Malvern Spring Festival

Last year, about this time, I was grumbling about everyone’s
obsession with the Chelsea Flower Show and the other RHS shows. This year, we
took the plunge and took ourselves off to the RHS Malvern Spring Festival last
weekend to see what the fuss was all about.

First impressions: smaller, messier and far, far more
commercial than I had expected. Show gardens which look vast on television are
actually quite modest (though, in most cases, no less lovely), and even the
Floral Pavillion (every ‘serious’ gardener’s highlight, seemingly) was – whilst
big – not somehow as big or overwhelming as I’d thought it would be. And the
kasbah dimension of the whole thing was something else. A huge number of
stands, selling everything but plants (there are, of course, lots of plant
stalls as well) – kitsch, tat, expensive, cheap – you name it, much of it only
tenuously connected to gardening in any form. Some stalls wouldn’t have looked
out of place on Salisbury Market of a Saturday morning; others were straight
out of the fanciful – nay, often laughable – advertisements towards the back pages
of Gardens Illustrated and The English Garden. Just how many ersatz
shepherd’s huts do these people sell, I ask myself, the recent film of Far From the Madding Crowd
notwithstanding?

My prize for the most ridiculous offering goes to the empty
glass Coca Cola bottle, on sale for 20p amongst the distressed and rusted ‘set
dressings’ (tin buckets, old tools and the rest) at one impeccably tasteful
stall.

The plants were, though, wonderful to see. The show gardens
were all beautifully planted, and many of the nursery displays in the Floral
Pavillion were equally stunning. Some plants were ubiquitous – Anthriscus  sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ (a cow-parsley with
deep purple stems) cropped up everywhere, as does its common cousin in the
wild.

Having seen the show gardens previewed on Gardeners’ World the day before was
helpful: it gave an insight into the design process behind some of the gardens,
and allowed one to focus more on the detail of planting. There were fewer of
them, though, and they were smaller than they looked on screen – especially the
(admittedly amazing) Andalucian street scene. Hoi polloi, however, were kept behind a rope and not allowed to sip
sangria around a cafe table as Monty and co had done.

My favourite was the Bees’ Knees garden – clever and
practical design matched by lovely plants, with an important ‘message’ about
providing simple, single flowers for pollinating insects.

The school gardens were fun too, their design reflecting not only the local landscape, but also children’s books such as The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Whilst superficially sensible, those folding pull-along
crate trolleys many people take were a damned nuisance for everyone else. They
don’t hold more than a few plants anyway, and one couldn’t move for them in
places. Some folk even had additional folded trolleys in their trolleys – how many did they imagine they could pull at
once? We made a couple of trips back to the car when we became laden with
plants, which gave us a break from the crushes and allowed us to stretch our
legs a bit (shuffling is so tiring).

So, a learning experience. What would be my tips for garden
show novices?

1.      
Take a list if there are plants you know you
want for particular places in your garden

2.      
Set a budget (and stick to it)

3.      
Arrive (and leave) early to avoid the worst of
the crowds and traffic

4.      
Don’t exhaust yourself looking at stands in
which you have no real interest – spend more time looking at fewer things, and
thinking about what you’re looking at

5.      
Take photographs and make notes, or it all
becomes a blur (even before you’ve left)

6.      
Think-through your purchases. I lost count of
visitors who’d bought unwieldy items early on, and were then condemned to carry
them all day. If it’s large or heavy, leave it until the end.

All common sense really. And as for Chelsea: I’ll be watching it from the comfort of my living room again this year.

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