Shining a light on wonderful Thorpe Gardens

4th August

The Thorpe Gardens team
The Thorpe Gardens team

Perhaps like me you have driven past Thorpe Gardens on the road between Horam and Cross in Hand hundreds of times. I live in Hellingly and belong to Cross in Hand Tennis Club so it is a regular route for me – especially in the summer.

Thorpe Gardens is almost apologetic in its marketing – no obtrusive signs like large commercial garden centres which is why I probably hadn’t stopped before. Plus I am always in a hurry to get to tennis!

A couple of weeks ago I was desperate for some tomato plants – I had promised to buy some for my business partner Anna White – co founder of The Heathfield News – for her birthday. I visited the garden centre at Mark Cross and also one in Lower Dicker and the choice was very limited.  I was taking my son to a tournament at Cross in Hand and something prompted me to pull into Thorpe Gardens.

The iconic windmill which is part of Thorpe Garden’s branding

To my joy I found a fantastic selection of tomato plants and they were huge. They were all well priced too having been grown from seed by nursery owners Mel and Paul de Bruin.

Chatting to Mel I found out more about Thorpe Gardens and had a look around this amazing place with an abundance of colour and an incredible range of plants – most of which have been grown on site in the large green houses.

If you are wondering why there is a Windmill in the car park and on the signage – well it’s because the  de Bruin family originates from Holland. Paul’s grandfather came over from The Netherlands in 1955 and the nursery has been thriving ever since.

Trading as a retail nursery, rather than a garden centre, you can expect to find more plants and trees than cake and teas. As well as plants you can find a lovely selection of cards, some designed by local artists, soaps, handcreams  and homemade jams.

Growing most things on site means Paul and Mel can keep costs down. The couple works incredibly hard doing all the work themselves apart from at weekends when they have help from Jaqui.

One of the nursery’s unique selling points is their wonderful cut flowers. Mel, a trained florist (through Plumpton College), creates what she calls ‘higgledy’ bunches from flowers grown on site. They are stunning.  Alongside these there are flowers imported from Holland.  The deliveries mean Mel has to start work at 3.30am some days while Paul starts work at 5am everyday including Sundays as there is so much to do – from watering, to planting, weeding, cutting flowers and general tending – not to mention the admin. There are also deliveries to take care of. He also looks after the bee hives which are situated in a meadow just behind the greenhouses. They are perfectly situated to help pollinate the flowers being grown on site.

The bee hives

Paul has a degree in Horticulture and has been working for the business since he graduated although he has been helping since he was two years old – so horticulture in in his blood. He did have a spell overseas working in apple and cherry orchards which means he has excellent knowledge in this area too.

Thorpe Garden’s customers are a mix of teenagers who love the succulents on offer, to people with allotments, owners of country garden estates and people just popping in to buy seeds.  The nursery has a reputation for growing unusual plants such as Sparrmannia which is like an indoor tree. They also have avocado trees and edible passion fruit plants – I had never seen an avocado tree before! There is also a range of spectacular orchids and scented geraniums.

Some of the seedling flourishing in the greenhouse

I like the fact that Thorpe Gardens takes steps to reduce its impact on the environment – they make their own compost (it’s available to buy but the recipe is secret), collect rainwater which is used for watering and they recycle plastics and reuse where possible. Biological control is the preferred method of keeping pest insects at bay and there is no spraying because of the bees.

Another thing I love about Thorpe Gardens is the ‘plant hospital’. Mel and Paul will never throw a plant away if it is under the weather. It goes in the plant hospital where it gets special attention. Once recovered, plants can be put back on sale again – so there is very little waste and every plant gets loving attention,

A higgledy bouquet

There is always something to do and having worked on the nursery for so many years, Paul knows exactly what needs doing when. He is currently growing cyclamens for Christmas and will soon start preparations for next Spring’s plants.

Paul’s extensive knowledge means people often pop in for advice – sometimes bringing insects in for him to identify. He has taken part in Gardeners’ Question Time events and is always happy to help fellow plant lovers.

When you get a moment pay a visit to Paul and Mel – I can guarantee you will leave with something special. On my last visit to interview the couple I bought the most beautiful variegated Begonia which is currently brightening up my fireplace.