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This is just to let you know that I received my tomato plants safely today - beautifully packaged, and looking very healthy upon arrival. Many thanks.
Sally Mills, Carmarthenshire

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This is just to let you know that I received my tomato plants safely today - beautifully packaged, and looking very healthy upon arrival. Many thanks.
Sally Mills, Carmarthenshire

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1985 - 1998... Two Steps Forward - Then Two Steps Back

One of the most important things occurred whilst seeking finance was that we were introduced to a very good firm of accountants, as our previous accountant had been useless in our hour of need!

During the Autumn and Winter of 1985 we continued to get the nursery back into working order and started to produce new stock - and with care and attention we were able to save stock that had been neglected by the receivers. We were lucky that over the years we had built up a good name and a large circle of loyal customers that returned to us when we were up and running again. We had good sales in the Spring of 1986 and sales climbed substantially.

The latter part of 1986 saw us featured by Television South and entered into the Small Business Enterprise Competition; the finals were held in the Spring of 1987 - and to our great joy and surprise we were awarded an Enterprise South Award - effectively for picking up the threads of our business and in little over a year achieving sales in the hundreds of thousand pounds. We were able to engage a few staff and life looked good again! We continued to increase sales and take on additional staff.

Image of an aerial view of Kent Country Nurseries

From mid June to September our sales of plants were quite often slow and we decided to awake yet another boyhood interest of Jeremy's - water gardening. We started to produce various water plants, and sourced others from reliable English producers; this proved very profitable and became a substantial part of our Summer trading for many years. We were also building up a large stock of Fuchsia varieties and decided to specialise in them as there wasn't a large grower in our area.

Because there were now two generations of the family in the business it was decided that it would be a good idea to expand the business by relocating the business to two other holdings we owned; we decided to relocate the retail plant centre to a larger site about a mile from the original nursery, whilst expanding our production on Ivy Farm where we already produced many of our trees and shrubs. To finance this we decided we would sell the existing nursery for development and roll over the monies into the two new projects.

In December 1986 we received a dreadful bomb shell - Recorded Delivery letters from the Parish Council claiming that we were trespassing on their land, the land in front of our nursery. At first we were not to alarmed but as time went on we realised that they were spreading untruths about our intentions stirring up opposition to our intended relocation.

Years of legal wrangle followed but in spite of the increasing interference of the Parish Council we were able to continue to rebuild and increase sales and our product base. During this time we increased our Aquatic sales sourcing both American Trapdoor snails - nature's little pond hoovers - and Fresh Water Mussels - the Aquino for pond water natural filtration. For several years this gave us exceptional business during the summer months when plant sales were slow.

When the Berlin Wall came down in the late 1980's it opened up a large market for plant life to supply to the Eastern Europe; we had noticed that people returning to East Germany from West Germany were usually seen carrying house plants and colourful garden plants as obviously they had been starved of such things. After a family discussion we decided that it would be a good and profitable idea for us to gear up to supply plants to eastern Europe. We were granted planning consent at Ivy farm for a glasshouses for an export nursery and a house for Josette and John as on site managers. We already held MAAF Plant Health Certification for exports. We had a Dutch agent who in year one was looking at vast quantities of plants for export to Eastern Europe and this was to be a multi million pound export business.

We were at that time sounding out the Ashford Borough Council for planning approval for a rural craft business centre with living accommodation on the old nursery site. Everything seemed to be going well as we had an offer on the table for the nursery site but we were shocked to find that the Parish Council were circulating an untrue rumour that we were going to build factories on the site; as our own house with gardens and swimming pool was on the site nothing was further from the truth but unfortunately bad news sticks. This is when the real legal problems began going on for ten years and all the time damaging our business our health and family relationships.

Image of damage caused by the 1987 hurricane.January 1987 bought freezing weather and heavy snow that lasted for several weeks. During the time of the snow and ice we were all busy propagating young plants especially Fuchsias as past records showed that after a severe winter period there was always a really good demand in the spring. When the weather improved sales increased and business was good throughout the Spring and Summer.

Autumn was also proving to be good when in the middle of October we had the big storm it was devastating to us. Throughout the night we could hear nothing but roaring wind breaking glass and the crashing of metal and wood. With the dawn the wind began to drop and a lovely sunny day dawned. When venturing out of the house we were greeted by debris everywhere, fallen trees, the glasshouses twisted and broken - and the soil shed roof and wall had moved and had become quite dangerous. One or two of our staff turned up as did Sarah (Stephen and Josette's sister) and her husband, and we worked without rest for the whole weekend picking up glass and making the glasshouses as safe as possible before we could try to rescue plants and see what damage there was to the stock. Despite all this urgency Josette and John decided to take the weekend off and visit relatives in Bournemouth!

For months after we were still finding broken glass in the plant pots! In fact it actually took many months to get the greenhouse repairs done. Some were paid for by insurance, but for most we had to foot the bill ourselves. As well as clearing up the mess and repairing the glasshouses and soil shed we were trying to produce stock and execute orders.

Image of damage caused by the 1991 hurricane.From the early 1988 to 1990 and in spite of the time and money expended on the legal battles the business continued to grow and we obtained, after a long and expensive appeal, permission to build out Ivy Farm for a production nursery and the land in Buck Street as a retail unit - known as the current Victoriana Nursery Gardens. By 1990 we had a small but keen and loyal staff all looking forward to our expansion plans.

In January 1991 we had another storm and this time during the day, the wind started to increase and for safety we ordered everyone out of the glasshouses to work in the packing house. Just as the last staff member came out of the Venlo half acre block of glass there was a very strong gust of wind that lifted part of the glasshouse off its foundations letting it crash down again, more damage and loss. We once again turned to, to rescue stock and pick up glass, again we had to foot the bill to repair the glasshouses!

We had a buyer lined up for the Kent Country Nurseries site preparation work had been started at Ivy Farm and finance had been agreed with the bank.

Then another bomb shell - after spending many tens of thousands of pounds on legal advice we lost our case with the Parish Council. We had already started works at the Ivy Farm and Buck Street sites and also started to dismantle the old nursery ready for the move. We had to stand off staff and struggle along as best we could. Initially we were able to trade from the Kent Country Nurseries site but as the Glasshouses were taken down and stock was moved we were unable to trade either at the old site or the new site.

The Birth Of Victoriana Nursery Gardens

In the summer of 1994 we finally cleared all the stock from the old nursery but we still hadn't opened the new nursery as due to a planning condition we had to have a large new entrance to the site. We could not afford to do the works. On the new site we had one wooden greenhouse constructed from timber recovered from the old nursery and old greenhouses obtained from an elderly aunt. We had no under cover storage, no offices, no telephone, packing area, staff rest rooms or toilets. As we were not able to trade our income decreased dramatically, although the bank were still supporting to us up to a point it became obvious that we would have to lay off all the staff as it was impossible to continue to go on.

Image of the newly constructed greenhouse at Victoriana.

For some time Jeremy, Joan and Stephen had been trying to 'keep things going' by putting in limited savings to support the staff and Josette and John's; whilst we fully understood that staff could not 'work for free' it was devastating that, as soon as the last wage packets were handed out on the Friday, Josette and John just got in their car and left without a moment to lose - so much for family loyalties and trying to pull through together!

Alone, the three of us tried to work out how we could continue. Joan and Stephen continued to work on the nursery keeping the limited amount of stock that we had moved from the old site in good condition and propagating for the coming year whilst I worked at the house taking a few telephone orders and trying to sort out the legal problems.

The Winter was dreadful - rains and heavy winds lashed down causing damage to our one glasshouse and shredding the thin polythene sheeting protecting everything that should have by now been moved in to the barn and offices (that had not been built) - we lost all our stocks off books, office furniture and much plant and machinery became water damaged. Stephen and Joan managed to patch the greenhouse and build frost protection for our borehole. Thankfully we had good stocks of heating oil moved from the old nursery - without this we would not have been able to heat the greenhouse and keep mother plants alive.

After a dreadful and miserable Christmas the snows came - and the problems of not living on site! The beginning of 1995 was grim, but still we battled on - and decided to try a small advertising campaign to engender some mail order business. This was make or break as we couldn't actually pay for the advertisements if they did not take any money - but thankfully they did and from very small beginnings we started to pick up business and things started to look hopeful.

Obviously the news of the slight up-turn filtered through to the family to Josette and John - as the next thing to hit us was a claim for unfair dismissal from John! Being a shareholder in the company (like Josette) it was more than just a little surprising that he claimed he had no knowledge of the precarious finances and situation of the company! The claim was dismissed but it was another thing we could have done without!

We appeared to be making some progress on the legal side and we were hopeful of a successful outcome - and whilst they did not extend any further finance our bank agreed to 'hold station'; in reality they had little choice as the debt was huge and interest just continued to accrue.

Image of the construction of the new entrance road at Victoriana.Chipping away at the debt as best we could (but also putting this to the back's of our mind), the three of us worked hard and the business improved throughout 1995 and into early 1996 - and we were able to engage a couple of staff.

We decided to take the plunge and put in the central opening to the nursery so that we could have callers. This was finished for the early part of 1996 and we started to pick up trade and things were going well again - and so we were able to self fund a new polytunnel to give us more growing space and to start on the construction of our barn. By the late Summer of 1996 Mack had made up the trusses for the barn and so with the use of a crane for a day Stephen, Mack and Tiff put up the frame - and then worked through the Autumn and into Winter cladding and roofing it - all from ladders!Image of the barn being cladded. At last we had a huge area of properly dry space - and to this day serves as our packing shed, offices, seed room, workshop and compost making area and potting shed.

Things were really on 'the up' - and we traded successfully throughout 1996 and into 1997 with sales increasing dramatically. Although we were working long hours seven days a week we thought we were out of the woods and life was going to improve.

And on the subject of improvement, it was in the late Summer of 1997 that Stephen met Serena!

In the Summer of 1998 we had the lengthy court hearing that took up most of Jeremy's time and promised to solve all our problems and reimburse us for all our losses. The Court case finished in July 1998 our legal team assured us that everything had gone our way and the judgement should be a good judgement in our favour. The judgement was not set down until early November and when it came it was an awful shock because although we had proven that our barrister had been negligent the Judge only awarded us a small amount of money that did not even cover our legals costs.

Once again we were back to square one and the bank finally wanted complete repayment. Perhaps the shock of it all, perhaps unrelated, a few days after the judgement Stephen's body decided to 'shut down on him' and he was rushed into hospital suffering from heart issues, dehydration and suspected liver failure. The next month was at times 'touch and go', with the medical team not really knowing what to try next - and then for no particular reason everything started working again and Stephen was able to leave a couple of weeks later.

As serious as it had been, Stephen's illness had also put off the inevitable family discussion that was needed - what to do now? There was no way forward, we had no choice but to give up. After 35 years of hard work Joan and Jeremy were left with nothing, Stephen would have to find another job. For the four of us the Christmas of 1998 was the worst that we had ever had with not knowing what we were going to do to survive.