Getting the best for plants from Chelsea

The flagship RHS show should be used to boost the Award of Garden Merit brand, says Adrian Bloom.

Despite recent bad press on its reorganisational problems, the RHS, as pointed out in a recent Horticulture Week leader and by Professor Geoffrey Dixon (HW, 28 May), plays an essential and largely beneficial role in British horticulture.

Since my first years of exhibiting at Chelsea in the late 1960s, there has been a sea change from exclusiveness to inclusiveness and greater democracy and involvement in the wider development of horticultural education to and beyond its membership. As Roy Lancaster suggests, the RHS with its committees and exhibitors brings together at Chelsea an unequalled gathering of plant knowledge across a wide spectrum of specialist areas.

As an exhibitor for 35 years I watched, like others, the gradual erosion of interest and coverage given by the media, mostly the BBC, to the core of Chelsea, the plant exhibits in the marquee, in favour of celebrity presenters giving more prime-time coverage to the outside gardens. The past ten years have been, of course, the designer age, with plants often taking a back seat.

While I agree that the RHS should get full marks for its initiative of creating an exhibit to display 20 new plants for the first RHS Chelsea plant of the year award - after all, Chelsea is very much all about new plants too - I wonder whether, as it stands, this has been fully thought through for the best interests of the RHS itself and the gardening public.

Being closely involved in introducing and promoting new plants at Chelsea for many years - including Potentilla fruticosa 'Red Ace' in 1976, when we had a stand of this valuable plant (not diamonds) watched over by a uniformed security guard - I know the perils that can occur with raised expectations where plants have not been trialled over many years.

Have the new plants been fully and widely tested? Will they be freely available this year or at all? The plants on the RHS exhibit fell into several categories - houseplants, perennials and shrubs - so it must have been quite difficult for the committees to find any way to compare to choose the best plant. The Streptocarpus displayed by Dibleys Nurseries was the winner, but the resultant immediate demand from the public could not be met because this plant is apparently not available in quantity until 2011.

How can you judge new plants so early in the year on probably their first ever public appearance, with many of them needing to be forced to make the show and judged partly on their impact, not on their perhaps largely unknown performance under a wide range of conditions? With the RHS name behind the contenders and the winner, what if they should fail to live up to expectations?

It has for some time been an expressed wish of the RHS management, which I fully agree with, to create a bigger profile nationally for the Award of Garden Merit (AGM), a prestigious award given to tried and tested plants of excellence. These awards are the result of a very large annual investment in trial grounds, practical horticulturists and knowledgeable committee members who propose them. Is it not, in fact, these AGM plants that should be shown and highlighted at Chelsea and other shows and recommended to the gardening public?

Such plants should be reliable and more widely available with much more historical background and cultural information available to be given. Ten or 20 AGM plants can be exhibited at Chelsea, the winner awarded Chelsea AGM plant of the year and the 20 new plants kept but described as "Chelsea Flower Show's most promising new plants of the year".

It should not end there. If the AGM plants were carefully selected and possibly categorised, the nursery and garden centre trade in cooperation with the RHS could mount a "successful gardening" campaign using the AGM brand underpinned by the RHS trials as well as co-opted specialist experience. The RHS reputation for promoting good garden plants would be enhanced and highlight the valuable work of the trials and their committees.

We all need to get more people into gardening and guiding particularly new gardeners towards a group of tried and tested plants under the AGM brand must help them have success. With the resources of the RHS, HTA and Gardening Centre Association put toward planning and marketing tried and tested plants, it will help to get new gardeners off to a good start and add considerable integrity to the horticultural industry.

- Adrian Bloom is chairman of Blooms Nurseries, past chairman of Blooms of Bressingham Garden Centre and a consultant to Blooms of Bressingham North America.

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