Best of Lancashire: Robinson family's Mammoth success story

A home grown success story means a Lancashire business has earned a coveted crown - as growers of giant vegetables.

Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 4:14 pm

Margaret and Susan Robinson certainly know their onions.

The champion growers are not just the best of Lancashire, their many awards are testimony to the fact they are a legend in the world of horticulture.

So much so that “Home of The Mammoth Onion” is on the sign outside their family’s premises on the A6 at Sunnybank, Forton, near Garstang.

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Margaret (left) and Susan Robinson Photo: Neil Cross

The sisters were born into the 161 year old business, more formally known as W. Robinson & Son (Seeds & Plants) Ltd.

Now in their seventies they are as dedicated to providing quality and exotic veg and plants seed and seedlings as they were when they cherished the opportunity to help out in the family business as schoolchildren.

They may have stepped back from some of the demands of showing - they don’t do the Chelsea Flower Show any more, but still look forward to Southport Show, the Malvern shows, Tatton, the BBC Gardeners’ World show and to relative newcomer show - the Chorley Flower Show. This year they continued the nursery's winning ways, taking home gold at Chorley and platinum at the Gardeners’ World show.

The business was tsarted by the sisters’ great grandfather William and Susan’s son Andrew Redmayne, 41, is the fifth generation to work in the nursery. Susan and Margaret, (who use their maiden name Robinson in the business), followed in the footsteps of their parents Martin and Joan.

A selection from this year's vegetable crop Photo: Neil Cross

Margaret said: “We’re seed producers and we started off with our mammoth varieties - the large onions, the large leeks. Going back 150 years you used to call it exotica. The business was started in 1860. We’ve been on the same site all those years.”

Aubergines, karellas (an Indian cucumber/ bitter gourd) and “all the usual tropical vegetables” featured in their catalogue.

They have seen those vegetables become commonplace. Meanwhile the growth in popularity of TV cooking programmes has also seen their sales of the more unusual offerings soar.

Margaret said: “If they mention something, my word, it’s such a knock on effect.”

Margaret and Susan pictured with part of their collection of nursery memorabilia and photos

She recalls how when celeriac featured in a popular TV chef’s dish “every order had celeriac seed on!”

If ”the cookery really has helped no end”, lockdown has also had an impact, as Margaret explained: “Since lockdown more and more people have realised just because we’re here in the north of England we can grow unusual vegetables. If you’ve got a polytunnel or even a conservatory you can grow all sorts of unusual chillies and peppers. People grow salad things in troughs just outside their back door. It’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to growing vegetables. They can grow in pots and containers beautifully.

“Vegetables were considered the cinderella of gardening, but it’s as if the tables have turned now because vegetables have come to the fore now people are growing them even in their front gardens rather than confined to the back garden.”

The fame of Robinson’s has spread so much that the sisters regularly send seed orders overseas. She said: “We grow all the seed here and we do send it out to hobby gardeners in the UK by mail order and we also ship it out to European countries. We’re actually unique in that we actually grow the seed, process it, packet and distribute it.”

Andrew Redmayne, fifth generation in the business, pictured with one of the Mammoth onions and a cutting featuring him when he was a youngster at the nursery. Photo: Neil Cross

They supply bulk seed to to other UK seed houses and to seed businesses in France and Denmark. They have even been known to send seed to Australia and New Zealand.

That record alone is mammoth - and it all begins on their 22 acre site, which includes three acres of glasshouses where millions and millions of seeds and plants are produced .

But if you’re talking onions it’s necessary to know just how large mammoth onions can grow - Margaret reckons five or six pounds ( 2.3 -2.7 kg) in weight is a good size, although some growers compete to get to nine or ten pounds (4 kg).

The results she says are still sweet and juicy and make “absolutely fabulous onion soup.”

The trade tip for using these onions is to strip one layer at a time.”Each layer the flesh is about a quarter of an inch thick and you just peel one layer off and there’s a perfect onion for the next day.”

The joy of horticulture remains with them. Margaret said: “It’s dealing with nature. You start off with a tiny seed, just the tip of a pinhead and then in three months time you’ve got a large tomato or a pepper, or a leek or onion...that’s really rewarding. In today’s world where everything is manufactured and stereotyped you sow seeds and they germinate and in three or four months you can eat them.”

Grandfather William Robinson who started the Mammoth tradition with a collection of trophies he won in just one year.

As for the onion growing itself, they have retained the same bed since 1860 for growing mammoth onions. Margaret said: “That’s the single area we still traditionally double dig by hand ... we’re just keeping that tradition going. The rest of the nursery is ploughed and rotavated.”

A sense of history and continuity is there in the family records too. Margaret shared the entry she found on one older wartime diary. It said: “Digging onion bed today. News from the Front not good.”

The sisters have kept up that tradition and keep their own nursery diary. Currently five members of the family work in the nursery and each is used to multitasking, with the cycle of growing and harvesting dictating the jobs to be done.

How did the Mammoth name stick for their home bred varieties? Margaret said: “That was our grandfather (also a William). He was a true Lancashire man and he said let’s call them mammoth, a big ‘un and that’s how the name came about. We get some letters here to The Home of The Mammoth Onion and our website is mammothonion.co.uk”

To begin with the nursery had been a smallholding with a range of crops, ranging from soft fruit, apples plums and pears, to onions, leeks and other vegetables, cows and horses.

It was Grandfather William who turned the focus on giant vegetables, winning numerous awards, carefully selecting only the best seed to create his gigantic onions and leeks and all such veg were then prefixed by the word Mammoth. Margaret said: “If it’s got mammoth, the word, that should be ours.”

They open every day of the week Monday - Friday and from March to June are open at weekends too. During Potato Week, (the first week in February), hundreds of potatos varieties will be on sale at the nursery. Nor is it just potato and onions, peas, beans, beetroot, carrots marrows, cabbages, herbs and edible flowers, salad crops, and unusual vegetables all feature on their sales list which includes sets,seeds and young plants. In the mammoth seed section they are proud of the onions, but also of leeks and celery.

From small seeds an enduring and internationally renowned business has grown and today the Robinson family are proud to be flying the flag for the north west and Lancashire with their home grown success story. Margaret said: “We are proud of being northern. We are!”

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Susan pictured amongst the chilli plants Photo: Neil Cross
Susan and Margaret tending a crop of onions being grown for seed Photo: Neil Cross
Part of the Platinum award winning display at this year's Gardener's World show
The growing seed harvest at the home of the Mammoth Onion
The family's gold award winning display at this year's Chorley Flower Show