1994 to 2024 – a look back at the last 30 years

In many ways the last 30 years has passed by in what feels like no time at all. However when looking at hundreds and hundreds of pictures in order to put this post together, so many memories came flooding back. All of which serve to remind me of just how much time I have actually spent at Knoll. I have been very lucky. I would not wish to be anywhere else. And now I look forward to the next 30 years……

The Dragon Garden has seen two major replants over the past 30 years. In 1994 it was a formal area of bedding and lawn (top right). The central areas of which were replaced soon after with a mix of grasses and perennials (bottom right), though the central grass paths were initially retained. In 2022/3 the area was cleared (top left) and replanted in a modern Prairie Style in 2023 (bottom left). The interpretation board (centre), is the first of a series that, when complete, will help tell the story of the garden.
In the 1960’s John and Enid May came to what was then The Knoll and began the planting of the garden. The lower part of the garden (top right) where the Decennium, Gravel garden, Lower Lawn and Mill End borders now sit, has such sandy soil it was originally a carrot field, while their nursery area (bottom left and right), was situated where the Refreshment Cabin now sits.
Together with my Mum and Dad, John and Janet who were originally hoteliers, we came to Knoll Gardens in January 1994. Before finally retiring they spent many years in the business helping to make it into the recognised specialist nursery that it is today. The two abutilons were raised and named in their honour.
Planted in the 1970’s the conifer roundabout (top left) was a major feature in the garden with many interesting and unusual specimens. Unfortunately many had become over aged and had rather reached their fell by date. So in 2004 the area was cleared (bottom right), the area prepared and a mix of grasses and perennials were planted intended to achieve colour and interest from early spring (top right) right through to autumn (middle left) and into winter (middle right).
In 2008 we created a small charity, the Knoll Gardens Foundation, that is tasked with achieving a greater understanding of the relationship between Knolls naturalistic style and the numerous wildlife that shares our garden space with us. As well as a maintaining a corp of volunteers the charity conducts numerous surveys within the garden, engages with local community orientated organisations, and is pleased to work with other conservation minded organisations such as Dorset Wildlife Trust, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, and the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.
Planted in the 1970’s the fast growing eucalyptus enjoyed the dry soils of the garden and grew rapidly. Those by the Water garden (top right) can be seen as quite young trees but rapid growth and winter gales caused the biggest of them to uproot (bottom left) and fall across the ponds creating major damage in the process. The tree has since become a major feature in is own right and has created something of a swampy atmosphere around the lower pond to the extent that water voles nest each year at its base while birds such as Tree Creepers have been seen to nest in the bark along the branches.
As the reputation of the nursery and garden gradually grew there was a demand for classes and walks in the garden (top left) including occasional visits from Civic groups (bottom right). Local groups are interested to hear about our work (top right) while on occasion we provide day training courses at external venues such as Bury Court (bottom left, image courtesy of Garden Masterclass), Wisley and Kew.
The Gravel Garden is sited in one of the hottest and driest spots in the garden and is planted with those plants that revel in such conditions. In the 1990’s the area that the Gravel garden now sits was just flat lawn (bottom left) that would brown very quickly each summer. The turf was removed and soil prepared (top left) in readiness for the young plants and an initially rather stark coating of gravel (bottom right) that luckily soon weathered and was covered by the rapidly growing plants (top right and mid left).
In order to progress the business and gain a wider reputation for our plants we exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show between 2002 to 2011. We were, and remain, delighted to win a coveted gold medal for each of our exhibits over the 10 year period. It was always hard work (top right) but the show never fails to attract an interested audience so it was always very worthwhile even though myself and Ross (pictured with his wife Claire top left), had to wear ties on the Monday!

Ross first joined Knoll on a part time basis while still at school in 1998. Such was his interest in plants and their production on the nursery that in 2012 he joined Neil as a Director of the newly incorporated Knoll Gardens Ltd.

Chelsea was always the most important week of the whole year for us and we were lucky to receive a lot of media coverage (bottom left). Chelsea is an unequalled gathering place for the worlds gardeners, designers and nursery people with well known names such as Beth Chatto, Piet Oudolf, Cleve West, David Bellamy and Rick Darke calling by over the years.
Both my books on grasses are published by Timber Press, and such is the relevance of Chelsea that not only were both contracts signed with Timber in the showground both books were subsequently also launched at the show. After the May 2023 launch (top left), l had the pleasure of attending a summer event (bottom left), to celebrate the new book at Native Sons, California. The renowned nursery of close friends Dave and Rainie Fross.
Chelsea Monday is known for the many personalities that attend the show and was always a busy day for us. Apart from royalty people such as Barbara Windsor, Monty Don, Carol Klein, Alan Titchmarsh and Bernard Cribbins stopped by.
Apart from coverage that we were delighted to receive when at the shows we have been privileged to play host to TV cameras multiple times. Mostly at Knoll but occasionally ‘on location’. We have appeared on BBC Gardeners World on several occasions and have had the pleasure of supplying the programme periodically over a number of years.
For many years we attended a number of flower shows such as RHS Hampton Court, where we would meet many of our customers and hopefully sell a lot of plants! The show was usually held during hot and dry weather but on occasion it could turn very wet (mid right). Unlike Chelsea, which was purely a display of our plants, this show was a selling show and so we effectively set up shop each year bringing many plants from the nursery loaded on trolleys (top right). Apart from myself and Ross our shows team included Colin and Linda Clark (left top and bottom).
For many years the largest percentage of our plant sales were either to customers who visited our nursery plant centre or who came to buy from our stands at flower shows such as Hampton Court. Gradually however, as online shopping took hold (and more recently encouraged by the Covid years), this dynamic has altered to the extent that by far the majority of plant sales are now online. Although the plant centre still sees many customers we have got used to sending plants (not cats!), in boxes or on trolleys via different couriers.
Along with our many retail customers we have been pleased to supply a number of well known public gardens such as RBG Kew, the RHS Gardens such as Wisley and Rosemoor, the Horniman Museum and Hiller Arboretum.
Being a specialist nursery home produced plants have always formed the vast majority of the plants that we offer for sale. As our experience and expertise has grown so our production techniques have adapted and altered to suit our modern day needs. While we are pleased to work with a few selected UK nurseries, for starter sized plants for example, plants produced from our own seed, and more recently those produced from open ground growing, are an increasing element in our approach to todays production. This offers several advantages such as greater biosecurity, a reduction in use of precious resources, and a significant reduction in our use of plastic
As we developed the nursery there has always been a need for more space in which to grow our increasing range of plants. With the generous help of our neighbour Jeremy Trehane we have been able to first rent, then purchase an area of land that had been previously use to grow stock beds of camellias for the adjacent camellia specialist Trehanes Nursery. Known as the ‘New Field’ (as opposed to our original and so ‘Old’ field) the land needed a fair amount of work to go from an open ground stock field to an area suitable for growing plants in containers. At first the space seemed enormous, especially when Ross put the very first plants down (inset), but it was not long before we had expanded into every corner; and now wonder if we will again be looking for more space!
While we do not really have a formal breeding programme as such, we do have some sharp eyes and a keenness to spot variations in our plants that might lead to a new selection that would be of value to our gardens here in the UK. This process can take a significant length of time, but over the years we have been lucky to select a number of what we feel are great new plants. These are just a few that we are delighted to have named and now offer to our customers,
While most of our selections are grasses we do have a smaller number of perennials such as these sanguisorbas and stachys that were launched in the last few years.
As for the next 30 years…… We are looking forward to adding more plants to our range (such as those yet to be launched new plants shown here), imagining new projects for the garden and learning more about our relationship with the wider environment. And perhaps along the way understanding a little more about the quite amazing family of grasses.