I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Douglas Bowden, founder of Chiltern Seeds, an extraordinary Cumbrian company dedicated to supplying a vast range of common and rare seeds to discerning gardeners all over the world. It was the CS annual catalogue that really excited me about creating and planting the very large garden I have in the Lake District, making it possible to trial and error my way through raising thousands of plants inexpensively and experimentally.
Chiltern Seeds also recently sponsored all the seed for our project What Will the Harvest Be?, a generous gesture to a project hundreds of miles away in London.
I met Douglas back in 2004, when I was writing an article later published in the Northern Garden magazine. I thought it would be nice to reproduce it here:
A PROFILE of Chiltern Seeds
At the end of last year I spent three months in New York City.
Whilst I had enough fun there to (almost) forget my slumbering
garden back home in Cumbria, the one thing I beat the front door
down to get to on our return was the Chiltern Seeds
I am not alone in my fanaticism for this South Lakeland based company. Exporting to 100 countries, and acknowledged by the gardening cognescenti as the plantsman's seed list, that idiosyncratically-written catalogue, its slim, handbag-friendly format belying its 4000-plus entries, gives little away about the rest of the operation behind CS. My gardening friends, whose questions (like my own) begin with "Why Chiltern when its in Cumbria?" but get considerably more horticultural in flavour, are green with envy as I wind my way out of the Furness town of Ulverston to Bortree Stile, the HQ.
The large Victorian villa which accommodates both the domestic and work life of Chiltern Seeds' co-founders Douglas and Bridget Bowden, is set aloft a hilltop overlooking views to Morecambe Bay and beyond.
It's a blisteringly hot spring day, and co-founder Douglas Bowden greets me in shorts, apologising that his daffodils - that Lakeland stalwart, and the source of most of the very little seed sold in the UK - are already over. A quick glance around has me wondering where the business end of things happens - there's a large polytunnel and conservatory on view but nothing at all resembling a production line fit to service the world's seed-a-holics. As I'm wondering if an underground bunker had been excavated, we make our way steeply uphill by a pretty stream where Douglas has discovered a naturally-occurring deep pink variant of Primula Vulgaris. He's dug some up and is hoping they set seed.
The polytunnel, which is (naturally) brimming with seedlings, is the domain of a fairly recent addition to their household - a gardener, Adrian. It transpires that, what with the business and children.... well, the Bowdens just hadn't got round to really having a garden until now.
The development of their steeply sloping 2 and a half acre site has been the focus of much energy and resources over the last few years, so our next port of call is there. (En route, we pass what looks like a recent, and very tastefully done, extension on the house. "Offices", Douglas says casually, but on a day like today neither of us is keen to rush indoors.)
We make our way down steep steps in a magical woodland area, carpeted with wild garlic and sparkling with fresh young growth "Actually we've just Round-upped all of this" says Douglas matter-of-factly.
We pause to take in the stunning vista of farmland from the foot of the garden, before heading towards the more formally landscaped section of new garden. Douglas is philosophical about the patch of japanese knotweed nearby, musing on the sinister implications of distributing viable seed from the dreaded plant. His conversation is scattered with botanical references but he's no plant snob - though he is a keen plant collector his garden features as many commonplace things such has Euphorbia characas as oddities from the catalogue such as his Zantedeschia 'Green Goddess'.
We make our way up a substantially landscaped slope, featuring slate terracing, raised beds and pathways, built by a local team and designed by its owners with their gardener Adrian. The piece de resistance is a major stepped water feature running the vertical length of the garden, which continues from the stream behind the house at which we began our tour. A coved 'beach' of pebbles on its banks provides one of many charming seating areas. Despite this areas' clear labelling and hospitable landscaping there are no plans as yet to open the garden to the public.
Douglas' enthusiasm for seeds is enthralling, though he confesses to not having sown one himself for years.
Bridget has evidently been busy at it though, as he takes evident pleasure in stocking his garden with 'home-grown' plants ("Think how much a couple of fuschias like that would cost you in a garden centre!") and we both marvel at a 2 year old climbing rose 'Kiftsgate' which has carpeted a good 12metres of wall. Other experiments are always underway, for example in siting two seed-grown olives outdoors, and a stunning patch of 2metre high echium pinnana which have survived our last cold, wet winter. A whimsical crenallated 'tower' offers us a resting place for a birdseye view of the garden, passing by a greenhouse stuffed with enviably ordered seedlings.
The moment has come to see the hub of the operation. Through a door set into the Bowdens' kitchen wall, we find ourselves in the warren of offices which somehow house CS' 25 staff. We pop into the printing room, where an old-fashioned press and type run off CS' unique seed-packets. Upstairs we arrive at the light-filled and airy seed-store, a room the size of a large garage. At first glance, the impression is of a esoteric library filing system, with operatives (no lab coats) flicking carefully over yards of card dividers and labels. After orders are computerised, Douglas tells me, the rest is fairly manual. When I complement him on the CS website (from which around 15% of their orders now come) he tells me he's not too keen on computers, and I can see there's not much they could do to come near the efficiency of these careful staff.
Their busiest time is post-Christmas, when their carefully-timed catalogue mail-out returns thousands of orders dreamt-up in that grey area between Christmas and New Year. Their team can expand to 45 at busy spells, but CS focuses on mail order seed selling, not producing, cleaning or retail. None of these are really viable for such a scale of operation, Douglas tells me.
He is clearly a man reluctant to divide home and work, business and pleasure, but as we continue our tour I realise this doesn't make him a workaholic. His business derives from a boyhood passion for seed-growing, but in fact it was only when his company Chiltern Water Treatment was struggling in the late seventies, that the dining-room table sideline of Chiltern Seeds was born. Based at that time in Surrey (hence the enduring name) the couple decided to relocate and devote themselves to sourcing and supplying the out-of the ordinary seeds they loved. The early days weren't easy, but Douglas now describes seed-selling as a 'relaxed' way of earning a living compared to the water treatment business. He manages to balance his clearly encycloepaedic knowledge with a laymans attitude to gardening and plants, saying that he's 'fed up' of Chelsea (but loves Kew), and doesn't fancy plant-hunting as a holiday as he's not that dedicated.
Over a cup of tea in the living room, I compliment him on those idiosyncratic catalogue entries so beloved of CS fans -an example, characteristically witty but not without pathos 'Magnolia campbellii....Such glory takes many years to achieve but, an object lesson, had we sown a packet when we arrived at Bortree Stile in 1980 (seems but yesterday!) we would have something marvellous to look forward to to this spring - we didn't and we don't! " He concedes that he enjoys the sourcing and describing of new items the most of all aspects of the business and cites a heavy US tome 'Cornucopia' from which he derives much advice on edible plants. Cunningly, if a plant is shown to be edible it escapes VAT, so his scholarly curiosity accompanies a shrewd business sense, confirmed by his dedicated lobbying on the subject of US export legislations. Sales are stable, he says, despite TV makeover shows making seed-sowing look like a very distant cousin to the plants shoe-horned into the average suburban plot.
Being someone whose hobby became their business, he has no plans to retire and still delights in extolling his passion to all - a recent member of his family sowed their first tray of seeds recently and phoned Douglas to share his excitement at their germination. He was delighted of course, but "I didn't like to say that sowing radishes in a seed tray wouldn't end well...."