A couple who are world renowned for growing diverse and pretty border auriculas tell Ruth Campbell how their passion for the plant grew into an award-winning business

Row upon row of richly-coloured primula auricula flowers are lined up neatly in trays at Robin and Annabel Graham’s award-winning nursery. From dark, almost black to bright white and every tone and shade in between, they look like jewels. Some, in large clumps bearing numerous flower spikes, are eye-catchingly bold. Others, smaller, shyer and closer to the ground, draw you in to appreciate their more delicate attractions.

Robin and Annabel, who have won gold medals at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show and the coveted ‘best in show’ award at Malvern Spring Gardening Show, sell around 12,000 plants a year from their Drointon Nurseries near Ripon.

It’s a business that emerged out of Annabel’s love of growing the plant in her garden at home, a passion passed down from her mother. But what started out as a part-time hobby soon developed into something much more time-consuming. So when husband Robin was made redundant from his engineering job, they joined forces to set up and run the nursery together full-time 14 years ago.

Now renowned as world leaders in growing these diverse and pretty blooms, the couple are busy exporting to customers as far as Russia, Tasmania, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Alaska and throughout the United States and Europe. They own a nationally important collection of 274 varieties of border auriculas, believed to be the biggest in the world. This wild alpine plant, first recorded as being cultivated domestically in Vienna in 1575, has been overlooked for years, says Robin.

As experts in the field, he and Annabel were particularly delighted five years ago to be invited as guests of honour to an acclaimed Belgian show by a Count keen to re-establish the plant, which features in many famous Flemish works of art, in his country. In the UK, the Duchess of Cornwall is a huge fan and even included yellow, purple and white auriculas, first brought here from Belgium by Huguenot refugees in the Middle Ages, in her bridal bouquet at her wedding to Prince Charles.

It was only after Annabel’s sons went to boarding school that her mother, Lady Gillian Akroyd, who grew auriculas at her farm house in Killinghall near Harrogate, first passed her a few plants to grow of her own. “I was looking for something to fill the time once the boys were not at home and she told me I might enjoy it as a hobby,” recalls Annabel. “My mother was a very good gardener and very enthusiastic about auriculas, but had too many plants as she got older. Anything she didn’t like she passed on to me. She kept the best for herself,” she laughs.

But the gift of growing stunning auriculas proved to be in Annabel’s DNA. She grew her first plants in the shade at the side of her garage, with minimal weather protection, before investing in her first 6ft by 10ft polytunnel. Her collection soon increased and, within a few years, she needed a bigger tunnel and began selling surplus plants from the garden gate and at plant fairs. “I started out just doing it for pin money, to buy little extras for the children and me,” she explains.

As demand for her sought-after blooms increased, she introduced mail order in 1999. “I produced a catalogue, just printing it off on the inkjet printer at home as and when people ordered. It wasn’t a big business, but there are not many people doing it, with only three significant growers in Europe with fewer and fewer people specialising in them. It is a small pond.”

After Robin was made redundant from his engineering job in 2001, he got more involved. “Rather than putting my redundancy payment into a pension fund which would probably dwindle to nothing, we thought we could invest in the business. I didn’t know the first thing about horticulture, but we gave it a go,” he says.

It spurred them to relocate back from Staffordshire to their home county of North Yorkshire, establishing Drointon Nurseries on Robin’s 400-acre family farm, where they started out selling around 3,000 plants a year. “When we first moved up, my office was old granary with a rotten floor and leaking roof where we used to keep chickens,” says Robin.

The couple, who have been married 36 years, say being business partners works because they each have clearly defined roles. While Robin is office-based, Annabel has always been keen on gardening, spending many winter evenings drawing plans and researching plants. “It only works because we do different things,” adds Annabel.

They have had some tough times, particularly during periods of extreme bad weather and when a bacterial infection tore through their plants. “We once lost 8,000 plants and suffered a series of major setbacks over the years,” explains Robin.

It didn’t stop them continuing to expand, growing the business ten-fold to include 4,500 square feet of polytunnels and 2,000 square feet of raised beds, housing 1,200 varieties of auriculas. As a result, spring time is frenetic. “My life is spent in the polytunnels in March, April, May and the first half of June, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, watering, propagating, potting and re-potting,” says Annabel. With just the two of them working in the business, they daren’t risk taking a holiday. “You never know what the weather is going to do. The plants need so much watering and looking after in summer. If it’s hot you’re charging around putting more shade on.”

By autumn, they are packing and sending plants out. “We wrap through the night, more than 100 plants at a time, then bring them to the nursery in the morning to box up, label and despatch. They are long days,” explains Annabel.

But there are moments which make it all worthwhile, such as when they walked into the Chelsea Flower Show one morning in 2015 and found a card on their stand saying they had won a gold medal. They also enjoy being their own bosses. “It is freedom, no one telling you what to do. It’s hard to imagine doing anything else,” says robin. “It’s a lifestyle business. We are not doing it to get rich.” Annabel agrees: “We only sell to the general public and don’t want to do wholesale. I am not interested in producing thousands of one variety.”

The couple are driven by their passion for the plants and don’t actually want to get any bigger. Robin loves the border plant’s enormous variety. “They are incredibly diverse, a joy to behold,” adds Annabel. “When they are at their best, you can’t believe they are real, they are so precise. They look like someone has made them out of silk, but made them almost too perfect.”

If the day ever came that she didn’t adore them, she wouldn’t grow them, she says. “I don’t want to lose that gut instinct I have for them. I love everything about them.”

But she admits she does, very occasionally, tell them off. “I do talk to them occasionally. If something misbehaves, it can get quite a serious bollocking.”

Drointon Nurseries, Plaster Pitts, Ripon HG4 5EF

T: 01765 641849

W: www.auricula-plants.co.uk

  • Annabel’s top tips for growing auriculas

Don’t mollycoddle them

Make sure compost is really free -raining. If the plants sit in water, they are desperately unhappy

If in pots, repot every year

Keep an eye out for bugs and treat as soon as you see them

Try to keep the plants cool in summer. "We grow them in polystyrene fish boxes, which they love as it reflects heat, stops fluctuations in temperature and helps equalise moisture content."

Don’t feed much, just a fully balanced liquid fertiliser at half strength every two to three weeks in spring, with a half strength low-nitrogen liquid feed in autumn.

"People who grow them for show use a heavy compost, but I use a light one. I like perlite, which helps with drainage and balances out temperature. I am a great believer in trying diff things to find out what works. If you get too stuck in your ideas, you are never going to get any better."