How did my first RHS plant festival (Malvern) go?

I went to RHS Malvern on Friday. It was my first ever plant festival, and my first RHS event. On the whole I really enjoyed myself, although there was a lot about the event that might catch other first-timers unawares.

This is therefore a slightly confusing post containing: a run-down of some of the exciting things we saw; a brief summary of what went badly; and what we’d do differently in future to work around it (with maybe some tips for anyone about to go to their first plant festival.)

The good

The Three Counties Showground is lovely, although they do leave you guessing about which three counties they are (Cumbria isn’t one of them, if that helps.) The site is flat and seems to be mostly mobility-accessible, although some of the halls have two or three steps between rooms (I can’t remember if they had a ramp alongside.)

The showground is nestled under Jubilee Hill, the nearest of the Malverns, and you occasionally get glimpses of it, which some show gardens even used to their advantage….

Show gardens

The show gardens were mostly down a shared avenue, and this was what we headed to first. All show gardens are on the same page on the RHS website (not sure if there’s another page for the bursary-granted Festival Gardens?) and should give you a bit more background than I do below. There’s also the full awards listing for all gardens, if you’re interested.

We’ll start with one that the Welsh Rose loved, the Milleflori garden:

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The colours in the glasswork of the dome on the pergola are echoed by the colours of the planting below, and I think the stones in the four paths were surrounded by a water feature, again reflecting and echoing the colours. This only got a Silver: I’m not as convinced by it as the Rose was, but it did have quite the effect, and felt like a triumph for what it was intending to do; maybe there was something differing from the brief that explains the lower marking.

My own personal favourite was a bit more difficult to pick. I did love the planting and arrangement of the Hidden Gems of Worcestershire garden (another Silver):

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The mix of aspleniums, tiarellas and heucheras around the back was an especially nice touch, although the Welsh Rose did mention that the stylish-looking semi-circular seat was probably pretty uncomfortable to relax on (although perfect for e.g. presenting RHS Chelsea from…!)

But I think my favourite was probably the Reflections of Japan show garden:

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When I first took the following photograph, I was knelt down and didn’t understand the effect that was intended; as I stood up, I said “ah!” and retook it:

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This is an instance of what’s known as a “borrowed landscape”, where the garden’s views essentially incorporate the backdrop in the far distance: in this case, Jubilee Hill. It really made you feel like this garden could have been in the foothills of Japanese mountains.

I loved the mixture of dwarf cypresses, dwarf pines, blossom and mosses that looked like they’d been there forever, and the mixture of stark formalism with planting that was, if not totally relaxed, still felt like they were all plants happy with their locations. And this peony was a treat:

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The garden took Gold, which was well deserved (and at least suggests I don’t always have wonky taste!)

The notion of a borrowed view is a key concept of “Capability” Brown’s designs, and as he’s enjoying a tercentennial birthday this year then he was present elsewhere at the show. Gardening Amidst Ruins was an homage to Brown’s now long-lost aviary gardens, where he would often landscape around existing ruins to achieve the effect he wanted: and then add birds!

This garden was sunken into the very showground, and must have taken immense effort:

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It was tough to take many pictures, as it was crawling with VIPs much of the time, but round the back on the left were birds: not quite peacocks, but chickens under netting! I wasn’t totally convinced by this garden—it felt a bit hobbity from some angles—but there’s no denying the work that went into it. I did especially love the detail whereby they purposely sank potted roses into the banks, leaving them obvious and not burying the terracotta rims: again, as an homage to what Brown himself used to do. This garden got Gold, and while it wasn’t my personal favourite it clearly deserves it.

Moving more quickly now, The Sunken Retreat was an interesting, strongly geometric garden; again sunken into the landscape, but less so than Brown’s:

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The UCARE Garden was a really remarkable mix of strong, sturdy lines—the water feature and bench—and slightly boisterous planting, and the intricate knots formed by it all was a luscious setting for the charity’s signature tulips:

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The odd mixture of formal right angles, with once-trimmed box hedges now growing out, and planting with occasional weed-like thistles, meant it seemed to capture many different points in time all at once, like the ancestral haunt it was modelled on.

I wasn’t too sure about the centrepiece of the Time is a Healer garden, but then it won a Gold, so what do I know? If you block out the slightly novelty centrepiece (and the ubiquitous VIPs) by sneakily photographing it from the back and at an angle, it feels to me a lot stronger in architecture and planting:

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It was intended as a garden for bereaved children, so I can imagine the centrepiece makes more sense to make it interesting to non-gardeners; but I’m not convince it all gelled.

The Macmillan Legacy Garden, The Water Spout and The Garden of Romance were all really interesting gardens, but generally very busy so it was a bit difficult to really appreciate them: especially The Water Spout, with its quite subtle and enclosed vistas. The Garden of Romance even had a lecture going on in it, which does at least get some of the public into the heart of these gardens that are often entirely out of bounds:

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Finally, although it’s not a very practical garden, the Woodcutter’s Garden oozed charm and personality. Although it’s not the kind of garden I’m proposing to landscape at home, it’s the kind of garden I’d love to end up with if I were a woodcutter. In an alternative universe, this is my garden, and I have just stepped out to chop a little more of some specific wood for a particular purpose….

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School gardens

Schools from the surrounding area put together a number of gardens, behind the floral marquee. I don’t know how much help they had with them, but some of these were amazing: the detail, work, thought and planning that went into them.

From Pen to Plot; look at the formal Elizabethan knot gardens, the cottage-style planting bringing Anne Hathaway in, and the fantastic three witches:

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To Beoley or not to Beoley; a frivolous centrepiece surrounded by lovely, soft planting of violas, primulas and other flowers, and with a great water feature:

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Magic and Murder—Potions and Poisons; this was the Midsummer Night’s Dream quarter, eerie with its toadstools, dead beech leaves and sinister plants:

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All the World’s a Garden, which I loved for its hopeful detail of a flower growing out of Shakespeare’s works:

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And finally, All That Glitters; the fountain full of Shylock’s coins is beautifully offset by the formal Italianesque design and these pillars. I want this in my garden, not just because of the coins:

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The floral marquee

The show gardens were exciting, each in their own way, like little fireworks. But the floral marquee was the grand feast of the show: rich, satisfying, interesting, long-lasting.

Unlike RHS Chelsea, the marquee at Malvern does offer plant sales. I didn’t know this, as it was difficult to work out from the catalogue (more on that later), and I’d only seen Chelsea coverage in the past. That meant that, alongside looking at glorious displays of each nursery’s plants, you had experts on hand, in whose interests it was to explain planting to you, and maybe even sell you plants. In comparison, the show gardens occasionally had plant lists, but they were invariably incomplete. So it was great to really indulge in plant lust, and know what the plants were, and start to get an idea of their names, their habits, their variations.

Here’s a few examples, starting with amazing auricula primroses from Drointon Nurseries:

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Some stunning woodland planting from East of Eden Nurseries in Cumbria, including a lovely Pieris that might work in our acid soil, and a stonkingly huge hellebore that might not, but also some dwarfing willows that gave me ideas:

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Avon Bulbs’ glorious display, into which were tucked some Tulipa purissima alongside Veratrum nigrum, and a darling Camassia leichtlinii:

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and finally Fibrex Nurseries’ glorious national collection of Pelargoniums, including these two fragrant miracles which had sadly sold out by the time I went back to buy:

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Purchases

What’s that, you say? You went back and bought some plants? Well, yes, I did. Here are my five purchases, each of which I adore. Firstly, three from Hardy’s Plants.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis “Alba”:

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Geum “Prinses Juliana”:

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and Cirsium rivulare (Atropurpureum):

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Next, two from Tale Valley Nursery, a Tiarella “Sugar and Spice”:

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and a Geranium macrorrhizum “White-Ness”:

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They’re all lovely, and clearly really cared for: I can’t take them out of their pots until we start getting landscaping in place, but hopefully I’ll be able to treat them with the care they deserve!

Talks

We didn’t have time to visit most of the talks, but I did spend half an hour listening to Christine Walkden (which I live-tweeted!) and about ten minutes listening to Carol Klein with an aching back, so I didn’t tweet that. Both were less… I guess theatrical than TV seems to demand, but were all the better for it. It meant, for example, that people were having very chatty, conversational advice from Christine; or that they were really quite rapt in Carol’s longer, discursive explanations.

We also heard Alan Titchmarsh from a distance in one of the halls. Like the other presenters, he’s got a softer, more regional demeanour when he’s not on the TV (as if that were possible, given his onscreen personality!) But we were on a mission at the time and so couldn’t really stop to listen.

After having done so, I can recommend seeing at least some of your own personal celebrity gardening teachers (I hesitate to use the word “hero”, set aside as that is for the sole purpose of describing Monty Don). It gives you another angle on them, which is important if you do actually see, hear or read them a lot. Should I go again, I’d like to set aside specific time for seeing specific people for that reason.

The bad

Unfortunately, for much of the first half of my day at RHS Malvern I was actually pretty unhappy. I don’t want to overstate it, but I really felt like, until I’d dealt personally with some of the problems below, I just wanted to turn round and go back home! In the end things changed completely, but I think it’s definitely worth detailing the problems just so that other people can learn from them in the future.

Getting there was a really pretty enervating experience. I’m usually a great believer in public transport, but despite the occasional shuttle-bus bone thrown by them the RHS is generally poor on promoting the use of non-private transport. Besides, I didn’t know what to expect about any aspects of the festival: how easy would pedestrian access to the site be; what the shuttle bus timetable was (you have to ring a telephone number: how quaint!); whether any stallholders there would deliver purchases afterwards etc. So we followed the herd and went by car. Boy! did we regret it. The Malvern-bound lanes around Worcester were gridlocked (someone did say this was a frequent problem, but the fact it was all Malvern lanes, literally crawling, seemed quite odd to me) and we spent about an hour of the nine opening hours getting from the M5 to the festival site.

With all that in mind, when I got on site I was already pretty tired and just wanted a rest. As the day progressed it was clear I was quite dehydrated too. After the Welsh Rose went to get me plenty of fluids (a good two or three litres in the end) I perked up from my wilted state, and started to enjoy things a lot more. But there was no clear policy on where to get free (tap) drinking water, and standpipes weren’t marked on the map (more on that next). Worse, when the Rose got some from a tap once, some random person told her off as it wasn’t a drinking water tap. Well, the food and drink stalls, and the cafés in the halls were getting their drinking water from somewhere: it would’ve been good to know where, so we could do the same before I’d started to feel really unwell.

The site was also pretty confusing, and the catalogue—which I hadn’t even heard existed until I walked, tired and dehydrated, through the north gate—was incredibly confusingly laid out: useful if quite intricate and structured information, buried under lots of will-this-do puff copy. I’m also usually good with a map, but the one included was pretty poor. Technically everything was there, but you were hunting back and forth between three or four different pages each time you wanted to work out, for example: is this all the show gardens? is this in fact some kind of show garden “avenue” they haven’t listed as such? What are the cryptically named “Wye Hall” and “Avon Hall”? In retrospect, there also seems to have been some kind of colour coding to the items on the map, but I’m still not sure if that was just coincidence as there’s no key.

The “would he?”

After all that, would I go again? After much thought, the answer is: definitely yes; but I’d do a lot different next time:

Travelling
Despite the RHS pandering far more to cars than public transport it’s just the usual race to the bottom, and I don’t want to get involved in the gridlock again. So I think I’d do public transport next time: especially now I know there’s a plant crêche, and now I’m fairly sure that several places would deliver at a festival-order discount! I also plan to travel the day beforehand and stay over somewhere, and maybe stay the night afterwards too: the Welsh Rose could see a bit of Malvern, while I go and make my purchases!
Navigating
I know the site a lot better now, and I hope they don’t monkey with it too much every year; but I’d still try my damnedest to hunt down a catalogue beforehand, and try to understand the maps, and scribble on it myself.
Food and drink
Unless there’s a substantial change to the tap-water policy (insofar as currently there is no policy I could work out) I’d stock up on far more drinking-water and—out of spite more than anything else—bring my own food.
Priorities
Now that I know how the floral marquee works—that along with the show gardens it’s a fundamental part of the festival—I would prioritize those two first. As I wouldn’t be dehydrated and over-journeyed, I wouldn’t need to bypass the floral marquee as I come onto the site to find loos, a stand pipe and a café that isn’t packed.

Each of those, of course, has a correlate that I wish the RHS would implement before next time:

Travelling
The RHS should charge for non-disabled parking, but they won’t because car drivers always whine like nobody’s business when faced with the consequences of their choices. So instead they could offer a discount, or a booklet of vouchers—plant discounts would be great, but maybe (and suitably) merely free delivery from participating marquee stalls?—to anyone turning up with a bus or train ticket, or with a cycle. Oh, and offer free, secure cycle parking big enough for trikes, recumbents etc.
Navigating
Someone who’s more expert in maps needs to draw their maps, and someone who’s more expert in fulfilment and advertising needs to get the booklets to people before the event. It was mentioned when we were buying tickets that something might be available later: but I never received a reminder email or anything, so if it was made available then nobody told ticket-holders. And who calls a booklet with a map a “catalogue” anyway? That’s just a way of confusing them into not buying it.
Food and drink
Provide and advertise free drinking water. People will love you for it, and feel less resentful and disinclined to spend money on drinks they’re being coerced into buying. Also, if 2017 is another hot year, you won’t end up on any news reports after hospitalizations or deaths from dehydration, so we’re all winners!
Priorities
Why not, instead of offering people a catalogue bursting with disconnected facts like a stack of index cards spilled on the floor, propose to them routes around the site? “Here’s where to go for show plants”, or “Here’s where to go for furniture and sheds.” Also, signpost things better: I didn’t see any signs on the avenues, and a good finger-post at each intersection would’ve worked wonders.

I don’t think this is being overly negative. I just think that, with very small changes, RHS Malvern could be a much greater, more welcoming event.

Summary

RHS Malvern is a key event in the calendar for gardeners, and it’s well worth going. But if you’re visiting: consider going the day before by public transport; focus on the floral marquee and the show gardens first (and try to filter out the tat and novelty-purchase stalls); and make sure you take enough fluids with you if it’s going to be warm.

While a lot could be done to improve the event—without much outlay by the RHS—it’s still worth going, if you go prepared. The scenery is beautiful, the show gardens are to die for, and the floral marquee was a beautiful haven.

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4 comments

  1. Julieanne · May 9, 2016

    A really informative post and I felt like I got a good description of some of the show gardens. Looking at the photos, I can see what you you mean about VIPs etc constantly in the way. I would add that the RHS needs to manage this better so that visitors to the show can better see and enjoy the show gardens.

    I agree with all your concerns and pretty much share them all. I’m glad to read someone else criticising the map in the catalogue – I thought it was just me that found them hard to navigate. And yes, I’m so sick of the car culture so inherent in everything the RHS does. I can say that the Harrogate Flower show (at least the Spring one) isn’t too bad with providing a regular shuttle service to/from the station to the show grounds, so they aren’t entirely bad. However, if you want to visit RHS Harlow Carr, also in Harrogate, the bus service is pretty crap, particularly on weekends when lots of people would be visiting.

    You’ve added some nice solutions to many of the issues you criticise, and I hope that the RHS might take them on board. Certainly very useful advice for other newcomers to this or any other flower shows.

    Like

    • jpstacey · May 9, 2016

      Thanks, Julieanne. I wouldn’t bother ranting about it in the first place, but I feel like the RHS is so *close* to being great on so many things, but it’s not so much lack of will or energy as lack of appreciating there’s a problem, or that the problem is a problem.

      I don’t think they’re alone in this, though: lots of organizations simply don’t get how the experience of their “users”—the consumers of their services, or their events, or their resources—is often dramatically different from what they originally intended. Empathy is tough on the grand scale of a many-employee organization trying to cope with a many-consumer user base: but this is why organizations should pay for usability testing; or why e.g. safe crowd control is a skill and a set of safety procedures, that rightly override often dangerous “common sense” notions.

      Like

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