20 RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival highlights

HortWeek rounds up 20 stories and reports from RHS Hampton Court Flower Festival, with the show back after a year off because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were around 40 nurseries in the pavilion, which was the first of its size at a flower show for two years. Horticulture Week here makes initial reports from across the show, with more detailed analysis to follow this week from the show, which lasts until 11 July.

The consensus was the RHS has 'pulled it off' by going ahead almost as planned in 2020, and the average visitor would not notice the reduced size of the show.

Dibley's Nurseries: Sales by social media are the way forward, said the North Wales indoor plant nursery's Gareth Dibley. A virtual plant show organised by the grower this spring was a success and with 12 days out of the nursery to exhibit at Hampton Court, it can be a struggle to sacrifice the time to exhibit at physical shows, he said adding that smaller, plant-focused garden centres had done best with Dibley plants this year. Foliage has taken over from flowering as Dibley's production focus, he said.

Many growers did not exhibit this year, with Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants' Rob Hardy suggesting this was because, if they are a two-person team, they can not afford for one to get ill, meaning a courier would have to pack up their stand and transport it home. Growers not at the show included David Austin Roses (Fryers and Peter Beales were the only rose growers exhibiting), Fibrex, Cook's Garden Centre and Blackmore and Langdon. Dibley's suggested many have found they can survive with online sales alone and at shows many people make notes rather than buy and then buy online when they get home.

Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants' Rob Hardy said the difficulties and uncertainties caused by organising the event amid Covid restrictions meant visitor numbers were in doubt until the last week. Up to 100,000 visitors are being allowed in altogether, down from the usual 140,000, but Dibley and Hardy said this would be enough as long as they were keen plantspeople. Hampton Court Master Grower Hardy has exhibited at all 30 Hampton Courts. He said the early shows sponsored by the South West Rail company were the greenest as 70% came by train because their admission tickets were free with the train ticket. Hardy's has built 43 exhibits at the show.

Dutch indoor plants being sold in a large, new RHS plant sales area in the pavilion annoyed some of the nursery exhibitors. RHS chief horticultural advisor Guy Barter said there were opportunities for British houseplant growers but there were few available at the moment. He added that the RHS was working on peat-free plant supply.

Slugs are the worst since 2018, according to the RHS's Guy Barter. He recommends nematodes, especially on edible crops. After drier and warmer seasons since 2018, slugs and snails over-wintered during the mild 2020/21 winter and took off in 2021's warm and wet June.

Jamie Butterworth designed the main show feature RHS Garden for a Greener Future (one of five including cut flower, Tom Stuart-Smith, rose tea garden and allotment plots). Form Plants' Butterworth said the garden was about sustainability and climate change and featured a host of recycled materials. His Dorney-based business is supplied by Smits Nurseries and he said bringing in a large amount of stock from Europe ahead of this record-breaking season had paid off in terms of availability and Brexit-related red tape. Topiary is a top seller. He also supplies trees from New Wood in Devon and perennials the nursery grows on. Main customers are garden designers and landscapers. Crocus, as well as Smits, are neighbours at the Berkshire site.

The Outdoor Room's David Dodd said every landscaper  is working flat out but material shortages remain a problem. Timber, cement and terracotta for his Pots and Pithoi business are in short supply. He said bringing in pots from Greece was a "painful" process post-Brexit. Labour shortages is another big issue. Dodd is building Grant Associates' The Guangzhou Garden at Chelsea in September.

Majestic Trees' Steve McCurdy said June had been another record sales month. The nursery has passed its record sales year in just the last eight months. He said importing was not simple but ok as long as you know what you're doing. Smaller traders are finding it problematic with the extra paperwork involved. Majestic has imported up to 50 containers this year and only had problems with one. He said peat replacement is the biggest challenge for growers. Coir requires 30-40% more water. He said whisky and mushroom production would be under question if the UK goes peat-free. Majestic is using ICL peat-free.

Hayloft Plants' Derek Jarman: "We go because we've always gone. We see a few customers and it will be good PR. It's tax deductible, otherwise we'd lose money - we don't make money at shows. If you include the true costs I think no-one makes money, unless you're selling £20,000 items."

RHS director general Sue Biggs told HortWeek the society passed 550,000 members last week. The laboratory at Wisley in 2022 is the next big public opening. Harlow Carr's pub is the last of the seven big capital expenditure projects for the RHS due for completion after Bridgewater and Hilltop Science centre opened this season. Bridgewater is already the second busiest RHS garden after Wisley, which attracts more than one million visitors a year. Digital, community outreach and diversity are future focuses. A £150,000 Flourish grant scheme is aimed at making the industry more diverse. The cut flower foam oasis was banned for the first time at the show. 

Blue Diamond garden centres' commercial manager James Nuttall was at its Alzheimer's show garden Down Memory Lane, which featured wide paths, scented plants, a banister rail and the new Memory Lane rose. He said home production of plants at Bridgemere, which has a history-inspired BD to build the show garden at Hampton, has helped with supply this year. Demand has been up and down but stock has kept flowing. Predicting sales for 2022 is difficult after 2021 beat expectations and 2020 took off following lockdown in March-May. But Nuttall expects strong plant sales, if not quite as buoyant as this year. Fryers Roses production has risen to 150,000 from a sixth of that when Blue Diamond bought it in 2011. Perennials sales have been very good too. Moves to peat-free with growers are ongoing. Perennials, grasses, colour, fragrance, digitalis, lupins and delphiniums are tips for 2022. Michele Greenwood is an internal promotion, taking over from Jim Teague, who has moved to Boningale. Blue Diamond will have a forge artisan garden at Chelsea in September, again inspired by Bridgemere.

Blue Diamond chairman Simon Burke said after a couple of years integrating Wyevales into Blue Diamond, developments were now going ahead again, with Scotch Corner bulld starting later in 2022, a big extension at Newbridge planned, a rebuild planned at Harlow and a new build at the walled garden at Elveden hoped to go through planning imminently. He said predicting sales for 2022 is the "million dollar question". But there are more people gardening and shopping in shopping centres and city centres is less appealing than it was before lockdown, meaning garden centres are an increasingly "easy journey" with a good variety of products and experiences on offer. The sales boom can't go on forever, he said, but had been above expectations in 2021 and would be above old levels in the future. For Blue Diamond quality and consistency of offer is more important than overtaking Dobbies as leading turnover group, Burke said.

RHS Horticultural Hero Tom Stuart-Smith told Horticulture Week that he hopes future public gardens will be smaller than Bridgewater - which he helped design - and be spread around cities rather than having all the money spent in one place. He showcased climate change plants in the iconic hero garden, including salvias, verbascums, grasses and Elaeagnus 'Quicksilver'.

Hillier's Robert Hillier said the group was expecting a record year, but again, said 2022 was hard to predict, even though 2021 has passed budgets and expectations.

The Association of Professional Landscapers' (APL) Phil Tremayne and designer Mike Long said the APL A Place to Meet garden included upcycled elements such as scaffolding poles. This was an increasing trend at home where lockdown Britons have sparked high levels of demand from landscapers in 2020 and 2021. Tremayne said this would continue as more people now work at home and will remain doing so. However, materials, including wood, concrete, stone and resin for paths and drives, as well as labour, remain in short supply and landscapers are offering to hold quoted prices for one month only as prices are rising.

Crocus' Mark Fane said online plant sales were going to carry on growing and more consolidation would not happen until the market slowed. People are now used to buying plants online and habits have now changed for good. YouGarden bought Gardening Direct last week.

Fane added that the new Project Giving Back, supporting 14 gardens at Chelsea every year for three years - so 42 charity gardens in total. That is about a £10m commitment over three years pledged by two anonymous RHS donors from 2022-24, which would transform how charities are able to exhibit at the show.

Plant Heritage awarded Roger Hammond, National Plant Collection Holder of Epimedium, with the Brickell Award. The RHS has introduced a People community award to be given out at Hampton 2022.

Garden medals 2021: Gold - Cancer Research UK Legacy Garden (Tom Simpson/Rosebank Landscaping).

Silver gilt - Viking (Will Williams) and APL/Mike Long 'A Place to Meet Again'.

Silver: Blue Diamond, Canal and River Trust, Extinction, Lower Barn Farm (Samuel Moore), Fashion Footprint, Communication garden.

Bronze: Garden of Solitude.

The BBC plans three hours of coverage, on Wednesday and Thursday at 9om and Saturday at 5.30pm. Presenters at the show included Rachel de Thames, Nick Bailey, Joe Swift, Arit Anderson, Carol Klein and Toby Buckland, who was interviewing Tayshan Hayden-Smith. Hardy's has been filmed at its Hampshire nursery.

The Government's final decision on July 12 about the easing of restrictions the following week. At Hampton Court, few were wearing masks or socially distancing, though a negative test was required to get in. Tickets are only available for 11 July having sold out for Tuesday-Saturday at 15k a day.

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