There has been a market garden run by the Braithwaite family at Leeming Bar since the 1850’s. This was run by Hannah, wife of John Braithwaite who was a builder by trade. This gradually built up over the years and by 1890 was about an acre growing flowers and vegetables to sell at market.
Wifred Braithwaite (The W of W Braithwaite and Sons) was born in 1896 and prior to 1914 worked at Gibsons nursery which was down the Low Street in Leeming Bar and was then one of the major employers in the village. Here he learned about and grew an interest in gardening.
In 1914 he was called up and served as a Signaller with the Green Howards in World War 1. Following an injury at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he was sent to hospital in Rouen and then a military hospital in Manchester where he had a large shell fragment removed from his hip bone. As a result he was discharged from the Army and retrained as a bricklayer.
He went into partnership with his brother Albert who, apparently, “did nothing but ride his bike” so the partnership broke up. Because of this, he decided to buy the market garden off his mother who was running it on her own after her husband had died not long after Wilfred was born. He started to specialise in herbaceous plants and also grew a few cut flowers and vegetables.
Life between the wars was hard work and living was frugal. The main line in the nursery became Scabiosa which thrived on the light soil. Wilfred would collect gas lime from the gas works at Bedale and dig it into the land which the Scabious loved. He introduced many varieties – notable examples being Penhill Blue, Evelyn Braithwaite, Ivory Queen, Floral Beauty, Floral Charm and many more.
His Scabious were very much in demand after he went to London to show them at Westminster Hall and won RHS awards of Merit when he sent samples to Wisley in the late 30’s for plant trials. As ever this was done on a budget and the journey down by car was made use of as he was given an enamel bath while there and drove back to Yorkshire with it strapped to the roof.
During World War 2 all available land was put over to food production so lettuce was grown for seed, sunflowers for seed for chicken feed and rhubarb was grown. Wilfreds son David was helping on the nursery at this time and as he wasn’t needed he got work at Harkness Roses, who were also in Leeming Bar, until he was called up to the army (at this point there were in the region of 15 nurseries within a few miles of Leeming Bar). After serving in France and Germany from D-Day until the end of the war he was released from the army at the end of the war in Europe and returned to work on the nursery.
After David was released from Army service, some old hands from Gibsons nurseries taught him how to bud roses and he started with 250 roses. In the late 50’s a quantity of Scabious was imported from Holland that was infected with eelworm. There were not the plant or grower screening or certification in place that there is now and within just a few years the eelworm had spread throughout the site and devastated the stock of Scabious. This was the spur to move into other shrubs and herbaceous plants and greatly broaden the range of plants offered.
Many gardens were now being turned back to leisure purposes rather than food production during the war so there was great demand and the number of roses grown increased year on year. The only plantpots available were terracotta and therefore too expensive to use widely for production so old paint tins were used to plant roses into until the introduction of flimsy plastic flowerpots. At the peak of popularity in the 80’s we were growing about 10,000 roses a year – this has now dropped to around 5,000 as fashions have changed.
When he first started rose growing there weren’t commercially available rose stocks (the standard base the rose variety is budded onto) so wild briars were collected in winter and cut into strips to be rooted and budded in the summer. What a job scrambling around in hedgebacks collecting briars in winter must have been!
In the 70’s, Davids sons Howard and Phillip joined the business and led the expansion into growing our own trees rather than buying them in. We now grow almost all our fruit trees and ornamental trees on site. There were also further improvements in new greenhouses, more automation in heating, irrigation and production.
In the last ten years we have completely stopped growing cut flowers as Dutch imports got cheaper, better quality and more reliable, it just wasn’t worth it. Instead we grow more plants over winter in the greenhouses meaning we can have a far more diverse offering available in Spring.
The next few years are going to focus on moving production off the retail site to free up space and improve the retail environment and rebuilding the shop and toilets to make visiting us an even better experience!