At Candide, we're keen to shout and praise the amazing independent nursery owners up and down the country. These plants are not what you'd buy from the high street or supermarket but are often are sought-after, specialist varieties; grown by small, family-owned businesses. This week, we're opening the stage to an extraordinary nursery, so please give a warm welcome W Robinson & Son Ltd.
Mammoth Vegetables Grown for Generations
The very mention of ‘Mammoth’ onions or leeks is likely to garner knowing nods from seasoned vegetable growers.
These super-sized and exceedingly tasty vegetables were developed by the seeds and plants specialists W Robinson & Son, a family-run company that’s 161 years old.
William Robinson started the business in 1860 when he acquired a smallholding called Sunny Bank in Forton, near Preston, on which he grew a range of fruit and vegetable crops.
His son, also William, took a particular interest in onions and leeks, selecting the best specimens and allowing them to set seed. The impressive alliums he exhibited at flower shows soon attracted the attention of other gardeners, with many buying seeds to grow their own ‘Mammoth’ varieties.
William Robinson, founder of W Robinson and Son Ltd
The second William Robinson
Over the years the Robinson family branched out into other types of produce, with unusual types of tomatoes coming to the fore during the early 1900s.
By the 1950s and 1960s another William, known as Martin, was attracting attention with several large vegetable strains that ‘tasted as good as they looked’. This third-generation member of the Robinson family was instrumental in the foundation of the National Vegetable Society and was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour in 1979 and made a fellow of the Institute of Horticulture in 1986.
Now run by fourth and fifth generations of the Robinson family, with the sixth already in training, W Robinson and Son continues to offer seeds and plants, all of which are produced at the family’s 22-acre Sunny Bank site.
Peter and Andrew Redmayne, husband and son of Susan Robinson, with the Robinson Champion Giant Cabbage
Over the years the company has collected scores of different vegetables and maintained the stringent selection and growing criteria set down during the early days of the business, with notes kept by the second William still used as cultivation guidelines.
Making New Traditions
While the Robinson family is proud of its traditions, it’s not afraid to try new things, with loofahs (luffa) and microgreens such as garlic kale and pea shoots among the latest introductions to go down well with its customers, and modern biomass boilers now providing much of the heat for their glasshouse.
“We have grown sympathetically over the years and haven’t gone from one extreme to another,” says fourth-generation family member Margaret Robinson, who runs the business with her sister Susan, brother-in-law Peter Redmayne and nephew Andrew Redmayne, and his wife Yolanda.
“We work as our grandfather did, not only listening to what people are growing but what they’re doing. For example, we watch cookery programmes to learn what people are looking for.”
William 'Martin' Robinson with his daughters Margaret and Susan at RHS Chelsea Flower Show
The Robinsons have often been ahead of the curve when it comes to unusual vegetables: during the 1960s they were selling peppers and chillis, the popularity of which has risen beyond all recognition over recent years. Nowadays the W Robinson catalogue boasts more than 20 different chillis offering a wide range of heat and sweetness.
This impressive number is surpassed by the company’s selection of heritage and modern tomatoes, which includes ‘Britain’s Breakfast Tomato’, red lemon-shaped fruit with spectacular large spreading trusses; Heinz F1 Tomato, originally developed by the American canned foods company for its products; the blight-resistant ‘Oh Happy Day’ and super-sized ‘Gigantomo’.
Tomatoes and chillis from the W Robinson range
Customers of W. Robinson and Son can buy plants and seeds by mail order or direct from Sunny Bank, which found itself extremely busy after the first lockdown was lifted in 2020.
“We found a lot of people were growing vegetables for the first time and we were rather apprehensive as to how they’d get on,” Margaret says. “Nevertheless they’re coming back for more; it’s clear they’ve definitely got the bug and have really appreciated the incredible flavours they’ve been able to produce. They’ve had such wonderful results that some couldn’t believe they’d done it themselves.”
W. Robinson & Son (Seeds & Plants) Ltd, Sunny Bank, Forton, near Preston, Lancs.
W Robinson and Don Nursery in Forton near Preston