Fruits of his labour
PUBLISHED: 17:33 07 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013
Ken Muir's famous mail order fruit nursery is based at Weeley Heath, near Clacton. Philippa Pearson discovers the Essex inspiration behind Ken's fabulous success
IT WAS while he was at boarding school in Harlow as a youngster that Ken's interest in horticulture was kindled as he planted bulbs there. Once back home in Edgware, he took over the running of his parents' garden when their gardener joined up for National Service - and such was his enthusiasm for the subject that it was books on gardening that Ken took with him to read when he was then commissioned.
A month after returning from the war, Ken was browsing through the gardening section in Foyles Bookshop in London and bought Grow Your Own Fruit by WP Seabrook. 'It was this book that inspired me to study horticulture and specialise in fruit,' says Ken, who then tracked down the author at his nursery near Chelmsford. Ken worked there for a year then went on to study at Writtle College before buying a 50-acre farm at Southminster with a fellow student, which they planted with apples, pears and soft fruit.
In 1950, Ken sold his share of the farm and bought the smaller but derelict Honeypot Farm, Weeley Heath, where the business is still based. It took a year of hard work before the neglected soil was brought back to top condition and Ken decided to specialise in growing soft fruit. He supplied punnets of fruit to local markets and also to London's wholesale fruit and vegetable markets.
After a call from the manager at Marks & Spencer's Clacton store, Ken became the first grower to supply punnets of soft fruit to the store. News of his delicious strawberries spread and a few weeks later Ken was asked if he could supply other M&S stores. Ken recalls: 'I said I couldn't cover the whole country, but was happy to supply stores in the region including Chelmsford, Colchester, Southend and Ipswich. I bought some more vans and we did daily deliveries.' Ken continued to supply supermarkets with punnets of soft fruit for 20 years and also began opening his farm for the public to pick their own fruit. He introduced the concept of pick your own, an idea not seen before in the UK. In the late 70s and early 80s, Ken concentrated on growing plants for sale and he also wrote a book, Grow Your Own Fruit, the latest updated edition of which was published last autumn.
Today the nursery is the largest mail order supplier of fruit stock and has introduced more varieties of strawberry for the home market than anyone else. Last November, Ken's achievements were honoured when the Garden Writers' Guild presented Ken with its Lifetime Achievement Award to recognise outstanding achievement in the fields of horticulture. A testimony to his fruitful career.