Euro cider-makers help couple's tree business to flourish
IN a near-lifetime in horticulture, Kevin Croucher has done just about everything, from nurturing fresh, growing talent to supplying the country's top garden designers at Hampton Court and Chelsea Flower Show.
He's reluctant to describe himself as an expert and prefers to describe himself only "knowledgeable in his field", adding that there are always things to learn when it comes to trees.
But on arrival at Thornhayes Nursery, it becomes clear why Kevin, and his fellow director, his wife Pat, have a growing reputation for excellence across Britain and Ireland, which is now beginning to creep into France, Central Europe and Scandinavia due to the rising popularity of cider-making on the continent.
The business began 21 years ago when it operated from only two fields with a polytunnel and a van.
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It has blossomed and now stretches over a total of 33-acres, boasting tens of thousands of ornamental, amenity and traditional fruit trees of varying species in a 10-acre production field or in containers.
"Our business comprises one of the most extensive range of trees in the country, and we supply whoever wants them, from an elderly lady who is looking for a tree for her garden to the top designers in the country," with the latest being Christine Cottrell from Bath, Kevin tells me.
He is using a total of 17 traditional apple trees to create a garden to raise awareness of Dyslexia Action at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, which started today.
The designer was aware of Kevin's experience in extensive rearing and propagation of fruit trees – which can top 260 varieties. "We have sent stuff to Chelsea and Hampton in the past which is recognition of what we do. If you grow rubbish, they are not going to ask you to supply them.
"I am 56 now and I started in this game when I was 20. I know a fair bit, but I would never describe myself as an expert. I am knowledgeable in my field," said Kevin.
The nursery is nestled within St Andrew's Wood in Dulford, near Cullompton, and his broad range of trees is also popular among a group of green-fingered ex-pats in northern France who, from time to time, have been known to catch the Roscoff-Plymouth ferry in a van to take saplings back.
"They can't get the quality or the range, so that does happen, and equally we get one lady who travels by ferry from Cork to Swansea in a van to take stuff back. We have a reputation for quality and a wide range, and this lady will order a whole lot of stuff, and maybe from another nursery. She will drive all day picking up plants before going back on the night crossing.
"Last winter, we sent cider apple trees and grafts out to Germany and Denmark as there is a lot of interest in the continent for growing cider apples and I have the biggest range in the country. In terms of mature plants, there are around 50 or 60 varieties of cider apple here."
Besides the abundance of fig, apple and pear trees, a broad range of ornamentals including upright trees for small spaces, evergreen or deciduous hedges, trees for avenues, screening and shelter, and those suitable for being close to the sea or for wet, heavy and dry soils are also available.
As well as aspiring cider producers and keen gardeners, the retail and wholesale business has been a long-term supplier of the National Trust because of the peat-free compost which is used in its containers, as well as London's Royal Parks to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.
Kevin hasn't always run a nursery. Originally from Gloucestershire, he completed an HND in amenity horticulture in Yorkshire before moving to Somerset to work as a local authority tree officer.
He then taught the subject at Bicton College between 1982 and 1991 before deciding he had helped enough people launch their own businesses that it was time he set up his own.
That doesn't mean he has ceased passing on his expertise and a number of courses are run from Thornhayes – from summer pruning to the management of traditional orchards – but they become so popular, they are often over-subscribed.
"We provide an advisory service and run courses. We try to aid and educate our customer base and we are not just here to take their money, which can't be said about all businesses," added Kevin, who also grows vegetables.
There is an arboretum on site where a number of trees are displayed so customers, whether amateur growers or professionals, can see what various species look like which helps them select what is suitable.
Kevin added: "But the weather hasn't helped anybody, farmers or growers, as it has been very cold and wet so stuff is reluctant to grow well. The ground is still very, very cold and we are in the summer and we are struggling to get over 20 degrees Celsius. We had frost earlier in the year and then we had a cold, wet April which didn't encourage anybody to buy and garden centre sales were down. If it is pouring with rain, people don't go out in their gardens."
Kevin didn't disclose his plans for the future but he said the current economic climate was challenging and that businesses often needed to modify in order to survive.
"Nobody could tell me what is going to happen in the next 12 months or two years, unless they are either very clever or very stupid," he said. "The business has succeeded because we have gone with the flow and seen opportunities and taken them, and anybody running a small business has got to do that.
"When or if the euro goes, who knows what's going to happen? We just have to wait and see and act accordingly. I have a rough idea about what I want to do and where I want to go, but it will be tempered by what happens with the euro, so watch this space."