Special guest for birthday celebrations of the Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society

A glimpse of part of James Massey's private garden at Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands.


Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society welcomes one of Britain’s eminent horticulturists, James Massey of Ashwood Nursery in the Black Country, to celebrate its coming of age with a late October lecture, reports Peter Dowdall.

Very often enthusiasm coupled with shared interests and the desire to learn more about your chosen subject can lead to the establishment of specialist clubs, groups and organisations.

And sadly, it happens too that these groups, while established with every good intention and lots of vim and vigour, often don’t last the pace and fade away.

You see, the thing with a voluntary group is that it needs work. Its not just good enough to say ‘wouldn’t it be great if we met every week and talked about plants’. 

No, it needs organisation, ideas, inspiration and slog — man-hours spent to book speakers, pick up said speakers from train stations or airports, provide accommodation, and then of course get the word out to members and non-members alike to ensure a great turnout on the night.

Groups like this nearly need to be run like a business, while having no payroll budget and depending on a specialist target market from which to garnish subscriptions. 

These groups are a labour of love for those involved — and the organisers are driven by a shared passion.

John Massey gardener, nursery man and winner of the Victoria Medal for services to horticulture from the RHS.
John Massey gardener, nursery man and winner of the Victoria Medal for services to horticulture from the RHS.

On September 30, 1994, the Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society was born in the presence of an enthusiastic group of gardeners at the Lavanagh centre, Cork. 

It evolved to fill the need of those gardeners who had a longing to learn about gardening and plants and to source unusual and rare plants. 

It gave a platform for the group to hear renowned lecturers in design, plant-hunting, propagation, perennials and alpines.

Among those who gave talks in the early days were Roy Lancaster, Helen Dillon, Bob Brown, Christine Skelmersdale and local speakers who featured regularly were Brian Cross, Chris Feehily, Aileen Kennedy and Hester Forde.

In recent times, the group has played host to James Alexander Sinclair, Alan Gray and Keith Wiley. 

Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society has an enthusiastic membership and this year is celebrating its coming of age. 

It is a now getting the key to the door so to speak — the potting shed door — as the group is this year celebrating its 21st birthday. 

And to mark this solid achievement, it’s looking forward to having John Massey of Ashwood Nursery as a special guest speaker on the subject of “Autumn into Winter” on October 29 at 8pm in the Lavanagh centre, Cork.

John Massey is a nurseryman, plant breeder, plant collector and, above all, a passionate gardener. 

He acquired Ashwood. Nurseries as a teenager in 1968, straight from school and with no formal training in horticulture.

He has a love of plants that began as a child growing up in the Black Country (West Midlands) and his expertise is a culmination of skills handed down through the generations as he learned the basic principles of gardening from his grandfather.

It’s the transfer of knowledge in this way that is invaluable, not just to the likes of John Massey, but to the industry as a whole for it is by working and learning next to experienced gardeners — be that a parent or grandparent — that the novice can pick up more experience than can ever come from a book.

It was his passion for plants which has become the driving force at Ashwood, which now specialises in hellebores, hepaticas, salvias, hydrangeas and lewisias. To date Ashwood Nurseries has been awarded 51 consecutive RHS Gold Medals.

In 2003, John was presented with the Veitch Medal, in 2008 he was awarded the MBE for his services to charity and in 2010, the Royal Horticultural Society presented him with the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest honour they can bestow, in recognition of his outstanding services to horticulture.

It was perhaps inevitable that, with his wide-ranging zeal for plants, John would one day find time to create his own private garden at his home, tucked behind the nursery. 

Inspiration came from two great friends, the charismatic Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter and Princess Sturdza, the formidable creator of a brilliant French garden, Le Vasterival — and their influence is evident throughout the garden.

John’s garden has now become his sanctuary, as well as a trial ground for his many plant passions. 

Like myself, he believes that a garden should be “somewhere you want to go every day of the year” and he doesn’t subscribe to the idea of putting the garden to bed for the winter. 

The result is a true garden for all seasons and Carol Klein describes it as “the most loved and looked after garden I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting”.

The Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society celebrations continues with many more noted lecturers for 2015 and 2016 including, Jimi Blake, Philip Hollowey; Carmel Duignan; Diane Clement; Carl Wright; Derry Watkins and Christine Skelmersdale.

If you have more than a passing interest in things green then head to the Lavanagh Centre, Blackrock on October 29 at 8pm.


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