Horticulture Week Podcast: Plant Collection holder Jonathan Sheppard takes his 'hobby' to Chelsea

Former corporate lobbyist/political adviser Jonathan Shepherd is tentatively "proud to be called a bit of a horticulturist".

But horticulturist he very much is. The National Plant Collection holder is a veteran of Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in 2022 and 2023 where he won silver gilt for his Cosmos collection display (he also has a hollyhock national collection). In 2024, he makes his exhibiting debut at RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

"I do classify myself more as an amateur grower than anything else. So I applied [for Chelsea] and, lo and behold, got the acceptance last week. So I think I've signed myself up to a lot of work over the next few weeks and indeed months!"

So with all the work of growing and nurturing some 3,000 Cosmos to select 100 in peak condition in May 2024, what's in it for him?

"Commercially it's a ridiculous decision because doing flower shows, it costs a fair amount of money. 

"I know that Cosmos have never been represented at Chelsea as a collection. So I know they're always very keen to get new types of plants exhibited there.

He is conscious, if a tad sceptical about the need to address sustainability as a grower. He grows in peat-free compost, favours terracotta pots over plastic ones, but he tries not to "over-egg what I do".

But in the run-up to Chelsea, his plant collections are recovering from a severe flooding event which will provide a dramatic narrative backdrop to his exhibit at Chelsea.

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He narrates the events of 20 October 2023 in the wake of storm Babette:

"By 4.30 in the morning we heard the upstairs toilet start bubbling, which I think was a sign that all the drains had been overloaded. And we literally packed the car and kind of evacuated...filling the car with my precious seeds for the National Plant Collection."

"I think that part of the flower show is actually focusing on flooding and resilience this year...well what better story to say that a grower that's been flooded out can come back, can come to Chelsea and show award-winning flowers?"

The experience chimes with his interest in water conservation; his two plant collections survive solely on the 20,000 litres of the rainwater he stores over winter. 

It's a far cry from his former life when Jonathan was, he jokes, "one of those nasty lobbyists that people imagine" working for clients such as Royal Mail, Boots and the Woodland Trust - "essentially working in the political arena to either guard against threats that come from Government because all legislation has unintended consequences, or indeed spotting opportunities".

He says he is actually proud of some of the work lobbyists do, "keeping  Government in check and ensuring that perhaps some decisions that they take, that can be quite ludicrous and ridiculous because they haven't got all the information, perhaps get amended or changed or influenced".

He contemplates what horticulture should be lobbying for: "If I was the industry, I'd be gearing up for the next election...what are you going to be wanting from whoever forms the next Government? What are your five asks?" He asks for "certainty" on peat and a more joined-up approach.

Despite the recent attention lavished on the industry during the Lords Horticulture Enquiry and subsequent report, the work is not over, he says.

"There has to be a realisation...that once you've had a big piece of work, right, we're there, we're done...but politics doesn't work like that..

"It's following through on that and ensuring that you don't let Government off the hook.

He says the appointment of former health secretary Steve Barclay as Defra secretary of state presents an "opportunity to all those people who are advocating...about the value of horticulture to mental, indeed physical health".

As for the future, as his "hobby" takes an ever greater hold of him, Jonathan is contemplating possibilities, maybe even a third national plant collection. Watch this space.

Presenter: HortWeek editor Matthew Appleby
Producer: HortWeek digital content manager Christina Taylor

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