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Is the Flower Show on borrowed time?

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 04, 2014

  • My geraniums, featuring many varieties almost lost

  • The new Belton garden centre, which I helped establish forty years ago

  • My dahlias, far more advanced than usual for mid-June

  • The old chrysanthemum nursery where I worked in the '60s

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IT IS amazing how quickly the tennis from Wimbledon seems to come around each year.

It is also amazing to think back to the late 1960s, when I well recall planting out chrysanthemums in what was Belton garden centre near Grantham in Lincolnshire. In those days it was a nursery and it's hard to believe it was almost another 10 years before garden centres as we know them today began to emerge.

I recently revisited Belton garden centre after my former bosses had retired and sold it for redevelopment. Wandering around the spacious glass covered wall gardens, I could almost remember to the spot where the ground was still frozen and the Howard Gem rotavator had to be revved up to cut through the frozen ground, even in late June.

That was following the severe winter of 1968/9 and here we are today with my chrysanthemums already beginning to show colour and dahlias as huge as though it were the middle of August, from tubers that I had left in the ground over winter.

Going back those 40 odd years, dahlia tubers would never have survived that severe winter, it was so cold that even our local river Witham froze over completely.

A lot has changed in the dahlia and chrysanthemum society worlds. When my wife and I first came to the West Midlands in the 1970s there were several chrysanthemum societies, each run by a dedicated team of organisers who would lay out miles of benching to stage magnificent displays. Today, nationally their membership has fallen by more than 75%, as has membership of many national societies.

The National Rose Society had more than 28,000 members in the 1980s, but then the popularity of roses declined partly due to rose rust and the Clean Air Acts, which meant less sulphur in the atmosphere which had previously been acting as an excellent fungicide.

Many of the specialist horticultural societies have suffered catastrophic losses of members, along with more general local garden societies.

In my early days in Birmingham. I was asked to run quizzes for groups such as Kinver Horticultural Society and I well recall often having well over 100 members present. In recent years, numbers have declined and you could say there are more gardening clubs and societies closing each week than there are pubs shutting down.

I'm trying to resurrect the gardeners' weekend which I started at Kings Heath Park in 1984, literally robbing one budget to pay another as we wanted to have free admission to leave money in the pockets of visitors to buy plants.

During the following 12 years or so the show grew in size and national standing. Eventually, as I bowed out, admission charges were introduced and the cost to traders went up to alarming levels. This resulted in massive losses and attendance numbers dwindling from more than 30,000 to less than 7,000 and traders complaining they couldn't make a profit.

It's a shame but gardening shows up and down the country are in the grip of a crisis. Costs are rising, extra regulations and insurances are putting huge burdens on the fees paid by exhibitors and the admission charges paid by the public. The costs keep going up and when you think that the admissions to some of the national shows are approaching £40 plus the cost of travelling, then it becomes very expensive compared with popping down to the local garden centre where admission is free, along with free parking and reasonably priced plants.

At most shows where an exhibitor puts up a display of reasonable size and quality they will be given a small selling table, at some shows a single table can cost £60 or £70. If you don't volunteer to put up a display then costs are significantly higher. The organisers claim this is due to their increased overheads.

Some years ago I acted as adviser on a stand selling slug pellets at Gardeners World Live. We calculated we had to sell more than 6 tons of slug pellets just to cover the cost of the stand. This was without the staff's wages, expenses such as food or accommodation or the actual cost of producing the pellets, sadly, like many companies that slug pellet manufacturer has not attended a single flower show since.

I often ask myself why we attend flower shows. For me it's the excitement of seeing a spectacle. It might be a fantastic display, it could be some very rare plants, but I fear what has been happening in recent years is that exhibitors have being going from one show to another up and down the country using virtually the same exhibit, just adding fresh plants where necessary. I've also heard of several alpine growers who run very small businesses simply cannot attend the shows any more as they do not employ sufficient staff to keep the nursery going while they are away exhibiting.

At one national show this year I heard that four companies plan to retire from the garden shows circuit at the end of the season. For many years I have known Helen and Mark Bainbridge from Fir Tree Geranium Nursery in North Yorkshire. After trading for more than 30 years, Helen tells me the old greenhouses are beyond repair and unsafe to work in, so sadly after their last show at the end of August this year, the bulldozers will level 3 acres of glass, leaving Helen with one small domestic greenhouse in which she hopes to choose a few favourites from the more than 2,000 varieties.

Another worrying aspect of the shows is that the same plants are seen at show after show and are identical to the ones you can find in your own local garden centre, often at much cheaper prices. While organisers such as the Royal Horticultural Society have bent over backwards to provide the best storage areas possible for exhibitors simply dragging plants around the country means that they're not always in the best possible conditions. I know that when Midland growers exhibit at shows in London they will time the delivery of the van for the coolest part of the day, and often organise for special vans to keep the plants cool in the summer or warm in the winter. But I do know that buying from a couple of exhibitors this year all the plants purchased from them virtually turned up their toes within a week or so, making for a costly experience while other plants bought at the same show are perfect and rewarded me with fantastic displays.

At the same show as I saw Helen and Mark, I also learned of one young couple who had taken over an ageing nursery, turned it around, and were growing good plants. They can no longer afford to attend the leading flower shows, which is sad because that exhibit which received a gold medal was their best form of publicity. Two other exhibitors claimed that they were getting too old to sleep in the back of the van and I even know of one vegetable exhibitor who would leave his wife watching the selling table while he literally slept underneath his leeks. Sadly, this man is now turned 80, and driving for hours with a trailer behind his car is getting simply too much for him. The sad fact is, it's rare to see youngsters coming into commercial nurseries, let alone to see them exhibiting week after week. The same is true of our garden societies and clubs where we desperately need to attract young blood.

Looking around a recent regular show, I was one of the youngest at 60+ and there were people a lot older than me dragging tables and trestles about in order to set up for the show. It will be very sad to see these growers, whether they be professional or amateur stop providing such spectacles of colour, but just maybe, we have seen the best days for our flower shows.

What do we have to do to get youngsters into gardening, never mind exhibiting or growing commercially? I believe it's the best, friendliest profession in the world, regardless of what level you're at. It's a fantastic hobby, so if you're not a gardener, then why not start now? Find a local gardening club, enjoy some company. You might just help stop our flower shows disappearing!

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