How gardens can benefit from horticultural talks

Additional revenue and more specific visitor demographics can be secured.

Westonbirt: daily talks offered to attract more visitors - image: Rob Cousin
Westonbirt: daily talks offered to attract more visitors - image: Rob Cousin

Regularity, the right property, creativity and enthusiastic staff are the key ingredients to conducting successful horticultural talks in gardens. Horticultural talks have the potential to bring additional revenue to gardens and a more specific visitor demographic, say garden managers.

"We started doing horticultural talks in the past couple of years," says Andy Stevens, head gardener at Borde Hill in West Sussex. "We now try and do three a year. This year we have Jim Gardiner coming to talk in April and two others."

Additional speakers are award-winning garden writer and organic gardener Val Bourne in June, talking about perennials, and former Country Living garden editor Stephanie Donaldson in September, talking about Borde Hill's cottage garden. The garden charges £30 on average for non-members to attend the talks.

Stevens says: "The events are profitable and the more we do them the more we get a name for ourselves with visitors." He believes that three talks a year is a good number and suggests having a talk "for early season, mid season and late season".

Myddleton House in Enfield has lectures twice a year from the Bowles Society. The society, which supports the garden financially for projects and plants, receives the entrance fee. However, a recent talk at the garden by former head gardener and garden writer Geoff Stebbings sold out all 50 places so the garden made an income using the car park, for which there is a fee, as well as the cafe for lunches and refreshments.

Senior consultant Alan Sargent is giving a seminar on the whole topic in June. He believes talks should be on a monthly or weekly basis. "Talks should be regular to create a loyalty factor. People will come back and bring their friends, and you can build a loyal visitor base," he adds.

Regular talks can be in the form of daily guided walks around the garden. Katherine Alker, garden and park manager for National Trust property Croome in Worcestershire, says: "Every day we offer a free guided walk within the garden and parkland, led by a volunteer. Our guided walks are very popular with visitors, attracting a wide range of people depending on the subject of the talk."

Visitor demographics

Talks may not always bring in a different demographic than the usual crowd, as Stevens has observed at Borde Hill. "We may not attract different types of visitors but they pay and their money is as good as any other," he says.

Stevens adds that the talks happen during the day so the demographic "tends to be middle-aged to older people because most younger people are at work. So we don't get a completely different demographic to usual".

Horticultural talks will bring in specific visitors depending on the subject. Alker says: "Last year, in Capability Brown's tercentenary year, I led walks focusing on the design and history of our Brownian parkland that attracted an audience that was particularly interested in the garden's history and Capability Brown."

Sargent says gardens can expand visitor profile by focusing on a narrative. "In general terms, gardens need to create their own interesting stories to get the different demographics in," he points out.

"If the property doesn't have an obvious story to tell, gardens should manufacture their own. It depends on the creativity, imagery and enthusiasm of staff to make it successful."

Borde Hill, a garden known for its excess of 200 magnolias, ensures that its talks are relevant to the garden, which is why it limits talks to just three times a year. "It is difficult to keep finding speakers who can talk about a topic which is relevant to Borde Hill," says Stevens. "We don't want to get in just anyone."

Stevens will be joining respected RHS expert and plantsman Jim Gardiner in his talk "Magnolias, aristocrats for gardens of all sizes". Together they will give advice on varieties of magnolia for visitors to grow at home, while giving tips for planting and caring for them.

Having staff who are enthusiastic and willing to create an ambience for the visitor will contribute to the success of a talk. Sargent says: "Having enthusiastic staff is very important because people will come back for them. Gardens could have a system where visitors can book in a morning session for 20-30 minutes with a particular member of staff. They can pay a donation and have a one-to-one talk about the garden."

Westonbirt gardens has got its staff on board to train volunteers who then present daily talks around the grounds. A volunteer will take up to 20 visitors on an hour-and-a-half tour through the Old Arboretum.

Garden talks around the grounds can also keep visitors up to date with upcoming work and events. "We tell visitors about our conservation and restoration work," says Alker. "If we have contractors on site, we use the tours as an opportunity to help people understand what it is that they're doing and why it's important."


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