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Meet the Gardening Duo Restoring a Derelict Plant Nursery Near Harrogate

2 people smiling at the camera surrounded by plants Ernesto Rogata
March 2024
Reading time 3 Minutes

Ben Preston and Laura Kennedy have taken on the tremendous task of restoring a derelict horticultural nursery

They tell us more about what visitors can expect at Cliff Bank Nursery, near Harrogate.

Ben is a trained gardener, having studied a degree in Plant Science and Horticulture at Nottingham Trent University. His love of the outdoors and wildlife developed into a love of plants. ‘To be honest I didn’t know it was a viable career but doors started opening up and when I went off to study, more doors started opening up,’ he says. ‘I decided that I would aim for the top end of the industry and try to make a name for myself. It’s actually a non-competitive industry once you get going – it’s just not that accessible for young people.’

As head gardener at York Gate Garden in Adel, which he describes as ‘a lovely little arts and crafts garden,’ Ben expanded the garden, set up a nursery, built a new café and oversaw the development. ‘York Gate was really where I cut my teeth,’ he explains, ‘then the opportunity came to take on Cliff Bank.’

A derelict, seven-and-a-half acre site on the edge of the village of North Rigton, Cliff Bank Nursery is right between Leeds and Harrogate. ‘It was a beautiful site and a pal of mine was the one who found it,’ says Ben. ‘I was very happy where I was but he said “why don’t we go and have a look?,” and I fell in love with it. It was very overgrown and hadn’t been cultivated for a few years but it’s a really beautiful spot. I chatted with my partner Laura and we decided to go for it.’ 

The couple began clearing the area in March 2022, with help from a small drove of pigs. ‘We cleared areas to put some infrastructure in, including poly tunnels and a working area,’ Ben says. ‘There were three major areas that we needed to get sorted which were somewhere to grow the plants, somewhere to sell the plants and somewhere for people to park.’ All of this work is self-funded. ‘We’ve put up a drystone wall, fencing and we’ve recently put up some nursery huts,’ Ben continues. ‘It’s a very quaint nursery and we’re just building a show garden to display the plants that we grow which is something I learnt at York Gate. If people can see it in the garden, that’s what they tend to want to buy. It’s like our own little shop window where visitors can see them at full maturity.’

Over the past two years Ben and Laura have learned plenty about Cliff Bank’s history. ‘We’re not sure exactly how old the nursery is but there’s certainly been a few reincarnations,’ says Ben. ‘A chap came in a few months ago and they’d actually come to pick up a puppy from the village in the late ‘50s and there was a nursery here then. He said there were a couple of lads who went off to the Second World War and came back to work here afterwards, so we can definitely trace it back to the ‘50s, but it could go back even further.’ Cliff Bank might be best known because it was previously owned by BBC Radio Leeds' long-serving gardening expert Joe Maiden. ‘A lot of people have been coming in to see what’s going on because the site has reopened.’

‘Rather than just going to a garden centre and buying plants, I can give personal advice on where things are growing and what plants will suit where’

The couple have received plenty of support from family and friends too, but this monumental mission didn’t come without challenges, especially as they do all their own propagation. ‘It’s hard work,’ Ben laughs. ‘You’ve got to be a master of everything – a joiner, a plumber, a carpenter. We’re a traditional nursery with modern values and we grow unusual plants on site here so we know they’re going to be hardy in Yorkshire. It’s been a learning curve. The weather’s been crazy since we’ve been here with drought and then rain since October, so the seasonality of how we’re going to run the business has been a big challenge. We’ve been selling in summer, doing building work in the autumn, then we had torrential rain for months. But it’s been fun!’

Ben describes Cliff Bank Nursery as ‘where plant nursery meets gardening’. ‘Rather than just going to a garden centre and buying plants, I can give personal advice on where things are growing and what plants will suit where,’ he says. ‘Our ethos really is “right plant, right place". We have pigs here in the summer and a few chickens wandering about, so it’s definitely got an agricultural vibe.’

Ben and Laura could certainly be planting the seed to inspire more young gardeners. ‘One thing I’ve noticed is that the gateway into gardening seems to be through houseplants, which is not something that we specialise in, but it’s certainly a big trend,’ says Ben. ‘People often start with houseplants then transfer into growing veg. I’ve definitely seen more young people taking an interest in it. Me and Laura are only in our 30s so we’re definitely young in the nursery world but we’ve certainly had a lot of couples with first-time homes coming and asking for advice on what to plant in their new garden.’

Ben’s best advice for those wanting to turn their fingers green is to simply give it a go. ‘Loss is an important part of learning and you’ve really got to trial things in your own garden, seek advice from other gardeners and don’t be too sad if you do lose a plant,’ he explains. ‘If anyone buys a plant from us, I’ll tell them how it was propagated and how they can propagate it so when the time comes to grow more from seeds, they don’t have to spend the earth. It’s a very satisfying thing growing from seed. It’s a very cost-effective process too. 

‘Gardens are very personal and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of it; if you enjoy the space that’s the most important thing. We’ve all seen the health benefits of getting out in your garden with the fresh air, and certainly the mental health benefits. It’s about encouraging people not to be worried about getting things wrong.’

Cliff Bank Nursery has been running plant fairs and last December they sold locally-grown Christmas trees for the festivities. The nursery will reopen for the season at Easter and will remain open for visitors until mid October, and Ben and Laura plan on introducing propagation workshops. ‘Visitors can expect a bigger collection of plants, a big collection of ornamental grasses, a special collection of woodland anemones, lots of unusual and rare perennials, and we’ll have the display garden and the new nursery buildings,’ says Ben. ‘It’s about expanding on last year as we become more of a complete nursery, but there’s still a heck of a lot of work to do…’

Cliff Bank Nursery reopens on 27th March. Dates for future plant fairs are coming soon. Visit and @cliff_bank_nursery on Instagram to find out more.

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