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Gardening dreams and peonies

Peonies, unusual perennials and Chelsea plans – I’ve been catching up with designer Heath Urquhart about pursuing a dream.

Horticulture is no stranger to career changers but swapping sheep and beef farming in New Zealand for growing peonies in Scotland is quite a transformation.

Plants and growing things has always been a passion for Heath Urquhart but it was his parents’ decision to retire that gave him the push to make the change.

“After a lot of consultation, we decided the best thing was to sell up,” he explains. “I was young enough to change career and it was a good chance to follow my passion into horticulture.”

Heath swapped this for life in Edinburgh as a student.

It led him to Edinburgh for a landscape design degree and meeting Billy Carruthers, through a lecturer on the course.

Billy is joint owner of Binny Plants, one of the UK’s leading peony specialists –it has more than 400 herbaceous varieties alone – alongside other perennials. Heath worked part-time at the nursery between Edinburgh and Glasgow while he studied and still helps out sometimes at weekends, alongside working as a designer with award-winning landscaping firm Water Gems.

The Binny Plants display at RHS Chelsea in 2019

This year, Binny Plants was due to be at RHS Chelsea for the third time and Heath was in charge of the display. It was, he says, going to showcase the full range of the nursery, which stocks around 1,500 different perennials, many of them unusual.

“I wanted to highlight how perennials can be used in a more naturalistic sort of way.”

Heath now works as a landscape designer

The starting point was the idea of a once well-tended but now neglected garden, full of cultivated shrubs and interesting perennials, such as peonies.

“I wanted to show that you can retain those old plants that have been in the garden for years but bring in other things like umbels, grasses and ferns. It adds colour and interest and texture but it looks settled and relaxed like the plants are selecting where they want to be.”

Zizia aurea

Among the plants that were destined for Chelsea are Zizia aurea, a medium-sized umbel with sulphur yellow flower heads – “It’s subtle but also stands out.”

Also planned for the stand were Corydalis ‘Porcelain Blue’, which has vivid blue flowers set against dark leaves and stems, and Corydalis calycosa, which flowers later with rich blue flowers and thick, ferny fine foliage.

“As soon as people see it flowering, it goes out the door pretty quick.”

Corydalis 'Porcelain Blue'

The display will now be staged at Chelsea next year but it’s not the end of Heath’s ambitions for the world-famous show. He hopes to work with Billy make a garden there in the future based on the plants from his native New Zealand.

“Everybody thinks of New Zealand plants and thinks ferns, phormiums, cordylines. I want to get right away from that and showcase some of the more interesting stuff that’s from the hill country on the South Island.

“There’s a huge range of fantastic grasses, shrubs, semi-shrubs and climbers. Even if they haven’t got the mass of flowers that you get from a traditional perennial garden, you can still have amazing and interesting texture and shape throughout the year.”

Heath and Billy Carruthers with Siyuan Ren who did peony paintings for the Chelsea stand

Working with Billy at Binny Plants has, he says, taught him the importance of the personal touch with customers, making sure they take home plants that will thrive, and the need to be always open to new ideas.

“Billy’s knowledge is incredible and it's not a textbook knowledge, it’s been learnt through experience and he’s extremely generous with it and is always open to questions and ideas.

“It’s that passion of you never stop learning and you never stop gathering interesting information.”

For more information about Binny Plants, visit the website.

© Mandy Bradshaw

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