Garden visitor numbers keep climbing

More investment in horticulture and events is continuing to draw visitors to gardens around the country. Latest Association of Leading Visitor Attractions figures show an overall 3.5 per cent increase in garden visits, with many seeing much higher rises.

Eden Project: programme of events includes a ‘live’ dinosaur exhibition that proved to be highly popular last year - image: Eden Project
Eden Project: programme of events includes a ‘live’ dinosaur exhibition that proved to be highly popular last year - image: Eden Project

Surveying customers and listening to what they really want is paying off for many gardens, including the National Trust's Bodnant Garden in Wales. It had a double-digit percentage increase for the third year in a row, climbing 15.2 per cent (35,000 visitors) to 225,346. Bodnant has been following a long-term programme of opening up more areas - the latest being the 4.2ha Far End garden - drawing repeat visitors throughout the year.

General manager William Greenwood said much of the garden's success comes from responding to customer feedback. "They have said they want less to look at things than to become involved in the garden - in learning and seeing and doing and touching and asking."

During scarification, he explained: "We've been putting out little scarifying rakes and wheelbarrows and people have been giving us a hand and telling other people. It's not handled with kid gloves. It's their garden. They can get involved."

Children are also better catered for, with activities such as pond dipping or making their own bug houses. "Traditionally Bodnant Garden drew people who listen to Gardeners' Question Time, but now we've diversified into families."

All four RHS gardens had record years. At RHS Garden Hyde Hall, visitor numbers were up 12.1 per cent to 242,520, with 10 of the 12 months setting records. Head of site Ian le Gros credited ongoing RHS investment in the garden. "Our major uplift in our numbers is generated by RHS members revisiting the garden throughout the year. Probably 20,000 of our 26,000 increase was returning members.

"It's driven by a very local market. People within an hour's drive are coming back multiple times and using it as an extension of their own domestic garden and bringing their friends." The gardens are actively targeting "garden evangelists" and "socialites". Around 20 per cent of the events programme is changed each year to keep things fresh.

At RHS Garden Rosemoor, visitors were up 9.5 per cent to 179,358. Head of garden Sally Charleton said more new members are signing up each year, while the restaurant has become a "destination in its own right". Extensive events with a focus on children also draw crowds.

Weather often made the difference. Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) Edinburgh had "huge gains" in April, May and June thanks to great weather, said director of enterprise Heather Jackson. Visits went from 806,000 in 2014 to 889,420, an unexpected 10 per cent jump on top of 19 per cent in 2014.

RBG Edinburgh benefited from a surprise drawcard. Its Amorphophallus titanum, or corpse plant, flowered at the end of June - the first known flowering in Scotland. Paying glasshouse visitors jumped from 7,000 in June 2014 to 19,000.

"The staff had to react very quickly because the new shoot didn't appear until May," said Jackson. "We had a great number of staff and volunteers helped steward people, giving information to people while they were in the queue so it became part of the experience, having people on hand who could talk about the plant, how unique it was and where to find it in the wild."

Bad weather culled visits to RBG Edinburgh's Dawyck Botanic Garden but Logan Botanic Garden also had a strong summer, with 2015 numbers up six per cent. Its conservatory, showcasing southern hemisphere plants, also did well in its first summer season open.

Events continue to be a strong pull and RBG Edinburgh's Botanic Lights winter show, introduced in 2014, grew in numbers. A Cake Fest, held on 21 June in response to Visit Scotland's year of food and drink, drew 16,000 visitors in one day.

"Each of these events also gives us the opportunity to expose a broader audience to whatever we can," said Jackson. "The Amorphophallus was fantastic in that respect, communicating the research and conservation work we do and creating a memorable visitor experience. It's about taking advantage of nature at its best."

At the Eden Project a renewed horticultural focus has helped reverse a steady decline in numbers, with 2015 visits up 11 per cent compared to one per cent in 2014. Around 20 per cent were locals, with sales of the discount pass for Devon and Cornwall residents increasing by 50 per cent.

With 960,029 visitors last year, Eden is now on track to hit one-million visitors again after dropping below that for the first time in 2012. Managing director Gordon Seabright explained: "We set out a plan one-and-a-half years ago to really invest in our horticulture and emphasise it in the way we present ourselves to the outside world. We've had a big programme of improvements in our horticulture and that is bearing fruit."

While the biomes are the enduring symbol of the Eden Project, the outdoor area is also horticulturally significant. It is hoped that marketing Eden as "Cornwall's contemporary garden" will appeal to keen horticulturists visiting the region. This week Eden turned 15 years old and gardeners are embarking on the biggest planting programme since the attraction opened.

Events programmes also continue at Eden, with last year's "live" dinosaur exhibition, unsurprisingly, proving highly popular. Seabright added: "We are continuing to substantially reduce our indebtedness year on year, which is enabling us to invest in the site. Visitors come to us expecting to find new, exciting things and it matters to us that we are able to do that."

At RBG, Kew, deputy marketing director Tina Houlton said they were pleased with the year's 3.5 per cent growth, which builds on three per cent in 2014 and 29 per cent in 2013. Gains have come from events including high ticket sales for Christmas at Kew, while the inaugural Write On Kew literary festival exceeded expectations.

Trialling different pricing offers also helped. A £9 December/January ticket, down from £15, doubled visitor numbers for those months. Membership also grew four per cent, thanks to a recruitment drive. The target of two million visitors in 2020 is still a "credible ambition", said Houlton, with several new capital developments about to come to fruition.

Wakehurst Place, leased by Kew from the National Trust, also had an unexpected 14.9 per cent increase, reversing a 29 per cent drop when a controversial £10 parking fee was introduced in 2014. Last year's rise was a "pleasant surprise", said Houlton. "We believe it's local people who absolutely love it that are returning to visit the gardens, having had a period of time being frustrated." Wakehurst has seen good take-up of its yearly "Friends" membership, which costs £25 and gives car park access as well as talks, courses and guided walks.

Coming soon: future attractions planned at public gardens across England, Scotland and Wales

RHS Garden Rosemoor
A new events building to replace the marquee will open in March 2017, extending the horticulture events programme and adding a corporate event offer. The first ever RHS Rosemoor Devon Flower Show is also planned for next year.

RHS Garden Hyde Hall
A Global Growth vegetable garden is being developed to co-ordinate with the restaurant and tap into "foodie" culture. A learning centre and business centre are planned, the café and retail offer are being expanded and the Winter Garden is set for a soft launch in 2017. Perennial meadows created by Professor James Hitchmough saw their first flush of flowering last year and hopefully will put on a stellar display this year.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Holding the Ideal Huts Show for garden shed lovers in May, reflecting Visit Scotland’s year of innovation, architecture and design. The old Botanic Cottage is being rebuilt stone by stone and will be open for use later this year.

Eden Project
The new Bright Sparks garden will hold a wide range of kniphofia (left) and Chinese fan palms, providing a "dramatic splurge of colour" at the garden’s centre. A "sensational" blue border is being developed and an announcement is expected soon about developments at the Rainforest Canopy to make it a more immersive experience.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The world’s longest herbaceous borders are set to open at the Broad Walk this summer and the Hive from Milan Expo 2015 will arrive at Kew in June. A brand new children’s garden is scheduled to open in autumn 2017, the pagoda will be refurbished in 2018 and the Temperate House will open in summer 2018.

Bodnant Garden
Halfway through a 10-year plan of opening up new areas to the public. This year is about consolidation but a 7ha area is next to open in March 2017.

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