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Crocus’ Mark Fane: “We were keen to stop on a high”

by | 24 May 24 | Domestic Landscaping, Long Reads | 0 comments

Mark Fane Crocus

Thirteen might be unlucky for some, but not for Crocus. The contractor and nursery has just won its 13th Best in Show award at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in what will be its final year at the event – or so it says.

Crocus seemed destined to have an illustrious career at Chelsea. The first garden it built in 2000 – the same year the company was founded, no less – also won Best in Show as well as a Gold medal.

Starting as it meant to go on, the company has collected 35 Gold medals over the last 24 years as well as its string of awards, a record managing director Mark Fane says he’s “really proud” of.

The Laurent-Perrier Garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith for Chelsea 2008

It’s one that will be tough to beat, but Crocus is now arguably giving others the opportunity to do so. “We were keen to stop on a high,” says Fane. “It’s better to walk off the pitch than be pushed off it.”

He says there’s a “certain circularity” to this year too, as The National Garden Scheme Garden marked the 11th time that Crocus and garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith have worked together at the show. “One of my first gardens at Chelsea was with Tom, so finishing with him feels right.”

Stuart-Smith’s garden is not the one that took Best in Show this year, though. Crocus also built for debut designer Ula Maria – “a real talent” whose Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Forest Bathing Garden scooped the top award.

“She’s going to go a very long way,” says Fane. “When you look at that garden, there’s a real maturity and quality to it. If I were a first-time designer at Chelsea, I would be far more nervous; but it’s been a real privilege working with her.”

He sees Chelsea as a chance to “celebrate the industry” and for people to strive to achieve a certain standard. “If Chelsea didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have that incentive to achieve as high a level of perfection as we do here. It’s a major incentive.”

There’s been pressure this year to reduce the carbon footprint of each garden, though – something which Fane says Crocus has been trying to do for years. After each show, he’ll sit down with project manager Peter Harket, who Fane has been working with at Chelsea for more than a decade, to discuss how they can improve for the next year.

Mark Fane and Peter Clay Crocus

Mark Fane and fellow Crocus founder Peter Clay

One of the ideas to come out of this is to use “cement Lego blocks” for the foundations in all the gardens. “We use the same ones every year and it means you don’t have vast amounts of cement and concrete. They will then go back to the yard afterwards to be reused in the future.”

Crocus’ collection of items from previous show gardens has become known as the “Chelsea graveyard”, and some of these products were brought to life once again on Cityscapes’ RHS Chelsea Repurposed Garden this year, including Corten steel columns from Andy Sturgeon’s garden back in 2010.

Fane says Crocus has also built large compost bays for the nursery’s green waste which is recycled and sieved to be used for planting at Chelsea, rather than transporting fine composted bark from Scotland.

Last year’s garden for designer Sarah Price – and sponsored by Nurture Landscapes, of which Fane’s brother Peter is founder and chairman – used handmade bricks and pots with “virtually zero cement”. It’s become one of Fane’s standout gardens over the last two decades.

Muscular Dystrophy UK – Forest Bathing Garden

Muscular Dystrophy UK – Forest Bathing Garden designed by Ula Maria at this year’s Chelsea

Taking part in the show each year has become too “demanding”, though. The UK’s largest online garden retailer supplies its own plants for the gardens, which Fane says gives Crocus “a real advantage” because it has “far greater control”. But this doesn’t come without its challenges.

‘We grow about four times the number of plants that we need at the show, just to have a safety cushion; some plants won’t make it in terms of being ready, so we like having lots of options. But it takes up so much space on the nursery. And as Crocus has grown bigger and bigger, we’re running out of space, and we need that space for commercial growing.”

The business has gone “from strength to strength”, now employing more than 300 people after recently acquiring fellow online garden retailer Primrose. It’s expecting to turnover £50m this year.

Fane’s hands are full, in other words – but he’s not stepping away from Chelsea entirely. As RHS vice-president and a trustee of grant-giving scheme Project Giving Back – which will be sponsoring 10 gardens at the show for another two years – he’ll still be wandering around the show ground, though “in a suit rather than a high vis”.

The question on everyone’s minds is whether Fane could be tempted to don his high vis once more. “A lot of people don’t believe that we’re stopping. The fact is, if Tom [Stuart-Smith] turns around in five years’ time and says, ‘let’s do another garden’, then we’ll put the band back together – if Elton John can have a comeback tour, I think Crocus can, don’t you?” You won’t hear any objections from us.

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