I cannot win a medal for participation in the Southport Flower Show,as I don't enter exhibits. For the last two years I have been attending as an adviser with the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, a prestigious gardening organisation that is commissioned to provide advice to the general public. We have a stall in the amateur growers' marquee, strange as we were all people involved in Horticulture in some way. Dealing with the public's queries is satisfying, yet challenging, as you never know what question is going to be asked.
The Southport Flower Show:2019
Working with nice people on a sunny day caressed by a sea breeze was a delightful experience.
Getting to the Show
We, Richard and I, sat patiently in his car as we wound our slow way down the winding lanes of Lancashire, in North West England, while we crawled along behind a pair of tractors, the component parts of a combine harvester being brought for the barley harvest. Eventually, the harvester made space for us to pass and we managed to speed up. Soon I sensed that we were nearing the coast. There is something about the light of the coast that is quite distinctive, a certain inexplicable clarity; and Southport is a flower show on the coast, in a seafront park, its site since the nineteenth century. There is much to be said for maintaining traditions,they give a dignity to a town. And Southport is a lovely, genteel English town, whose well-run, friendly show combines the civilised character of the town with the warmth of the Lancashire people.
Richard parked the car while I went to the show office to collect our passes, only to find Richard already there. His identity badge as a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, Myerscough College, got him waved through a nearer gate. Myersrcough was where I took some of my Horticulture examinations, and for me it is a place of good memories. I will be ever grateful to the staff for the help given me in preparing for the practical examination.
We arrived at our stand, a high desk covered in reference books. One member was already there, also called Richard. We usually have a team of at least three, to create a range of horticultural experience. My field of expertise is vegetables, which is fortunate as the other two were flower and landscaping specialists respectively. All three held the grade of Member of the Institute, the qualifying grade for advisers.We had a brief visit from Bernard, a Fellow of the Society, higher ranking than any of us and one of the hundred people who at any one time hold the RHS gold medal for achievements in Horticulture. He said hello and then went to another appointment. Bernard, as you can gather, is a man in demand from many people. Later we were to get a message that Bernard could not come to the stall as he was busy selling tomatoes for a friend who grows them. Pity, as we would have benefited from his enormous expertise!
The stall had no customers waiting when we arrived, so I went to get a bacon sandwich and,[ being English] a cup of tea! Then I had a quick stroll around the marquee. As usual, I stopped first at the Sweet Pea Society stall to see if an old friend was there. He wasn't,then I strolled over to the National Vegetable Society Lancashire Branch stall, where I knew one or two of the exhibitors. I am in the Manchester and Cheshire Branch, so we don't exhibit at Southport, it is not our local show. There was a wide range of stalls including alpines, carnations, cottage gardens and begonias, to select but a few from the wide range in a huge tent. Then it was back to work.
Cottage Garden Display
Cottage Garden Display
Questions Come Fast
There was a range of questions.
"You're the expert.Tell me what's wrong with my bonsai." said an old man. "Who me! An expert on bonsai? " I thought.It seemed that the lower branches of his bonsai oak were stubby and underdeveloped. I discussed the tree with him and gave the best advice that I could. Solution: trim the top branch to kill the axial bud, doing which promotes growth lower down. Maybe keeping the plant fed would help, I advised. The trouble is that horticulture is a massive subject and even experts need to be continually learning.
Then I got the strangest question. "How do I grow moss." There was a reason for this strange interest. He had a bonsai tree and wanted some moss to green his pot. The answer: get some soil with acid pH, keep it damp, then take some moss and lay it on the surface.Let nature do the rest.
"I have a tree and nothing grows under it. Can I plant begonias there?" I ascertained that it was an evergreen, so the soil around it was acidic, so no begonias, please. I advised that the questioner should do a pH map of her garden to ascertain what would grow where.
We are supposed to keep records of all questions for analysis.This is particularly useful for tracking pests and diseases. This year we have had fewer lily beetles,but more vine weevils. Codling moth has been slightly present in apples.Caterpillars were as usual a nuisance.Some plants running wild, particularly climbing roses and invasive plants came up in questioning. Some questions need research, such as the one from a man who wanted us to identify an apple variety. The trouble is that there are about two thousand varieties. We took his email address and phone number, then about five minutes after he had gone we worked out that it was a variety called grenadier.Some questions are impossible, like the one posed by a woman who said that she had been recommended to use a fertiliser, but had forgotten its name. Could we help? Sorry, no!
I felt very much at home when a Northern Irish couple who only had a paved yard, asked about growing vegetables. Together we talked about a container and raised bed garden and how to establish one. Both sides of the discussion were happy when it was finished.
Containers were the answer when we met a man with a problem, the worst infestation of wire worm in potatoes that any of us had ever met.The solution: lay down a geotextile mulch and grow in bags on top of it. That way the wire worm is deprived of its food supply.
To do this job you need to be flexible and think on your feet. You have not time to research the questions, for the public want answers immediately. You have to draw on what you know, but be prepared to call on colleagues' expertise. But it is a very rewarding experience. I love doing it.
Sweet Pea Society Display
Sweet Pea Society Stall
Reflection on the Show.
There is more to the show than the marquee in which I worked. This year there was an emphasis on a musical performance,and many people at enjoying the music while enjoying food and drink.The atmosphere was friendly and peaceful, and this was in no small measure due to the attitude of staff, who are friendly and helpful. The show seems to attract a pleasant clientele, but flower shows do. There were not many children, but Southport is a town popular with retired people, who often like to settle there, so smaller child numbers are to be expected. Exhibitors are usually on good terms with each other and were happy for me to take photographs of their displays.
The Southport Show is not a great national show on a par with the RHS shows, such as Tatton, though it is the largest independent flower show. It has a local emphasis and that is its strength. Local growers and groups can easily find a place for their displays. One group is The Friends of Rotten Row, which is a conservation area in Southport, one mile of beautiful gardens adjoining Victoria Park where the flower show is held. It is totally run by enthusiastic volunteers, who do a marvellous job.These people deserve much credit. Look up Rotten Row, Southport on the Internet.You will not be disappointed.
My two colleagues were still working horticulturalists, who can use their show day to gain professional development points. As for me, I have been retired for four years, so I have no profession to develop. There are no medals for me to win. My allocation is at the moment one out of the four days, though I would do more, if asked. I do the show out of love, and I hope to do it again for years to come.
Hanging Flower Display
Hanging Flower Display
Alpine Flower Display