Header image from Rare Plant Fair
In a world of convenience, it is easy to forget how some pursuits were just a little more cumbersome two or three decades ago. Music now easily pulled up online once required acres of disc or vinyl space. Restaurant quality food now arrives directly via pinpoint accurate apps. And thanks to online garden centres, gardens are easily populated with all manner of plants at the click of a button.
Pre digital boom, to source a greater portfolio of plants, the only real option was to physically get out into the world and network. The Rare Plant Fair has its beginnings in these analogue years. And while it sprung from necessity, the event is well and truly blossoming in the modern-day.
The Rare Plant Fair
thrives within the grounds of marquee locations like Bishops Palace, Wells. This garden, characterised by scented silver lime trees and Candelabra primroses, hosted the curtain-raiser for 2019 - the fair’s 25th year.
Bishop's Palace & Gardens
With its impressive medieval architecture, lush countryside setting and stunning RHS partner gardens, The Bishop’s Palace & Gardens, located in the heart of the City of Wells certainly makes for a picturesque day out.
Beyond the ancient ramparts and moat (where you should look out for the resident family of bell-ringing swans), there are 14 acres of Grade II listed gardens, including the shady well pools that give the city its name.
Breathe in the fabulous rose-covered parterre, float past vast herbaceous borders or take a walk on the wild side in the Arboretum, where swathes of bluebells, primroses and snowdrops blossom. In Spring, the Quiet Garden’s ashy silver birches are ablaze with a carpet of red tulips. Here visitors can share a moment of reflection and contemplation – when they’re not snapping the eye-catching display.
As well as more than 800 years of horticultural history, The Bishop’s Palace & Gardens also hosts alfresco theatre and art exhibitions. After a plant-packed day out, pull up a well-deserved seat at The Bishop’s Table, where you can tuck into produce grown in the community garden.
Bishop's Palace has been home to the fair several times this year.
Established in 1994, the now multi-location fair was formed by Derry Watkins in response to a limited number of UK horticultural events. The main aims were to allow specialised growers to display their wares and to provide gardeners with the chance to discover plants not readily available.
'In the 90s there were fewer events around for nurseries to be able to go and sell plants,' recalls Ian Moss, a retired nursery owner and current fair organiser. 'It was only the early days of the internet, so the whole business of selling online didn’t really happen.
A typical Rare Plant Fair stand.
'The fair was an opportunity both for Watkins’ nursery and others to be able to find new customers and markets. The fairs went through a number of different organisers. Around about the mid-2000s they were struggling a bit and in danger of folding,' he explains.
That’s when a group of nurseries got together to rescue the fairs. People chipped in approximately £50 each to establish a working capital. The fairs haven’t looked back since, regularly putting on displays and refreshments at unique UK gardens.
'Since they have gone into the hands of the nurseries, the events have gone from strength to strength. We organise it in such a way that the fairs are good for nurseries but also good for the gardens and the public as well,' Moss says.
Beautiful Gardens throughout the UK provide the perfect setting for the fair.
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How the fairs work
Work for the following year’s fair begins almost as soon as the final event ends. It’s then that organisers book locations, prepare promotional material and, most importantly, choose the plant nurseries that will attend. The key is not to have too many vendors but enough to ensure a wide variety of unusual plants are present for gardeners. Mr Moss says the fair has a vast spread, from herbaceous perennials to edibles and exotics. He’s keen on salvias and together with his wife Teresa they own more than 160 varieties.
Rare plant nurseries are vetted to make sure they are not importing plants in from somewhere else.
'They are all genuine growers and know an awful lot about the plants they grow,' Moss says. 'What they offer are plants that you’re not going to see at the local garden centre.'
It’s also an opportunity to talk to people that have decades of experience and knowledge of the industry. 'You can get their advice on what to choose for your garden,' he adds.
'It's something that you can’t do when ordering plants or seeds on the internet. You also don’t necessarily get to see the skill of nurserymen and women when you order online or from a catalogue.'
This year there is just one remaining chance to experience the Rare Plant Fair before the show closes until March 2020. The final event, on September 22nd, will see the plant experts set up shop at Llanover House, Abergavenny, in Wales.