The effect of rising costs on single-plant societies

President calls on plant societies to reinvent themselves for the digital age.

Roses: society hit by major decline in its membership
Roses: society hit by major decline in its membership

Garden societies need help with crippling secretarial costs, according to horticulturists, after the Royal National Rose Society (RNRS) went into administration burdened with a £2m pension deficit for five former staff.

The oldest plant society in the world, formed in 1876, and its world-renowned Gardens of the Rose in St Albans has laid off its staff, including two gardeners. Administrators Stephen Goderski and Peter Martin at PKF Geoffrey Martin & Co in London say it will not open again.

Single plant societies have struggled to retain membership in recent years. The RNRS had up to 100,000 members in the 1970s but now has 1,000 paying around £30 membership. The site is owned by the Royal Entomological Society, which will take back the land. It also owns 10ha of land around the site that may have to be sold.

There could also be development around the office at the gardens, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. The local authority allowed the gardens to open for two or three months a year.

Digital age

RNRS president Paul Rochford says single plant societies need to reinvent themselves for the digital age. "They need the internet to engage with all followers of roses around the world. Post is too expensive," he explains.

The RNRS ran trials, which will now end, as well as flower show competitions at events such as Malvern and Harrogate. Rochford says the trials are a "big loss" because they were impartial and well judged.

Garden writer Peter Seabrook, who opened the £500,000 redesign and replanting of the gardens in 2007 after half was sold to Butterfly World, which closed in 2015, says: "Membership of specialist plant societies in general and local horticultural societies across the country is ageing and the next generation in most cases don't have the time and the instinct. One by one they're going to die because there isn't the time to run them. The long-term answer is for the RHS or a similar national body to organise secretarial services centrally to give them a chance of survival."

The new gardens were built by Adam Frost Landscapes and planting was designed by society members including Peter Beales, Brigid Quest-Ritson and David Stevens.

The 7,000 member Hardy Plant Society (HPS) took over the Peony Society in 2016 and nurseries Kelways, Binny and Primrose Hall are now involved in the HPS peony group, one of nine specialist societies within the HPS. The Alpine Society (about 5,000 members) and Cottage Garden Society (3,000) are other strong societies.

Wharton's Roses' Robert Wharton says: "It is a shame to see the RNRS gardens go, but time marches on with less amateur gardening interest in rose gardens and many UK growers ceasing production. There will, of course, always be a demand for roses, although it now has many other garden plants to compete with for the gardening pound, whilst also having a long life in gardens without needing renewal.

"We have not been involved with the RNRS new variety trials for many years now, although we try to promote all awards given to new varieties. We need to know how the roses perform in pots and therefore conduct our own trials in partnership with breeders around the world. We also like to invite garden centre customers to view our trials and give their commercial opinions."

Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie says: "Tastes do change and where once people might have devoted a whole bed to roses they now use them within a planting scheme featuring other popular plants. There certainly is now a greater choice available to the gardener but old-fashioned rose varieties, over hybrids, still remain the favourites."

Harkness Roses and Peter Beales Roses were among other growers to express sadness at the closure.

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