THE GARDENING AUTHOR

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Following her Horticultural studies, Val Bradley worked at Challis of York, Cramphorn’s and the RHS garden at Wisley. She has taught at horticultural college and at Adult Education classes, covering topics such as: propagation; pruning; plant nomenclature; use and maintenance; using plants in the home; basic garden design; fruit and vegetable growing. 

Last week, I was reading the results of a survey (what did we do before those?) about gardening trends. It found that more and more young people are turning to gardening, but that they want immediate results and are doing it for aesthetic reasons, rather than the enjoyment of it. They have read the articles that say a good garden increases not only the value of your property, but also your quality of life and they are keen to adhere to the mantra – as long as it doesn’t require too much input of time or effort.

This reinforces the message that was being given out at the open day of one of the major seed and young plant producers last year, that most younger buyers now want DIFM (do it for me) rather than DIY. Their response was to produce their young plants as kits of container and plants that simply needed assembling – and they were selling very well. This year’s open day is coming up soon and I’ll be interested to hear the follow-up as well as what they are planning next.

Somehow, though, I do find it sad that this instant generation can’t find the time to complete the process. Everyone is so intent on cramming as much as they can into their days that it’s no wonder they’re stressed. They need to take time to “smell the roses” (literally!).

Gardening is a calming and relaxing hobby as well as one that can get you fit, it just depends what you want from it, from a window box to an allotment. Personally, I can lose hours just pottering in the greenhouse … and before you say that it’s a sign of age, I should add that I have been doing this all my life and was just as happy in the garden when I was a teenager as I am now. My first foray into gardening came with a packet of “Cottage garden mixed” seeds at the age of about 2, thanks to my grandmother (I still love Californian poppies to this day). She made sure I learned how to prepare the soil, sow the seeds, look after them as they grew and then (finally) she let me pick them. The later ones I wasn’t allowed to pick, so they could set seed for the following year, and she then showed me how to harvest and save the seed (it was too expensive to buy fresh every time).

I became fascinated by the propagation of new plants, to the extent that the greenhouse was full and I always had some to give away or swap. Putting roots on cuttings is so easy compared to fitting the results into an already crowded garden!

I really hope that having plants around is the first step for at least some of these people and that they get bitten by the bug. It’s a hobby that can last a lifetime, help you relax and make friends and even feed the family with fresh, healthy veg and fruit. New converts to gardening do sometimes tend to be zealots who rush out and write a book, but only because they want to pass on the joy of their new occupation.

I’ve been doing this for, well, a long time and I would never presume to call myself an expert. I’ve met people who spend their entire lives growing one particular type of plant and I could never hope to come close to knowing as much as them about it. They truly deserve the title “expert” on that plant, but they probably know little about any others.

Starting small is good and if buying a kit this year leads to growing more next year, then it has worked. Let’s hope that the survey I read in a few years is one that says gardening is replacing computer games as the number one pastime of the young!

Well, the show is over and we survived. We talked to hundreds of gardeners and sight-seers alike, from all over the world and sold many of them plants. The exhibits came together in the end and we were awarded Silver for one and Bronze for the other. The show closed at 5.30 on Sunday afternoon and, by the time we left at around 8, there was little left. The stands themselves were dismantled yesterday and today, the RHS construction team have moved on to the site of the Tatton show in Cheshire, which is on next week. How the exhibitors who move around doing all the shows can face another so quickly, I have no idea.

It was noticable that people were spending less freely this year and being quite selective about what they did buy. However, not one person asked about the provenance of the plants. However much governments and lobby groups may bang on about the environment and miles travelled, to the buying public the key factor is cost. They simply don’t care if the plant has been raised locally (and has travelled fewer miles to get to the show than they have) or if it has been flown in from Holland.

This does make it difficult for the local grower. Unlike Holland, where horticulture is heavily subsidised, our growers are on their own and have to pay the market rate for their heating fuels and transport costs. Plants can be brought in from the Continent for a fraction of the cost of production here and the fact that the quality is often variable is irrelevant. The DIY ’sheds’ and chain garden centres would rather shift large volumes of cheap plants than stock local produce that has to cost more. What they don’t offer the keen gardener, though, is a wide choice. And that’s the value of these shows.

I had many conversations with delighted gardeners who had found plants that were ‘a little bit special’ and ‘not one that I could find in the local garden centre’. This is how the divide is opening up; if you want ordinary plants at a cheap price, then shop at the DIY shed or chain garden centre. But if you are a keen gardener and want something different, then seek out the independant nursery or visit them at shows like Hampton Court or Tatton. These are the growers of the plants they are selling and they are the very best people to ask for advice.

Besides, it’s a very pleasant day out!

Well, there’s less than a week to go now until the RHS Hampton Court Palace flower show opens and do we have our exhibits ready? Not a chance! It is with both fear and trepidation that we face the prospect of not having enough material to fill the stand. The RHS don’t look kindly on that (the RHS don’t look kindly on very much when it comes to its flower shows, actually, ask anyone who’s ever exhibited for them) so we could be thrown, quite unceremoniously, out.

So what’s gone wrong? Well, mostly a lack of communication by the look of it – which is not good from people like us who work in the world of communicating information.

We haven’t grown any of the plants ourselves. we’re acting on behalf of several nurseries, to promote their new plants. All well and good, but assumptions have been made that things were happening that weren’t. Hindsight is always 20:20 and this won’t happen again, because we’ll know what is likely to go wrong, but that doesn’t help us for this year.

Anyway, with the assistance of some colleagues and a healthy dose of luck, we’ll get sorted by the weekend and have our two stands looking acceptable ready for Press Day on Monday and opening on Tuesday. Fingers crossed.

If I don’t appear here next week, it’s because I’m at the show, so forgive me. I’ll let you know how it goes…

How do people go through the year doing show after show?? Some exhibitors do the entire summer season on the road, going from one show to the next. They have my full admiration, they really do.

We do an exhibit at Chelsea most years and now, for the second time, something at Hampton Court too. In fact this year, we have 2 stands at Hampton Court, something we may never repeat! It seems like such a simple idea, in the depths of winter with the Show a good 6 months away, to have the space to show lots of new introductions and help push British growers and their plants.

The reality? Well, that’s proving a bit different. One stand is growing well: 2 walls and a pyramid of Littletunias and 3 new hardy Verbenas. We’re going to Norfolk again tomorrow to see them, but the pictures Delamore’s nursery keep sending look really positive and healthy.

The other stand is a disaster. Thanks to a breakdown in communications, the plants for that one have either been sold or have no flowers on. The 2 nurseries concerned are being as helpful as they can, but you can’t make flowers happen if they’re not there. We’re now having to rethink the display so we can keep the main plant (Agapanthus) – which may or may not be in flower – and still make a good show. Cut flowers may be involved – if we can get them.

On top of all this horticultural angst, the RHS are sending more paperwork than you need to light a fire. Risk assessments, fire regulations, bomb search information, forms for this, more forms for that, extra forms if you need a forklift or extra tickets … oh, it’s endless! And each goes back to a different department in a separate envelope. We’re keeping the postal service afloat.

The Show starts in a little over a week with Press Day on July 6th, so keep your fingers crossed that we manage to put both exhibits together and still stay sane.

Oh, and it doesn’t stop there, either, because we had co-opted our younger son and his girlfriend into helping us sell throughout the week of the Show. He’s the badminton fanatic and, over the last fortnight, he’s had offers of work and training that he just can’t turn down – and yes, every one of them falls during that one week.

If this comes together it will be nothing short of amazing.

Do you ever get the feeling that something is just not meant to be?

The best news I’ve seen this week as I’ve searched out juicy stories for www.thegardeningchannel.net website news is that small nurseries are enjoying a boom season. An industry survey has found that the current recession is causing a bit of a sea change in peoples’ attitudes to their gardens.

They are spending more time at home and are going back to having a nice garden, rather than an “outdoor room”, so they are seeking out different plants. The lack of choice and good advice available from most of the chain garden centres and DIY sheds is driving them to seek out the small nursery, where they can chat to the staff and get valuable growing tips as well as quality plants. The average spend per head is down on last year, but the customers are becoming much more selective.

Realistically, this can only be good for horticulture and gardeners. For years, the chain gardening centres have had an “import them cheap and pile them high” approach to the plants they sell and they’ve skimped on staff training to the point where many plant area staff can barely tell you which way up to plant something. They’ve systematically driven small nurseries out of business or bought them up to close down the competition. This stifles choice and actually depresses the market, because left with little selection, people often give up looking.

Now, with competition from the internet and the rise of the small specialist again, the choice will expand and a new generation will realise just how many plants are out there to be used. One Chrysanthemum grower, who exhibited at Chelsea for the first time, has found himself with more orders than he can cope with. Younger gardeners were delighting in the plants they recognised from their parents’ and grandparents’ gardens, but had forgotten about.

This is the direct fault of television gardening shows and gardening magazines, which dwell on the trendy at the expense of the plants themselves. When did you last see conifers, heathers, alpines, Rhododendrons, Dahlias or trees (and the list goes on) mentioned in depth?

My advice to people these days is to go to Shows and local Open Gardens whenever they can. People like my fellow blogger, Julie, work very hard to keep gardens like these looking good and are usually quite willing to chat to and help visitors. Many sell plants, too, and this is the sort of place you can pick up a real treasure, not the garden centre. Go there for the cheap compost! Maybe then, if they see their sales falling, they’ll get the message and improve their act.

I’m late writing my blog this week, I know, but I do have a good reason. I’ve been completely tied up helping my elder son start up his new business. It’s one of those times when “Of course I will” is out of your mouth before your brain has had the time to catch up and work out the implications. Now I find myself with a huge commitment just as we go into the run-up to the one show of the year where we not only stage and run 2 exhibits, but sell plants too.

To be fair, he’s working really hard, too, and we don’t see that much of him even though he’s only upstairs at home. He’s trained in producing broadcast-quality visual material (television, web, etc) and is branching into making short information films for companies to mount on their websites. Like any new business, the hard part is getting the first few customers, but he has 14 clips to work on already – and that’s where I come in, because at the moment, they all involve gardening (well, they would, wouldn’t they?). So I have the responsiblity of keeping the various projects alive and healthy while the filming goes on through the season. No pressure then!

You have to bear in mind here that we have one of the smallest gardens in the world (well, it feels like it at the moment) and just finding somewhere to keep everything is a logistical nightmare. What I wouldn’t give for another area the same size just to keep the new plants! Actually, I’m going to ask our dentist if she’ll let us use part of her large garden – she adores plants and many a dental exam has been passed surprisingly pleasantly while discussing what she’s been planting lately (obviously she does most of the talking!).

It’s quite amazing how what you thought was a well-laid plan can suddenly go completely to pot. I thought we’d got Hampton Court sorted out, with Steve and I manning one exhibit and our younger son and his girlfriend the other all week. Hard work and long hours, but fun. Now I find that the Level 2 badminton coaching certificate training he’s been waiting to do falls in the same week and we’re going to lose him on at least one day, if not 2. Aaargh! One person can’t cope all day on their own, so I’m now scratching round to find a willing mug (oops sorry, volunteer) to help us.

I know I’d go mad if my life was quiet and peaceful and I wouldn’t swap what I have for the world. Two people we know have died very suddenly within the last week and it puts a new perspective on things to know that can happen. Live life as if every day is your last – one day, you’ll be right.

I’m not trying to get all philosophical here, but isn’t time strange? Why does one person think a morning has flown and another that it’s dragged? One week, I spend every waking hour trying to get everything done, yet another week, I seem to manage things better and the number of hours is quite adequate. This week, although I’ve been busy catching up after Chelsea and getting forms filled in for the exhibit at the Hampton Court flower show, I’ve found myself wishing I had another book on the go as well.

Actually, these days, “gardening author” would be a misleading name, because I haven’t written much lately at all. Yes, Steve and I still write for the newspaper and he still has regular articles for magazines, but the other odd bits and pieces of work we used to pick up have dried up as more and more magazine writing is being done in-house to keep the costs down.

The new books that are coming out are mostly being published under TV celebrity names. The old adage that anyone can do gardening applies now more than ever. Yes, of course anyone can garden, but are they doing it right? Are they explaining why you do something? So few of these people have done any training, it’s unlikely, but then the public who buy the books don’t realise that. Gradually, knowledge is being lost.

At college, we briefly had an amazing lecturer who had started his gardening career in private service. His tales of life as a young lad working in the grounds of a large country house were fascinating. Like having to rake the long gravel drive every morning before the “family” went out – but having to dive into the bushes if the car did come down the drive, because the staff should not be seen. He had worked and studied his way to the top of the horticultural teaching profession and possessed a wealth of knowledge that few today can rival (I wish he’d written a book!).

Yes, times and techniques change. We had to spend long hours learning how to double-dig our practical plots at college, yet now double-digging as a technique is no longer generally practised, as it damages the soil structure. The point is, we know how to do it and why it has changed. In one of the Sunday magazines last week, a TV gardening “guru” recommended using a product that was withdrawn from sale two years ago (Derris). Staying up-to-date is crucial, but it requires time, effort and the interest to do it.

I always liken gardening to any other task around the house. Yes, I could repair a tap or wire a plug, but if it came to it, I wouldn’t try replacing the central heating or rewiring the house, I’d call in an expert who could do the job properly and to whom I could turn afterwards if there was a problem.

That would save time, effort and money too!

The Show is over, long live the Show! Even as the exhibits are being dismantled, the planning for the next Chelsea flower show has begun. Deals were being struck towards the end of the week regarding finance, planning and supply. Gardening is big business, even at the moment, and Chelsea is one of the foremost showcases for it in the world.

Around the showground last week, I heard so many different languages and accents, I lost count. Regional accents from all around the UK, you would expect, but there were German visitors, American, Scandinavian, Japanese, Chinese, French, Dutch, Italian ….. the list goes on and on. Gardening and a love of plants is universal and transcends language. Everyone was there to see the displays, enjoy the atmosphere and (hopefully) pick up a few ideas for their own garden. Television crews from all over the world vied for position on Press day – and quite how they don’t end up just filming each other as they go round, I will never know.

Shows like this are important for all sides, really. It’s vital that the growers have somewhere to show their new introductions and the manufacturers their new products, but equally important that gardeners have a chance to see all these things in their place (rather than just in a shop, where it may be more difficult to put it into a context). You can read about a new plant in a book or magazine, but it’s much better to see it growing. Very few people leave a show like this without buying something, but with Chelsea, the only time you can buy plants is as the bell rings to signal the end of the Show on Saturday at 4pm.

You have to experience this “sell-off” to really understand just what it’s like. The atmosphere begins to change from around 2.30 as the anticipation starts to build. People begin staking out their claim by standing next to the display they wish to purchase from. Some stands will take orders and put the buyers’ names on particular plants, but others either can’t or choose not to in case the person doesn’t come back and the plant remains unsold.

As the bell rings, the scrum begins with a forest of hands flourishing money towards the person trying desperately to stuff plants into carrier bags as fast as they possibly can. It’s manic, hectic, even funny and at the end, you stand back exhausted and survey the carnage that is all that remains of your beautiful display. Then it’s time to take a breath, clear away the debris and move on to the next show. For some growers, that will be this week. They will select the shows they want to go to and spend weeks on end living out of their vans as they go round, with just the odd visit home to replenish the stock, kiss the family and go again.

It’s no wonder that the regulars on the show circuit become firm friends. They swap plants to fill displays, lend tools and equipment to each other and cover for each other if they need a break. All to make sure that the gardeners who attend get a choice of all the wonderful plants that are out there. This is the real source of gardening inspiration!

I wrote recently about the power of words and today it was in evidence more than ever. I was at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London (and yes, I do know it’s not open yet….it’s one of the perks of the job to get in early on a Press badge and I love it!) and wordsmiths from all over the world were there in droves. Japanese and Australian television were represented, as well as our own BBC and there were presenters there from lots of local radio stations (some actually live on air, others recording for later).

Then there were the scores of gardening journalists, hungry for something new to fill the column inches over the next month until it’s time for the next one, the Hampton Court Palace flower show in July. They were out at the stands talking to the growers, they were typing frantically in the Press tent and they were dotted around everywhere comparing notes with each other. Who’s seen what, where…and is it worth me going for a look too?

And this is actually on the day before Press day! It will all start again tomorrow, but there will be the added bonus of the celebrities who come along. Some come because they have had a plant named after them, some to endorse a charity, others just to see the show – or be seen at it. Many are keen gardeners themselves and use the opportunity to have a one-to-one chat with the growers and pick up some tips. It’s good fun for the rest of us; celeb spotting is good sport. Who have you seen? How did they look? Were they pleasant or bad tempered – because, unbelievably, some are quite rude considering that, at the end of the day, it’s just a flower show.

Later on tomorrow, the Royal family will tour the show and that will excite real interest. Most of the national papers will carry a picture of at least one Royal at the show in their Tuesday morning edition and the column inches will expand if the picture can be linked to a good story. Then it’s Gala evening, when the corporate entertaining takes over and the champagne flows. That’s the time to entertain valuable clients and talk business while the respective partners enjoy the displays. The Press aren’t normally included in this bit, which is why you seldom hear about it, but it’s a very important part of the social season in our capital city.

Tuesday to Saturday, the show is open to RHS members and then the general public, who will have seen or read about the show and will probably have at least one thing that they already want to see. It may be a garden, a flower, a plant or a person, but the day won’t be complete until they’ve seen it for themselves. They’ll go home with pictures, memories, sore feet and a catalogue – so they can get in touch to order all those things that they suddenly wish they’d bought at the time, but didn’t fancy carrying on the Tube or squashing into a coach.

We’ve already started our coverage in the Sun newspaper because we’re backing 4 small gardens in the Pavilion and we’ve told the story behind each. We’ve also covered the story of the garden being built to raise funds for the Help for Heroes campaign, which the Sun is backing strongly. So words can help raise money and awareness, too.

By the end of this week, countless thousands of words will have been written about this one event and who knows, you may have read some of them yourself. I hope they interest and inspire you!

Words are fascinating: they have the power to inspire and instruct, to hurt or to move to tears. Used well, they can impress, but used badly they can let you down. Personally, I love getting letters! I have one particularly good friend who writes wonderful, long letters. We shared a house a long time ago in our college days and our paths have long since parted, but we stay in regular contact via letters and, these days, email. Through good times and bad, it’s good to be able to share how you feel with someone else and to know they’re there for you.

I suppose that’s why forums are so popular on the internet. It’s a way to express your feelings or ask a question with a like-minded group of people. I was the resident “expert” for 18 months on a forum for one of the bigger gardening magazines and I really enjoyed it. Most of the people on there were lovely; genuinely interested in their gardens and eager to have their questions answered. I got to know my “regulars” and their gardens very well, especially one lady who was trying to cope with a new garden in Italy (I did a lot of research on citrus and olives for her!). Sadly, there are always the odd few (on every site) who just seem to want to moan and are utterly nasty in what they say. The internet gives you anonymity (or an alias to hide behind), so it’s much easier to be hurtful without fear of repercussions and, of course, the target of the bile can’t answer back without appearing just as bad.

Thankfully, most of what’s being written in the gardening world at the moment is positive. The industry is booming, with no sign of the downturn that’s affecting so many other sectors. It seems that this year, everyone wants to work in their gardens, rather than just using them as an outdoor room. Grow-your-own is huge and the sales of young vegetable plants are going up through the roof. Next week, we have the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which will feature heavily in the Press and on TV in its capacity as the world’s premier garden show. It always heralds the start of the show season for me (although I know it’s not actually the first one) and the start of the summer. I have my fingers crossed for good weather, so that the thousands of people who make the trip to the show from all over the country (and the world) can have a good time and see everything. It can be pretty humid in the Pavilion at the best of times, but when everyone’s soaked ….

It’s always interesting at events like Chelsea to meet up with all the other gardening journalists and authors. It’s the best way to find out the state of the industry: who’s got work and who hasn’t. Unlike some authors, who prefer to specialise, we have written on a wide range of topics from propagation to tools and fragrant gardening to pruning. All have been commissioned, because although when you say you’re an author, people assume that you can just take an idea to a publisher and they say yes, it’s not actually that simple.

Steve and I have always tried to make our books inspiring as well as useful and I hope we’ve succeeded. We’ve stuck to the maxim that if you tell someone how to do something, they’ll do it once, but if you explain why they’re doing it, they’ll do it forever. Many “celebrity” authors won’t do personal appearances for this reason: they can’t explain why something has to be done because they don’t actually understand it themselves. The dilemma for the publishers, of course, is that the big names sell the books and they have to meet their targets in order to cover their costs.

So here we are, good with words (very inspiring and instructional) – just not well-known!