An Olympian ‘growing’ for gold

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
July 2012

Steffie Shields meets Chelsea Gold winner extraordinaire, Johnny Walkers
Last month, amid the razzmatazz of the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, did you by any chance notice a cloud, a host of golden daffodils on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s glorious Royal Barge, gliding up the Thames? Who contributed to this spectacle, by managing to provide creative designer, Rachel de Thame (fitting surname!) with fresh daffodils in June? The answer is Lincolnshire’s own Johnny Walkers, the founder of Walkers Bulbs, a specialist mail order division of Taylors Bulbs in Holbeach, South Holland.

After Rachel’s phone enquiry out of the blue last February, Johnny had been able to hold back flowers, originally intended as his Chelsea Flower Show stock, an extra couple of weeks in cold store. Hence Wales was properly represented with daffodils, naturally together with leeks, along with emblematic English roses, Scottish thistles and Irish shamrock, in the magnificent Union centrepiece of this floral extravaganza.

The day I met Johnny, he had just waved off a truckload of Narcissus ‘Best Seller’, ‘Golden Aura’ and ‘Golden Joy’, on their way to London to embellish the ‘Spirit of Chartwell’. He was relieved that this significant ‘royal’ request had been fulfilled, mercifully without impacting on this year’s Chelsea result. I congratulated him on his remarkable tally, twenty-five RHS Gold Medals, and nineteenth ‘on the trot’. I have been hooked on spring bulbs, since a life-changing visit at the age of eight to Keukenhof, Holland’s magical theatre of living, riotous colour, so I found his passionate ‘gold fever’ totally engaging.

Johnny’s parents were both Dutch; bulb-growers from Hillegom, a town in the western Netherlands, centre of the bulb-growing industry – coincidentally in the province South Holland. They came over here in the 1930s to learn English. When WWII broke out, his mother stayed put in Spalding, while his father joined the Dutch Free Army, serving as a dispatch rider based at Congleton in Cheshire. After the war, large numbers of people experiencing renewed hope and aspirations to rebuild damaged lives were prepared to take a coach or train to wonder at the Spalding floral parades, and be uplifted by the perfume and sight of millions of bright flowers. (Today, as a world-travelling public, with widescreen, high definition digital colour television in nearly every home, do we all take such shows as Spalding and Chelsea for granted?) As Lincolnshire’s bulb industry expanded once more, Johnny’s parents were happy to stay. One of seven children, with four brothers and two sisters, Johnny learned a strong work ethic from both his parents, at first cleaning bulbs to earn pocket money, or picking flowers. Without really realising it, he learned all there is to know about growing bulbs from his father – invaluable ‘drip-feed information’.

After horticultural college, Johnny worked for eighteen years for Lingarden Co-operative, studying the logistics of supply and demand in marketing bulbs, and sharing his experience and technical advice on growing and quality control with member daffodil growers in-county, and from Cornwall, Somerset, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Yorkshire. Daffodil bulbs need good, moisture-retentive, well-drained soil and good growing conditions to be free of virus disease and pests such as eelworms. They don’t like drought, or to be water-logged.

In 1986 Johnny set up an independent mail order business specialising in new and unusual varieties. Entering the Chelsea arena for the first time, he set the highest standard from the word go, walking away with a Gold Medal. Within eighteen months, interest rates doubled to sixteen per cent followed by a drastic postal strike in September – a critical month for mail orders. After soldiering on for six years, he sold to Taylors Bulbs, but continued his love affair with golden daffodils. Now also quality manager at Taylors, over and above running his mail order business, in 2003 the Daffodil Society made Johnny an honorary vice-president in recognition of his services to the daffodil industry, many years spent promoting daffodils and maintaining quality. He talked with appreciation, remembering fellow growers, passionate experts and amateur enthusiasts, including the renowned Harry Cauldwell.

Those who participate at Chelsea know that it is an exhausting, stress-packed labour of love. Johnny winces at the memory of a traumatic year, 1993, when the automatic defrost system of the cold store failed, and another, when prize flowers were crushed by a shelf collapsing in the van. He always double checks every aspect, every step of staging, growing a minimum of 10,000 daffodils for ‘belt and braces’ back-up supplies. Bulbs are chosen from stock in August. They used to be grown outside for six weeks before cold storage for six weeks. Since 1993, methods have changed as science has developed.

Johnny explained: “Now bulbs are kept warm in trays in a temperature-controlled store, 20-22 degrees Celsius until Christmas; then, ten days of 10 degrees C in good quality, damp compost to encourage rooting; followed by thirteen weeks of cold store at 2 degrees C. Three weeks before Chelsea, they are moved into glasshouses – that’s when I start praying. Four hours of sunshine is worth 10 degrees of oil.”

Mother nature’s ultraviolet light is key. No surprise to hear, with this year’s topsy-turvy weather, a gloomy April with night frosts had been challenging. On 9th May, twenty flowers were open, when he needed at least 2,000. Yet Walkers’ stand in the Floral Marquee successfully exhibited 2,100 perfect specimen flowers massed in bowls, backed by feathery evergreen foliage, Cupressus x Leylandii. In prime position, ‘top middle’ shelf of the display, Johnny chose a red double daffodil ‘Beauvallon’ (2005 Award of Garden Merit) to catch the judges’ eyes. To show me, he dived in among buckets full of ‘standby’ bunches, left over from Chelsea and held the star flowers tenderly, carefully inspecting every head, before displaying the bunch like an Olympic torch.

Rather than four years, the average preparation time for athletes chasing gold, modern commercial hybridisation takes fifteen to twenty long years of development, before acceptance on the International Daffodil Register and mass production. Recently introduced to a spray to keep flowers fresh, (every week in cold store means a day’s loss of vase life), Johnny showed me an initial trial, two bowls of ’Ice Follies’. Where the unsprayed flowers in the control bowl were definitely dead, the sprayed arrangement was still a fine show. Perhaps in future he will not have to replace the complete Chelsea display on the Wednesday and Friday nights, as he has always done.

Time was Johnny could tell from orders rolling in during Chelsea week whether all the effort, and sleepless nights immediately prior to the show, had been worthwhile. Nowadays, although orders are still taken during Chelsea, many people use the internet for mail orders. He has to wait patiently for these to come in ( Aged sixty-seven years, still planning, still enjoying the challenge of bringing new introductions to the marketplace, will Johnny ever retire? A Narcissus ‘St David’s Day’ commissioned by a Garden Centre in Raglan, Wales, is to be introduced later this year – no doubt another winner.

Asked to name his favourite daffodil, Johnny said that it was like being asked to name a favourite child. After more consideration, he remembered seeing, just about the time he was leaving school, a large, shimmering white patch of ‘Pheasant’s Eye’; late-blooming, fragrant narcissi, reflexed white petals, and an eye-pleasing small, yellow centre edged with red. His secret weapon is this eye for detail, form and colour now honed to gold medal-winning perfection. Perhaps, just as David Beckham’s nickname is ‘Golden Balls’, Johnny’s should be ‘Golden Bulbs’! His achievements, benefitting millions, are beyond measure. A true gentleman and inspirational Olympian in the horticultural field, keep ‘Growing for Gold’ Johnny!

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