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Garden Centre


Garden designer Ruth Chivers visits two nurseries that are divided by an ocean, yet have more than just a range of exciting plants in common, as she explains.

Although 5,000 miles separate Special Plants and Western Hills Nursery, they have a lot in common. Both have slightly unpromising sounding addresses, the owners are expatriate women propagating in a foreign clime, and they’re both full of wonderful plants.

Special Plants lies between Cold Ashton and Freezing Hill, 7 miles north of Bath. Derry Watkins met her English husband in her native USA, and moved here more than 20 years ago. Coming from a long line of gardeners, she is passionate about plants. Tender perennials are particular favourites, as Derry finds they flower longer than their hardier cousins do. First and foremost, she’s a flower fancier, and grows plants she loves in her small nursery in a fold of the Cotswold escarpment.


Derry has introduced plants discovered on her travels and has a streak of the trendsetter about her that strikes a chord with keen gardeners. She introduced me to Viola ‘Irish Molly’, which visitors to the first garden I used it in were virtually pulling out of the ground. It was her looks that did it - seductive Celtic coppery, yellow bronze tones, and as Derry puts it “can flower herself to death”. It looks great with bronze Carex. Perfectly hardy Diascia integerrima ‘Blush’ was another good find. Special Plants has something for your conservatory, too. Derry’s particularly pleased with Jasminum multipartitum, one of her newer introductions, with sweetly scented star-shaped flowers coupled with shiny leaves on a bushy plant.


Western Hills Nursery is near Sebastopol, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. This is coastal redwood country, and you come across the nursery right at the side of the road through the woods. You sense that something very interesting lies inside the fence. At the gateway, it’s a question of which way to go first. There’s a three-acre strolling garden with paths that meander up and down and around the hillside. Everywhere you look there are wonderful plants, a cultivated jungle. Striking specimens and good associations beckon you from all angles. Maggie Wych, a native of Lancashire who has been here for 18 years, worked with the founders, and now owns this idyllic place.


In 1960, Lester Hawkins and Marshal Olbrich began to propagate plants for their own garden. And from the start, Western Hills has been on the cutting edge of plant introductions. Hawkins and Olbrich were amongst the first to introduce Mediterranean and Australian plants that thrive in the climate of Northern California. Today, the plant list runs to 15 closely typed, double-sided pages and notations include our own Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. It’s an embarrassment of riches, some you recognize, some you don’t. It’s just as well that not all plants are available at all times. Limited to a handful of containers on my apartment balcony, I came away with five small plants, including the delectable Parahebe perfoliata. Ones that I want to go back for include Dichroa febrifuga and Arthropodium candidum, a New Zealand native.

That’s another thing that Western Hills Nursery and Special Plants have in common – they’re both places to visit with as large a vehicle as possible to ship back all the must-have plants you find.

Special Plants
Address: Greenways Lane, Cold Ashton, Chippenham, Wiltshire SN14 8LA
By car: Signposted off the A46, just south of the A420.
Telephone: + 44 (0) 1225 891686
Mail order: 4 x 2nd class stamps for mail order catalogue
Open: March – September, 10am– 5pm daily, usually, but call first to check
Derry Watkins also runs day-long courses on a range of gardening topics at the nursery. Her husband, Peter Clegg, has designed their garden, which opens under the National Gardens Scheme.

Western Hills Nursery
Address: 16250 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental, California 95465
By car: Highway 101 north to Rohnert Park, Highway 116 West exit. Follow 116 through Sebastopol to Occidental Road, Left on Occidental for 5–6 miles, to village of Occidental. Turn right onto Coleman Valley Road – this climbs a hill and the nursery is about 1 mile on the right, with parking in front.
Telephone: +1 707 874 3731
Mail order: No mail order or shipping of plants.
Open: Thursday–Sunday 10am–4pm. Call for winter hours and appointments.

Photograph, middle left, copyright: Simon McBride

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