Garden sector offers hope in downturn

Congratulations to the National Trust and its gardening teams who, as we report on p8, have seen the number of visitors to many of their gardens soar this summer in defiance of rising petrol prices and disappointing weather.

Importantly, the charity's recently released visitor figures reveal a trend much more significant than just an increase on last year, which could only be expected given last summer's atrocious conditions.

Hidcote, for instance, has seen an increase of approximately 20 per cent in visitors from 2005/06, while Cliveden and Stowe saw increases of around 15 and 10 per cent each.

And they are not alone. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew reports strong visitor numbers too, and head gardeners at some less high-profile gardens also say that they are having a good year.

Add all of this to the RHS' huge success with last weekend's show at London's Inner Temple (p5) and it is clear that despite concerns about changing demographics and lifestyles, there remains huge untapped potential for growing the gardens - and gardening - customer base.

Of course, wider conditions are having their impact. We know that when the economic cycle is on its way down, people look closer to home in search of leisure pursuits - a fact that can benefit parks and public gardens generally, as well as help to bolster the garden retail trade. But there is more behind the latest figures.

Just as the management role within parks and gardens is continuing to evolve, with promotion and interaction with the public increasingly prominent, so is the emphasis on special events to both encourage repeat visits from existing supporters and to reach out to a new audience. Kew and the National Trust are the perfect examples of this, with both benefitting from a strong focus on special events.

But it is critical to remember that such events can only succeed in growing visitor numbers where the core focus and investment remains with the gardens and their gardening teams. The strategy only works if, after the froth from the latest media event has passed, what remains is a first-class attraction. And for that the gardening teams must be commended.

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