Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Białowieza - Europe's last virgin forest




The Białowieza Forest in eastern Poland is somewhere I have always wanted to go – the only genuinely virgin, untouched lowland forest in Europe. Last week I finally got to go there, thanks to friend and colleague Małgosia Kiedrzynska who organised the trip. The scale of the place is immense and to us, used only to 'forest' being small areas of woodland, overwhelming. At 1,400 square kilometres it is almost the size of London. The border between Poland and Belarus goes more or less down the middle.

At the moment the forest has a somewhat higher 'recognition factor' than normal, owing to the proposals by the Polish Ministry of the Environment to allow tree felling in supposedly protected areas. See the Guardian article here. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/31/poland-continue-logging-biaowieza-forest-despite-eu-court-ban>

What is intriguing for the British visitor is to see familiar species we all share as natives, both trees and perennial ground flora, growing in very different ways. Everything on one level is totally familiar and on another level very different. Take the trees for a start. There is oak, although it is nothing like as dominant as it would be at home. Oak at home branches low down, even when fairly densely planted, but here the trunks soar upwards, dead straight for 15m, maybe even 20m, and then branch out rather sparsely; they look more like something out a tropical rain forest than anything I'm familiar with. And alder, great dense stands of them, dead straight and soaring upwards, at least half as much again in height with what we are familiar with from British riverbanks.

There is (on the Polish side) a protected core area, which you can only enter with a guide. It is surprisingly light, with a high canopy, a mix of hornbeam, lime (Tilia cordata), ash, maple (Acer platanoides) and oak. Very few trees are actually that big, for reasons I didn't get to understand. What is intriguing is the ground layer. Lots of indicators of high fertility like ground elder and nettle, but they are sparse and mixed up with a huge range of other species. We are so used to seeing both these plants as aggressive weeds, but here it is presumably lower light levels that keep them in check and allow for greater diversity. In fact ground elder is almost universal in light shade everywhere I went on this trip (Latvia southwards) which gives you a different perspective on it compared to the “ohmygod what a terrible weed” attitude we have at home where it is not actually native.

The forest is divided up into a whole series of segments on a grid, put in place by the Russians when it was an Imperial Forest in the latter part of the Romanov regime. Each grid is marked with numbers, which makes it actually very hard to get lost. Different grids are managed differently, with many being commercially managed and others under varying levels of protection. This all means that in travelling around (which we did on bikes) you get to see an enormous range of woodland types: different tree compositions, different soil-determined habitats, and different types of management. And water level, which was particularly interesting.

Much of lowland Britain probably had forest like this, very wet, and at times flooded. Now we have almost none. In fact we have no river floodplain forest at all, and haven't had any for centuries, only a tiny bit of alder carr (wet alder woodland) and very other little wet woodland – most was drained or drained and cleared in the 19th century. Being here and seeing these vast swampy woodlands, where it was simply too wet to risk walking across, gave me a sense of what a lot of lowland Britain must have once looked like. And then there is one area, conveniently located near our hotel, which is spruce over a peat bog, but mysteriously given the obviously acidic conditions, the sphagnum moss etc, there were some (famously nutrient-hungry) nettles. Apparently this is the most westerly example of the habitat that covers vast areas of Siberia – the taiga.

So what about the notorious tree felling which has broght Białowieza into prominence? There is a whole patchwork of old-growth forest outside the main protected zone which the environment ministry has started to extract timber from, under the guess of controlling spruce bark beetle, threatening a uniquely old habitat. Commercial factors are of course thought to be the real reason; presumably because the old-growth trees are bigger or better quality than the truly epic amount of younger material which could be felled without damage to old-growth forest. The forest does seem very poorly managed from a commercial point of view however. I noticed masses of felled timber, much of it presumably felled for safety reasons along roads, where it had clearly been left for years. I suspect the real reason for felling is political provocation, as the current Polish government is one of the few foreign admirers Donald Trump has, and which is similarly dividing families and friends.

To see it in English tap the Union Jack in the top right hand corner.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Gardening's new frontier: Latvia and Lithuania



I've been travelling to eastern Europe since 1993 when Jo got a job in Bratislava, Slovakia. I love the area, for all sorts of reasons, and am particularly fascinated by how societies emerge from a long period of cultural, political and economic repression. I've just come back from a trip where I was lecturing and teaching in Latvia and Lithuania, two of the 'Baltic Republics'. Latvia was fantastic but what I experienced in Lithuania was extraordinary.

“I needed something for the backyard” Lina Liubertaitė recalls. “People here know how to garden, but not how to make it look nice, to design”. And so began one of the most impressive experiments in garden promotion I have come across. Lithuania is a small country in northern Europe, long colonised by Russia under the guise of the communist Soviet Union, and only independent since 1991. Like all ex-Soviet countries, growing vegetables and fruit (with a few flowers on the side) was second nature. It had to be because the shops were often empty. Now there is a new world, of higher living standards, a consumer culture and many entrepreneurial possibilities.

“All the information available was so old-fashioned” Lina says. With a background in marketing, Lina saw the possibilities for promoting gardening, and started writing magazine articles and crucially, began to get local experts to run courses. At the beginning it was hard, a young woman in a rather conservative culture faced criticism as a newcomer, and not a professional or trained horticulturalists. Eventually she has triumphed, with her company and brand - GeltonasKarutis – Yellow Wheelbarrow.

Last week I was one of the speakers at Garden Style, an annual conference Lina has organised for three years now. There were 500 people there, “about half the population” joked a Polish friend (the popn. is actually 2.7million), an incredible number in a small country; a third were professionally involved in gardening or design. Lina gave her conference clout by inviting overseas speakers from year one: Carrie Preston from Holland in year one. The great thing about Yellow Wheelbarrow is that it is a 'one stop shop' for gardening – if you want to know about gardening in Lithuania go to the website. 
 
Lina asked me to do some teaching, as her big thing is education. I ended up teaching three day workshops back to back, with twenty people each day. For the first two days I was interpreted by Rasa Laurinavičiene, a very innovative local gardener whose garden in a village just outside the capital, Vilnius, is packed full of perennials. We used the facilities of Vilnius University Botanical Garden, which is an excellent teaching garden with a wide range of plants. As a garden though, it still feels like it does not yet belong in the modern world, Soviet style public gardening - with but in the best possible way, with enough labour to continue to maintain enormous beds of perennials, and mostly very well-labelled. 
 
As always with east European audiences the thirst for information was almost palpable and there is that wonderful sense that you are really helping something develop. There were plenty of landscape architects in both the Latvia and Lithuania groups, a good sign that quality planting is part and parcel of larger projects here. Indeed in both countries perennial combinations perennial plantings are beginning to emerge in public spaces. Places to watch indeed.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Jimi Blake and Hunting Brook Gardens - Gardening's R&D Department




I recently took a day trip to Dublin, flying there and back in one day, which is not something I have done to anywhere before. To go to Ireland and not drink a Guinness seems sacrilege but sometimes needs must. All for a meeting with Jimi Blake and of course a look around the fantastic garden he has created over the last dozen or so years – Hunting Brook Gardens. I went with Anna Mumford of Filbert Press, as we wanted to talk to Jimi about the possibility of doing a book with him.


Jimi's garden is quite amazing. All the more so for its hidden almost unexpected nature. The Irish countryside is, famously, green, not as green as a Boston-Irish St. Patrick's Day hat of course, but a gentle quiet green, so when you drive off the main road up a very undistinguished looking side road up a hill, woodland on one side, and a field of cows on the other, you do not expect to suddenly turn off into a crazily-flamboyant botanico-artistic wonderland. There is something very 'Portland' about the garden: the defiance of obvious climatic boundaries, the combination of rich textures with strong colours, an obvious passion for diversity, the rather whacky sculptural elements – above all a clear love of plants and of things that show them off.


Gaining a reputation as one of our most consummate gardeners Jimi will undoubtedly fill the shoes of Helen Dillon, who has been gradually, and needless to say, gracefully, retiring for a few years now. Plantsmanship and a good eye so often do not go together, but with Jimi they do. He seems to have an eye for enough consistency to balance the more pushy and show-offy of his plants; bananas arise from a mass of lower herbaceous leafy stuff but are sufficiently far away from other bold exotica that you don't get the sense of overstimulating clash that you get in the gardens of many exoticists. In fact I think it is the combination of an interest in bold foliage and in naturalistic planting that makes Hunting Brook Gardens so good; the frothy chaos of the latter (or what is so often frothy chaos by August) is held together and given focus by the strong forms of the former.

Nurseries and plant hunters seem to be making more and more new cultivars and species available. Of these only a very limited number get a wide circulation. In particular there seems to be a wide gap between the sources of introduction and good creative use in gardens. Nurseries and plant producers only have a limited interest in design, and garden designers are rather infamously, often have rather limited plant knowledge. It is people like Jimi who fill the gap, creatively using new plants.

The imaginative use of new plants is most dramatically seen in the woodland garden. This is actually the newest part of the garden, or perhaps I should say that there has been a huge amount of new planting over the last few years, which will take a long time to really take off. For example, Jimi has been planting out a lot of the dramatic woodland plants being introduced by Bleddyn and Sue Wynne-Jones of Crûg Farm nursery in north Wales from the Far East and Central America: many are shrubby Araliaceae (ivy family) with big dramatic palmate leaves, ferns, hardy begonias and 'Solomon's seals' (Polygonatum, Disporum etc.). These are overwhelming foliage plants, with a vast array of form and texture around a limited range of greens; subtle but a very long season. Many of these might have potential as urban courtyard planting, but we need to see them in an environment nearer their native habitat first – like Jimi's woodland.




Some of the older plantings in the woodland have really taken off, showing what a perfect habitat this is: well-drained soil on slopes, but (it being Ireland) never short of rainfall, high shade from beech and sycamore. Rodgersias and Chrysosplenium have begun to run forming big patches with self-sowing Primula florindae dotted around.

One really important aspect of plant introduction is conservation; natural habitats are being destroyed at a terrifying rate in much of the Far East. Plant populations are often highly diverse with very localised genetically-distinct populations, which is not something we are familiar with in Europe, where the same species is found in the same habitat across vast areas. Each mountain top may have distinct species or at least clearly distinct populations. In many cases cultivation in the gardens of the western nursery trade and consumer may be the only chance of survival.

Less than an hour from Dublin, Jimi's garden is perfectly located for easy access. Its a truly inspiring place to meet new plants and see how they might be used, a true R&D department for horticulture.



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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travels in Iberia



Its at least a month since we got back from a trip to Spain and Portugal, but better late than never. Basically a holiday but also an opportunity to explore central Portugal, where we are thinking of moving to. One of the things that attracts me about living in Iberia (i.e. Spain/Portugal) is the very high level of biodiversity. It is thought that there are approximately 8,000 species of flowering plant, compared to 1500 in Britain. Many of these have never been seriously evaluated for cultivation, and the possibility of being involved in some pioneering work on this front is an exciting one. A more contemporary approach to garden design is beginning to take off in Spain, and there is the enticing possibility of doing some genuinely pioneering work which might have some fruit. 

One groovy biennial umbellifer - Thapsi villosa, would make  a very dramatic garden plant.
Having got off the ferry in Bilbao in our rather elderly camper van we crossed the Cantabrian region to spend a few days in the Picos de Europa, a region which is deservedly legendary for the richness of its wild flora. How many plants can you think of with the specific name cantabrica? Mostly 'rockery' plants. Much of the region is limestone, which means that it has a particularly rich flora – for some reason, which no-one has yet been able to explain, European wildflower diversity is at its richest on limestone – which does not necessarily apply elsewhere in the world. 

Walking through what is basically a fairly rocky countryside, the richness of the flora is soon apparent, with old walls and rock faces being particularly richly varied habitats. A lot of nice looking plants which are too small for borders or perennial plantings but which you could grow on …. well, rockeries. Which begs a question. Who now has a rockery? They were all the rage in the early 20th century and slowly fell out of fashion. They were still popular when I was growing up in the 1970s; I remember my father was particularly good at building them, and filling them with a wide range of plants. I am not quite sure why they have fallen out of fashion. Maybe it is because so many of them were so downright bad, and once they have gotten out of control, with weeds and rather over-vigorous plants, like the infamous 'silver strangler' Cerastium tomentosum. they were just an embarrassing mess which was singularly difficult to clean up, or remove. Perhaps it is time we took a new look at the concept and develop the neo-rockery, the post-modernist alpine garden and look at using second-hand construction materials instead of rocks. Some Dutch growers have started on this route – ideal for the urban environment. Northern Spain has certainly got a wide range of species which would be perfect.

The Picos de Europa has some fantastic meadows, and what looks like just about enough small-scale agriculture to support them. Most remarkable was a wet cliff face we found on a walk which we did when we had to leave the poor old camper van to cool down after it over-heated on a particularly steep mountain road. Here, on a jumble of limestone was an extraordinary mix of species from a wide range of habitats all growing together: woodland Anemone hepatica, peat bog Pinguicula vulgaris, dry meadow Eryngium bourgatii, alpine Erinus alpinus, woodland Helleborus foetidus and tall-herb flora Aconitum sp..
Erinus alpinus and Pinguicula vulgaris

Presumably this mix was growing the way it was because of the almost unique combination of circumstances: plenty of water (enough to flush excess calcium out), perfect drainage (or at least highly oxygenated water), and a reasonable amount of nutrients. I was reminded of another gardening concept which looks like it is going the way of the not-much-lamented rockeries of old - the living wall. Killed off by Patrick Blanc's absurdly expensive and over-ambitious creations and a whole run of appallingly designed systems sold, or built, by many others, the living wall is a great idea which needs to be recovered, perhaps by amateur growers who have the time, the plant knowledge and the enthusiasm to really make something of it. 

This little charmer is Hispidela hispanica - an annual with garden promise.
Driving across the increasingly hot an sunny plains of northern Spain in April, it is the annuals that grow on patches of waste ground that seize the botanical attention, mostly daisy family, or species of Silene. Plenty of things here which might belong in annual seed mixes, if only someone would get around to trialling them. On that front, I am glad to hear that there is a chap in Madrid, Miguel Garcia Ovejero, who is working with the Sheffield annual mixes in some Madrid parks and now some perennial mixes too. There is plenty of biodiversity here which could potentially be included.
Somebody asked me recently about new developments in Spain (maybe Portugal too). They should check out Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos as designers

I haven't seen much sign of innovative garden design in Portugal yet, though there is a Chaumont-style garden festival at Ponte de Lima, and a lot of the new small urban landscape projects you see around are stunningly good, the hardscaping and concepts at least – I am seriously impressed.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Can we have a sensible discussion about Roundup?



Roundup. Incredibly useful stuff. You've got to plant an area up, but how do you get rid of the existing vegetation, specifically all the persistent perennial weeds like couch, ryegrass, bindweed etc.? Or if you are trying to establish a native wildflower meadow mix on a site dominated by pasture grass? Or deal with Japanese knotweed? Or deal with a persistent weed problem which is threatening to overwhelm an existing, perhaps otherwise very successful planting? Or cope with a weed problem deeply rooted into paving or other hard surfaces? Roundup is usually the answer.

For years, since 1974 in fact, Roundup has been an essential part of the toolkit for the landscape and horticulture industries, and increasingly for nature conservation workers too. Now, in the European Union at least, it appears threatened. It needs to be re-registered by EU rules - a process required for all agrochemicals, and designed to ensure that all materials used are regularly reviewed for safety and environmental impact. Re-registration appears to be being constantly delayed. 

There is an incredible amount of hypocrisy round Roundup, and indeed many other agrochemicals. Well-known designers hoe their 'organic' plots in magazine articles and TV progammes but out of the limelight specify herbicide clearance for many of their clients' gardens. A lot of us love to eat in organic 'artisan' restaurants, buy organic food when it suits us, but carry on buying conventional produce the rest of the time. Conventional agriculture, for all its faults, does a remarkably good job of feeding us, on a steadily diminishing global stock of arable land. 

After a very long time in use, there have been countless studies showing Roundup to be, ok, not something you'd pour over your cornflakes, but pretty well harmless to humans. Then a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer came up which claimed a cancer link. The organic lobby, who having ignored the science on the active ingredient glyphosate for years, grabbed this with both hands and ran with it. Only the other day I read a Facebook posting from somebody describing how she accosted a neighbour and accused him of poisoning the neighbourhood. Now there is a story, see here, about how unpublished evidence of glyphosate's safety has been ignored. The cancer scare should perhaps have never seen the light of day, and a lot of unnecessary controversy and worry avoided.

For us in the garden and landscape industry there are two main questions here. One is the safety of this very widely used chemical, specifically of glyphosate, its active ingredient. The other is, given that its safety record has actually been remarkably good over 42 years on the market, why is re-registering so politically fraught?

It is always difficult for those of us outside a narrow scientific circle to really assess whether a chemical is safe or not. Scientific and medical research uses a jargon which can be impenetrable and rarely gives the clear answers we want. Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so. There is a further problem, which is a political muddying of the waters. Environmental campaign groups have long had it in for all agrochemicals, and their well-funded press departments are all too quick to fling out press releases on the latest research findings giving their own point of view. Journalists overwhelmingly react to these, rather than research on their own, they written in plain English, and inevitably take up no more than one side of A4.

Every now and again, I try to take a look at what the scientists are saying, and I have a chat with a colleague who is a plant sciences prof. and does work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What I see and hear is not, to be honest, hugely worrying. You can check it out for yourself on wikipedia – which gives a good dispassionate summary with lots of references. I personally use Roundup, mostly on nursery plots, for which I find it incredibly useful.

Roundup's being in the dock is largely political, an example of how the garden and landscape world is getting blow-back from other, bigger controversies. Many environmentalists hate Roundup because it was invented by Monsanto, an American multinational. It is very hard to have a sensible conversation about this company with many people, largely because of the genetically-modified crops issue. Has there been a single negative impact on human health because of GM crops? No. So, why the almost-hysterical opposition? The sheer irrationality of much of the debate has seeped into and poisoned sensible discussion of so much else. Of course need to discuss how and when we use agrochemicals in the managed landscape, and to continually review this. But we need to look at the evidence and take it from there.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Moving on?



“You should have seen the garden last week” is a comment often heard from the lips of gardeners. In fact it has become something of a joke, about nature's unwillingness to perform on cue, or the inevitable tendency of gardeners to express dissatisfaction with their creations. How much sadder however is “you should have seen the garden last year” or worse still, “... several years ago”.

I have, in my time, been to more than a few gardens which are past their best, and not in a good way. Certain gardens just seem to decay gracefully and still maintain their dignity. Others though decay badly, and sadly. I particularly notice this with gardens which are the result of their owners overextending themselves and being unable to keep up with the maintenance of their own creations. Or being unable to downsize and adjust to changing circumstances.

So, this is one reason, amongst many, that we are planning to move on from Montpelier Cottage. We have been there for twelve years and achieved a lot, and I have certainly learnt a lot. But it is time to move on. I have always seen my personal garden making as much as a process of learning and experimentation as anything else, and I now rather feel that the learning process is plateauing out. There is so much else to be gained from being somewhere else, with different potentials and challenges of soil and climate.

Herefordshire is pretty wet, has very fertile soils and an increasingly we are all having a longer growing season. Stuff grows furiously well, and it has been a great place to grow perennials and learn about their habits and cycles of growth. Unfortunately the weeds benefit too, and I now feel that I spend so much time weeding, or paying others to weed, that it is becoming rather counter-productive. Part of what I have done here however, has been to set up some trial plots looking at low-maintenance weed-resistant planting. They have been very successful and I can confidently say I can now design and recommend plant combinations that will do this. However I am also looking for people who might be able to take on some of the plot combinations for further evaluation. Any volunteers?



The proviso with the weed-resistant perennial combinations is that they are rather restricted in the number of species they use: so these combinations are great for clients such as landscape designers but unsatisfying for the gardener who wants to grow lots of different plants. A few ornamental perennials really do work together to suppress the incredibly effective unwanted plants we have to cope with: mostly pasture grasses, creeping buttercup, nettles etc. However, like many gardeners I want to grow stuff I can't at the moment, or cannot, without a great deal of (mostly weeding) effort.

Now, Jo's daughter and family are decamping/emigrating to Portugal. Total disgust with Brexit, fears for the future of our country, realising that the open society we all fondly thought we were in is in fact something else. A chance for the children to learn another language and get European passports. We think we might join them, and are provisionally thinking of renting a property somewhere most probably in central/northern Portugal next year, as a first step. Maybe a garden there? The sunnier climate is an attraction, but one without a severe water shortage. The country feels like a backwater which is beginning to go good places, whereas I fear Britain is at the top of a long slippery slope towards becoming a backwater. Interesting things are beginning to happen in garden and landscape design both there and in Spain. Some of the new landscaping one can see in Portuguese towns and cities is amazingly good and cutting edge.

I went through several months of feeling very sad about leaving where we are, but the frustrations of trying to keep the garden at an acceptable level with my limited (physical and financial) resources have driven me more and more towards thinking positive about leaving. One pull factor is the very rich flora of Iberia. Yes, I know I complain endlessly about eucalyptus in Portugal, but having just come back from two weeks travelling around (Picos de Europa down to Beixa Alta) I can only look forward to being somewhere much more botanically exciting than Britain: there are c. 7500 flowering plant species here, compared to Britain's 1500. There is a great deal of stuff there which could be good garden and landscape plants. I've always been attracted to the trialling of new plants for cultivation. Not the old-fashioned 'plant hunting' but something much more systematic – looking for species to fill particular functional or aesthetic niches, particularly those which might perform well in drought-stressed or dry summer climates.

For now, this year will be the last one to be able to see the garden. Let me know if you want to come and visit, remember we do B&B. Also, come the autumn there may be plants to dig up if you want to give them a new home. Or indeed a property to buy if anyone is interested!

I shall be very interested in hearing from people already garden making in Portugal or Spain.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

RHS Shows - A Requiem for a great institution



I've taken some time to get this post up, seems ages that I was down in London to do a lecture for the Royal Horticultural Society Spring Show. I'm surprised that I have never done a blog about RHS shows before as they have been a big part of my life, and have been for many other garden people, but unfortunately the way things have gone they won't be for a younger generation. So this posting is a bit of a requiem for what used to be one of London's great institutions.

This particular show was a joint effort with the Orchid Society of Great Britain (quaint that, we used to be Great Britain but at some point we became the rather anodyne United Kingdom; soon of course we probably won't be that either). The Early Spring Show always was a joint enterprise, as there never used to be an enormous amount out in March, but a lot of orchids were looking at their best. This year, much to the disgust of many RHS members, the show in the 'Old Hall' was run separately by the OSGB and everyone, including RHS members, had to pay to go in; traditionally membership entitled you to go to every show. Much grumbling at the gate.

It was a fab show, but then orchids are pretty fab anyway. What was interesting was to see how orchid growing has changed over the years. It is now far more democratic, although the social changes that have happened over the years have been in play for a long time. Once the preserve of the very wealthy, orchid growing has come down the social scale nicely over the years. Centrally-heated houses, cheap methods of mass-production, mass tourism to Thailand where people can see the things in windowboxes - all must have helped.

And one of the most intriguing aspects of the democratisation of orchid growing was here, the Writhlington School Orchid Project, a truly wonderful enterprise, especially since it is at a state school not a private one. Read about it here. It's a wonderful example of integrating hobby orchid growing with science teaching.



Anyway what I really wanted to talk about was not so much orchids but the RHS London shows. In the dim and distant past they used to be every two weeks and were even known to a previous generation as "the fortnightlies". My first awareness of them was my dad going up to London in the 1970s and coming back with catalogues of rhododendrons and pieris and all the other things which flourish on the acid sandstone of Sevenoaks where we lived. Now my dad used to hate London, so they must have been pretty good, and him a very keen gardener, to get him up there. By the time I had started going, they were down to one a month.

By the time I was running my own nursery, showing at the London shows was the obvious thing to do. So from 1988 to 1994 I used to show and sell plants for probably around six shows a year. There was always a fantastic atmosphere, a great way to get to know other growers, see new plants, meet all the top people in British gardening and make friends. Some of the people I met then are still really good friends. The thing I shall always remember was the smell as soon as you entered one of the two halls the RHS owned, a combined mix of flowers and foliage with, I suppose, an undertone of potting compost. You'd spend a day setting up, helped by whoever you knew in London you could rope in to help you. They you'd sell plants and catalogues and answer questions frantically for two days, before breaking it all up and shoving it back, minus the plants you had sold, into your van and the drive back down to - in my case, Bristol.


Shows would generally be in one hall, the New Hall, a rather splendid Art Deco edifice with a fantastic high arching ceiling and wonderful light. If they were really big shows - The Early Spring and the Great Autumn, they would be in the Old Hall and the New Hall. They generally ran for two days and were a great opportunity for people who either lived in London or would come in to London regularly, to buy plants, see what was new, meet people, use the RHS library and generally hang out. Traditionally it was the wealthy, and often quite aristocratic, folk who would have a London house or flat, as well as a country 'seat', who came. They would buy plants which would end up in their garden in the country. But they were also fantastic for people who live in London, particularly for those who were just beginning to get excited about plants and gardening. As my life began to turn from running a nursery to writing, I would quite often send people I met in publishing off to an RHS show. They always came back energised and delighted.

Sadly though, the RHS realised, around 15 years ago that they could make more money selling space in the halls to computer and antique fairs, or renting them out for exams. This coincided with the greater expense and difficulty involved in driving a van into central London, parking it outside for the duration of your setting-up, finding somewhere to park it the rest of the time you were in town, finding somewhere to stay, etc, etc. The number of nurseries began to drop off, and as they diminished, the visitor numbers began to drop too. It became a vicious circle. Many London RHS members were suspicious that the RHS were trying to kill off the shows, so they could make more money renting the halls out. There were accusations that they were not making much effort to market them. The sad thing was that as the shows began to die, the great boom in vegetable growing took off, and the RHS was no longer in a position to attract a new, and younger audience. In 2011, the RHS announced that they had leased the New Hall (now the called the Lawrence Hall) to Westminster School for 999 years, and it would be used for flower shows only four times a year. No doubt they will do good things with the £18million they got for the deal (which makes you think, what kind of school is it that has that money to spend ! the only person I ever knew who went to Westminster ended up joining the International Marxist Group - I remember him swanking around in one of those combat jackets the IRA used to wear). BUT to lose your London base, the opportunity to present gardening to one of the world's wealthiest and most dynamic cities, seems to many of us like selling the family silver for a mess of pottage. (for non-English readers, that means a bowl of watery soup). The loss of the shows has been a great sadness for many.