Analysis: Committee members worry over trial cuts

Could trial cuts mean the RHS fails to keep up with the grow-your-own boom? Matthew Appleby investigates.

Wisley: main site for RHS trials. Image: RHS
Wisley: main site for RHS trials. Image: RHS

A decision by the RHS to cut back on the number of plant trials that it will run in 2010 is causing concern among committee members — in particular those involved with vegetable trials.

Specifically, Paul Corfield, Ian Gillott and Colin Randel from the vegetable committee and Val Bourne from the ornamentals committee are worried that the RHS could fail to capitalise on the grow-your-own trend by cutting trials that identify new vegetable varieties designed to inspire gardeners to grow their own.

RHS principal trials officer Fiona Wilson had her role made compulsorily redundant as part of the restructuring held over the second half of 2009.

She says the main aim of the trials is to provide guidance on the best cultivars for the garden, which are recommended for the Award of Garden Merit. The trials also provide inspiration for gardeners, showcase plant groups and the best cultivars, lead on trends, demonstrate methods of cultivation and identify the correct cultivars where there is confusion in the trade.

Wilson said: "If the number of vegetable trials is significantly reduced, how does this best serve the interests of gardeners at a time when there is a resurgence of interest in growing your own, when it is a key area of focus for the RHS and when the government plans to launch a grow-your-own revolution?"

Vegetable trials assessment panel chairman Colin Randel says: "If you have not got knowledgeable or sufficient staff to run the trials properly there is no point doing them. There is a lot of work involved to do them properly." Up to one million visitors a year see the trials, which are held mainly at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey.

"I was surprised we were cut," says Randel. "I put a good case forward to keep the veg impetus going because there's been a large increase in interest in veg compared to flowers. It's as much because of staffing as anything else. We've lost key veg staff."

He adds: "There's a huge interest in veg. We're trying to keep the momentum going and to expand. There's disappointment in how everything's being handled and with what's been going on in the RHS. A number of very good staff have been lost through voluntary redundancy. It has upset experts from the trade — is it worth their time and expertise looking at a reduced range of material?"

Gillott says: "I found it disappointing that the number of trials has been cut and also disappointing the way it was rationalised without full discussions with our committee.

"Leading horticultural experts in their fields travel an awful long way — Paul Corfield from as far away as north Lincolnshire — so these trials have to be very meaningful.

"People give their knowledge for free. This is a group of very knowledgeable people. If they become disillusioned it is going to be the RHS's loss. If the trials are reduced and committee members are not able to spend a day looking at two or three trials, members will question whether it is worth their while.

"I hope that the trials will build back up and that there will be full and frank discussions with the top brass at the RHS. It is because of a staffing issue. Jim England was veg trials manager and he retired and was not replaced. He has more experience than existing staff."

Corfield says he is likely to resign his role because of the direction the RHS is taking and pressure of work. "For me to travel from Norfolk to Wisley is quite an onerous journey. I can't see any point in going to look at one or two trials.

"I'm very, very disappointed the RHS's long-term veg specialist has not been replaced. That goes in the face of what it has been supporting as part of Britain in Bloom, grow your own and allotments. To not have anyone at Wisley as a long-term veg specialist is bizarre. I find the whole thing out of kilter."

But Leigh Hunt, the new RHS head of horticulture trials and committee relations, points out: "We have only lost half a member of staff after the change process. We have a good staff base but want a slight shift."

He says trials with plants in the ground will continue but seed-grown annual trials will be cut in 2010. The RHS wants to make the "wealth of information from trials more available to members and other organisations", he adds, and committee members are "huge experts".

He explains: "The information is going to have to be used better. This is a crunch point. We will run fewer trials but get more out of them."

Hunt insists that the "slight scaling back" of floral and vegetable trials is "not just about numbers. There is the concern we're not as committed as we were. But there is only so much resource to go round. This is a time of change and a starting point to go forward."

He says the number of managers is not too many compared to the number of gardeners: "You can't imagine how much organisation there is to do. With the RHS grow-your-own campaign we show a huge commitment to veg so this does seem an odd thing to do, but we want to get things on an even footing. That's what this year is about."

Hunt admits that some expertise has "gone over the past few months, but we still have Jim Arley on fruit and Andy McSeveney, now in the trials office. With Wilson it was very sad but job roles changed."

He blames trials committee members' disaffection on the RHS redundancy consultation, which he says "didn't allow for wider feeding of information to other people".

RHS Trials

  • Vegetable trials cut from nine to six
  • Floral trials cut from seven to four
  • Now 171 people on eight trial assessment panels
  • Trials officers cut from three to 2.5


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