow them? It probably took about five years to really get enough knowledge.”
The website for his business, Laneside Hardy Orchids, now allows him to share that hard won knowledge with fellow enthusiasts and his many customers who come from across the U.K. and Europe. He notes: “I am constantly being told by gardeners that they did not realise that orchids can be grown in the garden despite the fact that there are 60 plus species growing wild in this country including more than 20 in Cumbria andin Lancashire there must be close to 20 different ones including the native slipper orchid”
He recalls that information on growing the different genus was hard to find and much related to conditions far different than found in the UK: “It was only by trial and many errors that I found the right conditions and compost for each of the genus I was trying to grow.”
Now his boast is he offers one of the largest selections of hardy orchids for sale in Europe and is called in to advise on and implement planting schemes for meadows, including a recent one further south where the eventual order was for more than 1,000 orchids.
He said: “The first thing I put in were nine European equivalent of the British native slipper orchid to go with bluebells - to bring back memories of when there were bluebell woods around with orchids. I’ve also used ones like Tayblade - a two leaved orchid with a funny green flower which exudes a liquid which attracts all sorts of insects.”
That keen customer has also created a chalk ridge specially to allow the chalk loving plants such as bee orchids to thrive.
His online mail order business supplies hardy orchids for the garden, cool house, woodland or meadow project and he says: “I can now provide customers with quality plants, growing in suitable composts and with written cultivation instructions to help the grower successfully grow their purchases.”
While Jeff cannot sell plants sourced in the wild, his supplies are imported with strictly regulated controls - most coming from six European countries. He is eagerly awaiting a delivery from a new grower in India, but thinks there could be a hold up with permits because the nursery is in the remote Himalayan foothills.
He said: “I can sell our native orchids provided I can prove they have been grown from seed. But the problem is in the UK virtually nobody grows them from seed.”
He says when he set up specialising in orchids he was 57 and reckoned it would have cost a few thousand pounds to buy the equipment to be a successful propagator - even then it is one thing germinating seeds in sterile flasks, another transplanting them successfully. So he sticks to buying the orchids in and caring for them, stressing: “I do not buy in any orchids from dubious sources.”
He says he is also concerned that some supplies of orchids sold online are not so closely monitored and may come with less trackable provenance.
Most of his customers are from an older generation who may well remember seeing orchids growing in the wild: “People brought up in the area somewhere like Garstang will have seen orchids growing in the wild. A lot of my customers are of the older generation they’ve seen them in the past and they’ve now got the opportunity of growing them in their garden.”
Prices start at around £10/12 for more common orchids, with rare ones costing - as in the case of a recently acquired slipper orchid Cypredrum rubunense - a heftier £150.
Jeff had never seen one in flower but has now achieved that ambition.
It can, he says, take some persuading to assure customers to his award winning displays that what they are buying is indeed a perennial hardy plant, for which a conservatory location would most definitely be the death knell.
He said: “The only issue I have up here with some of them is the winter rain. Certain things I would protect with a temporary cover partly to stop them getting drowned - especially last December and January.”
Like all plantgrowers he has stories of spectacular success and stories of setbacks. He reports plants have been put under stress because of the “horrendous spring weather” making some marsh orchids more vulnerable to a fungal rot which is currently the subject of a study by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society).
A customer complained once that some plants were not doing so well and on enquiring Jeff discovered she had taken them indoors, fearing cold freezing weather would harm them.
It was the last thing she should have done as, rather than being mollycoddled, the plant needed to endure the ice (vernalization) to trigger its growth.
He said: “I tend not to have my plants under cover. You can’t take plants that have been mollycoddled in a polytunnel and give them to customers who get them home and plant them out.”
However he acknowledged that at the recent Harrogate spring show he advised customers not to plant out their orchids until the weather improved.
This Saturday Jeff will set up stall at the North Of England Orchid Society’s monthly meeting at Barton Village Hall, visitors welcome from 10.30am - 3pm, on May 14 he will be at popular Alpine Garden Show in Southport and later this month extolling the virtues of orchids in a special weekend event at Lullingstone Castle in Kent where he has supplied orchids for a new meadow project.