The name’s Grass, Mr Grass
Sue Weekes travels to Ferndown to meet the man behind Knoll Gardens’ international reputation for grasses, Neil Lucas
Published in August ’15
The Ministry of Defence’s loss was certainly the world horticulture’s gain when it comes to Neil Lucas. ‘After 18 months commuting for an hour and half on the train, then 40 minutes on the tube and climbing 27 floors of a civil service building, I thought “I’m not sure I can do this”,’ says the man who has become a world authority on ornamental grasses and is celebrating 21 years as owner of the acclaimed Knoll Gardens in Wimborne. ‘At age 18, getting to 65 seemed several lifetimes away.’
Neil quickly gave up his 9-5 office job and succumbed to the gardening gene that ran through both sides of his family and says it proved to be ‘a great decision’. ‘And as my accountant would say, I’ve been trying to make a living at it ever since,’ he laughs.
His achievements include winning 10 consecutive RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, he is a RHS council member and senior judge, lectures in the UK and overseas and in 2011 published his first book, Designing with Grasses. His true life’s work though can be seen at Knoll in the four acres of naturalistic gardens featuring thousands of grasses and flowering perennials as well as rare and unusual trees and shrubs.
Neil and his parents bought the site in 1994, enabling him to fulfil his dream of having a nursery and a garden. Prior to their ownership, Knoll had reinvented itself more than once and directly after the war, what is now the bottom half of the garden was a carrot field. ‘That shows you how sandy it is,’ says Neil.
The original owners, John and Enid May, planted on the carrot field and a semi-wooded overgrown area alongside an existing market garden and nursery called The Knoll and renamed it Wimborne Botanic Garden. ‘I’ve got a picture from 1966 of the carrot field having just be sown as grass with a few spindly trees,’ says Neil.
The following owners named it Knoll Gardens and ran it as a tourist attraction. When Neil and his family arrived they didn’t intend turning it into a garden and nursery specialising in grasses but soon found that trying to sell teas to coach loads of visitors wasn’t making good business sense. ‘I’d also got bored and wanted to do more with plants and so we considered whether to stay a tourist attraction or become a specialist nursery and that crossroads was the making of us,’ he says. ‘I had a collection of grasses so we started to do mail order and became very serious about horticulture.’
Knoll started with around 20-30 varieties and, as Neil points out, ‘it isn’t just roses that grow on you’. Its phenomenal range of grasses numbers around 500-600 varieties at any one time (the catalogue lists around 300 available for purchase) but he adds that this is still only a fraction of the total number grown around the world. And there is always room for more: it recently launched a new variety, Stipa Goldilocks, a Spanish oat grass perfect for smaller gardens, courtyard settings or containers.
Walking around Knoll’s garden and mini-arboretum with Neil you quickly become aware of his huge bank of knowledge on his subject let alone enthusiasm. His desire to work with nature rather than impose himself on it shines through, perhaps best typified on the day by the sight of the huge eucalyptus tree which fell in the Valentine’s Day storms last year. Rather than remove it, it has been left to blend into its new position bridging the water garden and has become an attraction in its own right.
While a sad occurrence, Neil points to the power of nature, highlighting the new growth that is appearing on the tree and urges all gardeners to adopt the more naturalistic approach to their gardens. ‘In the past we’ve tended to be individual cultivators who would buy one plant because it was pretty and then decide where it went,’ he says. ‘What you should really do is look at borders as a whole and consider which plants work well in the shade, which work well in the sun and use nature to do the least amount of work for the biggest wow factor.’
Neil is largely self-taught but says there have been many influences over the years, citing his grandfather who grew ‘thousands of delphiniums’ as a key one. In life before Knoll and when living in Devon, his jobs included working for the council parks in Torbay before moving to a healthcare trust a few miles down the road. ‘They were obviously desperate for staff because in 12 months I was made head gardener and within 18 months I was gardens manager,’ he says.
The position proved a great learning period for him. As one of the first healthcare trusts it was building a number of new hospitals and he found himself in charge of 130 acres of gardens and grounds. ‘It was a massive job so I gained a lot of experience in a short space of time,’ says Neil. ‘We did all sorts of exciting things: we opened a commercial nursery and I entered my first flower show exhibit at the Hampton Court, a first for a health authority.’
While in Devon a foreman in the council greens department told him that all you need is ‘a willingness to learn’ and these words have stayed with him over the years: ‘I have always been and still am as fascinated in what I do as I was when I was 16. Maintaining an enquiring mind empowers you to learn.’
It was while working for the healthcare trust that he started to see the great potential of grasses. He was handling tens of thousands of shrubs and trees and began experimenting. He found that next to woody plants, the grasses were present in the landscape for a long time and this stimulated his interest. ‘I started to learn how great they were in the sun and in shade and how some were tall and some were short,’ he recalls.
Few can claim to have changed the perceptions of a word but it is largely down to Neil that when talking about grass, people no longer just think of the word ‘lawn’. Amongst his customers, the discussions have moved on he explains: ‘They will say they have a border in the sun, a back garden in the shade and a terrace and will want to know what they can plant in them. People are beginning to think about their gardens as they do their homes. If you re-do your kitchen, you don’t just buy one cupboard. I’d say that over half of our business is project-led sales like this and I find the change over a decade fascinating.’
Among Neil’s pet projects is meadow planting and this is just one of the areas where he says he has taken inspiration from the US over the years. Whereas in the UK we think of a meadow as a large area of grass measured in acres, in America it can be any open grassy space. ‘So what we are doing at Knoll is planting a border in a meadow style,’ he explains. ‘It’s taking the border and the lawn and merging it all together and then putting a path through the planting. So it’s a design ethos as well as a different approach to plants.’
Linked to this, one of the aspects of plants that excites him most is how they can work in association with each other and effectively be a community. ‘I don’t think it’s pompous to talk about them in this way,’ he says. ‘In human terms a community is where we all have to get on even though we are all different. This is why a meadow is so exciting because you can see how it gels together and is self-sustaining.’
When Dorset Life caught up with Neil, he hadn’t long returned from RHS Chelsea Flower Show where he was a judge. So did he miss doing a garden of his own at the prestigious show this year? ‘Like everything that is the ultimate, it’s a lot of pressure. Ross [his right hand man at Knoll] says I wasn’t safe to approach when doing a Chelsea garden,’ he jokes. ‘But Chelsea is always special.’
His publishers are keen for him to write another book and his RHS commitments are considerable but meantime the business side of Knoll is getting busier by the day with both sales and consultancy and he is also a trustee of the Knoll Gardens Foundation, a charity dedicated to promoting a wildlife-friendly naturalistic gardening style. While he is the man behind Knoll, he knows he couldn’t do it without his close-knit team that as well as Ross Humphrey, who runs the nursery, includes Luke Al’Thor, the gardener and a number of key part-time workers and volunteers. ‘We all get on and there’s a great atmosphere,’ he says. ‘I think people like working here and that makes a big difference.’ ◗
❱ For details of events and masterclasses go to www.knollgardens.co.uk