Malvern Autumn Show: news, inspiration and plants

Garden shows always take me a long time to explore and the Malvern Autumn Show is one of the slowest. Not only are there interesting plants to hunt out, being my ‘local’ event, there are growers and designers to chat to about the past season and their future plans.

Malvern Autumn
The giant veg were incredible

Aside from admiring the giant veg and apple displays at this year’s show, I discovered several plants for my growing plant wish list, heard about exciting developments at one of my favourite nurseries and picked up ideas for displaying flowers from my new cutting bed.

Malvern Autumn
There were lots of apples on display

The show

But one of the most interesting conversations concerned the show itself. I’ve long been critical of the way the Malvern Autumn Show is laid out and felt that the gardening was being sidelined, opinions I put to Head of Shows Diana Walton in a recent interview. She told me then that moving the RHS Flower Show out of the halls – commonly referred to as the cow sheds – was one of the changes being considered in a revamp of the event.

Malvern Autumn
Displays like this from Old Court Nurseries should be in a marquee next year

That move has now been confirmed by Nina Acton, Shows Development Executive, who told me: “There will be a floral marquee for next year.”

Shifting the plant displays into marquee with more natural light and a less claustrophobic feel is something that will be welcomed by exhibitors and visitors alike. It will be interesting to see what other changes are made.

The Growers

One of the first growers I bumped into was Malvern stalwart Medwyn Williams whose display of perfectly grown and presented veg is always a show highlight.

Malvern Autumn
These perfect vegetables got the top award

This year, it won the coveted Best Exhibit in the RHS Flower Show award – something he’s achieved countless times before.

“I never get fed up with it though,” he assured me. “I’m pleased for the team.”

It had, he said, been a “funny season” with high temperatures in May and June that had affected plants later on.

“But we are very solid people who can take on all challenges and veg have an uncanny way of getting over things.”

Malvern Autumn
There were also some great veg displays in the amateur contests

It takes a team of six three days to assemble the intricate display as none of it is done before arriving at the showground.

“It’s the best bit for me,” said Medwyn. “Creating something from good quality veg is a joy.”

In comparison to Medwyn’s decades in the business, Julia Mitchell of Greenjjam is the new kid on the block, although her penstemon displays are fast becoming a regular at shows across the country.

Malvern Autumn
A white flower nursery will be launched at the spring festival

Greenjjam is currently based in Evesham but there are plans to move to a bigger site over winter. More exciting, she told me about plans to launch ‘The White Nursery’ at next year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival.

It will run alongside the existing business and will stock white or predominately white-flowered trees, shrubs, climbers and perennials.

“I just think white is beautiful,” she explained.

Malvern Autumn
A novel way of displaying roses

The award for most innovative exhibit was given to C&K Jones for their striking display of roses.

The Malvern Autumn Show is late in the season for roses and makes putting on a display challenging. This design by Rachel Jones, who runs the nursery with her husband, Keith, used individual blooms rather than whole bushes and highlighted the different uses of roses, including as edible petals on a ‘petal pizza’.

Malvern Autumn
Rose petals displayed as a ‘pizza’

It was only the second outing for the idea, as the design was first tried out at the Harrogate Autumn Flower Show.

“I didn’t know whether the judges and the public would like it but we’ve had a very good response from them both,” said Rachel.

The Florists

Malvern Autumn
There were some beautiful cut flowers in the British flowers area

With talks from top florists, including Jonathan Moseley, the area devoted to British flower growers and florists is one of my favourite parts of the Malvern Autumn Show.

Malvern Autumn
A simple table decoration by Vale Garden Flowers

One of the driving forces is putting flowers together in a more natural way and the display by Freddie’s Flowers with a bloom-filled wheelbarrow was just one example this year.

Malvern Autumn
Freddie’s wheelbarrow stuffed with flowers

Freddie’s Flowers offers a slightly different take on the usual floristry service with customers receiving a weekly box of mainly British-grown blooms and instructions on how to arrange them, either in a leaflet or via a how-to-do-online video.

Malvern Autumn
Small milk bottle vases make a great hanging display

The other display idea that I spotted was Vale Garden Flowers’ interpretation of glass jars for showing off simple flowers. Hydrangea heads, Daucus carota and feverfew looked stunning in milk bottle-style jars hung from a rustic wooden frame. Simple and effective.

The Plants

I’m a sucker for a heuchera and there were lots at Malvern with spectacular displays by specialist nurseries Heucheraholics and Plantagogo.

Although it had finished flowering, H. “Megan’ caught my eye on the Heucheraholics stand thanks to its beautiful marbled green and silver foliage.

Malvern Autumn
The pretty foliage of Heuchera ‘Megan’

Bred by the nursery and named for owner Sean Atkinson’s mother, it has unusually large flowers for a heuchera, which often have rather dainty flower spikes. Light pink in colour, they have a yellow centre with white inside the throat and appear from April onwards; the plant on the stand had only just finished blooming.

Another pink-flowered heuchera that’s on my wish list is H. ‘Paris’, which I saw on the Plantagogo stand.

Malvern Autumn
Heuchera ‘Paris’

Again, it blooms for months, starting in spring and often lasting until November and has beautifully marked foliage, while the flowers have an almost two-tone quality.

I must have been in a pink mood because it was another pink flower that drew me towards Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants’ stand.

Malvern Autumn
Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’

Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’ is a hardy cousin of the more familiar annual snapdragon. With flowers not unlike those of a penstemon, this antirrhinum should be treated in the same way and cut back in spring after the last frosts.

It likes any reasonable soil in sun or part-shade and will flower from early June through to the autumn.

Malvern Autumn
I loved the colour of this kniphofia

In sharp contrast to all that pink was Kniphofia ‘Mango Popsicle’ on Hayloft Plants’ stand. Teamed with bronze carex and Salvia ‘Burning Embers’, the dainty orange ‘poker’ almost glowed.

The beauty of the ‘popsicle’ range of dwarf kniphofias, explained James Edmonds from Hayloft, is that not only are the flowers smaller and the plants shorter, they have fine leaves rather than the more usual strappy foliage, which can make an ugly clump for long stretches of the year. This makes them easier to bring further forward in planting schemes.

Plants will reach around 2ft-high and flower from late July through to October.

Malvern Autumn
Pennisetum ‘Karley Rose’

My final plant spot was a delicate pennisetum on Newent Plant Centre’s display. ‘Karley Rose’ has the typical fluffy pennisetum flowers but with a delicate rose blush and forms a neat clump of around 3ft tall.

Setting it off on the stand was a wooden fence, made at a Herefordshire centre that helps ex-service personnel suffering from PTSD.

Hunting out the planthunter: a chat with Nick Macer

Ahead of his Cheltenham lecture, Nick Macer talks about design, Gardeners’ World and why gardeners deserve better

Britain may be a nation of gardeners but as far as Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants is concerned we’re all being short-changed.

Uninspiring stock at garden centres, dull planting schemes and the dumbing down of gardening programmes, all are targets for his criticism.

Nick Macer
Salvia dombeyi is one of the many unusual plants Nick stocks at Pan-Global Plants

We meet at his Gloucestershire nursery and talk surrounded by the rare and unusual plants that make his business a popular destination for serious gardeners.

Yet he’s keen to dispel the idea that he puts rarity ahead of good design. For him, the two are equally important.

“I’m interested in gardens that are not just beautiful but interesting,” he says. “I think if a garden is beautiful but it has no interesting botany in it, it’s missing the link.”

cheltenham horticultural society
Nick Macer

Likewise, he dislikes what he describes as plant nutters’ gardens where collecting is more important than design.

“You don’t often walk into a plantsman’s garden and get that emotional response to the drop-dead, gorgeous piece of artistry that are the best gardens.”

Partly, he believes, dull gardens are due to the limited range on offer at garden centres and the fact that most people are unaware of the diversity of available plants.

“Generally, people buy in a garden centre rather than in a proper, interesting nursery run by interesting people.”

Nick Macer
You’re unlikely to find Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’ in a garden centre

Nick, who grew up in Stroud, got into horticulture almost by accident. By his own admission, he was a “rebellious youth” who more or less dropped out of school at 14 and ended up working with a local landscaping company just to earn some money.

“During that time, I suddenly wanted to start learning what all the trees were,” he recalls, “and I became absolutely obsessed.

“From that point on I’ve been learning and I’m still learning. In this game, you learn until you’re dead. It goes on and on, it’s wonderful.”

Nick Macer
Trees were Nick’s first love and an Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ is a feature at the nursery

An arboriculture course followed with his year in industry spent at Hillier Arboretum and Westonbirt.

“Before working there I used to visit Westonbirt for four or five hours at a time and stand and identify everything I could. I used to go there really excited and come away feeling sick of it because I was doing too much.”

Next was a job running Cowley Manor garden, including working with Noel Kingsbury on a perennial planting scheme, before he decided to set up a nursery, first at Painswick Rococo Garden and, for the past 16 years at Frampton-on-Severn.

He travels the world every year on plant-hunting expeditions, but says regulations have put a stop to seed collection. Instead, he gets new plants from other collectors and nursery owners.

Nick Macer
Nick collected the seed for Agave ovatifolia in Mexico

Last year, he did a stint as a presenter on Gardeners’ World, which, although he enjoyed, he’s unlikely to repeat: “My angle horticulturally is not Gardeners’ World’s angle.”

He’s critical of what he perceives as a “dumbing down” with “everyone treated as a newcomer”.

“I like to think I’m at the cutting edge of horticulture here. I know it’s for everyone but I don’t think there’s enough education in Gardeners’ World.

Nick Macer
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is grown for its beautiful foliage

“People that are just starting out should at least have the opportunity to go to a higher grade.”

Meanwhile, he’s exploring the idea of making his own gardening programmes. One thing’s for certain, they will be far from run-of-the-mill.

Nick Macer is the guest speaker at Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary lecture on Friday October 6, 2017. He will talk about planthunting in ‘Plants From Around the World’ at Balcarras School, Cheltenham. Tickets cost £6 and can be bought on the door or in advance: contact Yvonne Gregory on yvonnetgregory@yahoo.co.uk

For more information on Pan-Global Plants, visit the website

Looking up at Colesbourne Park

Like most visitors, my trips to Colesbourne Park are generally spent with eyes firmly cast downwards. The garden is well known for its snowdrop collection and in January and February little else gets a look-in. Yet, at this time of year, with the snowdrops still safely underground, it pays to look up. Only then can you appreciate Colesbourne’s other collection: its trees.

Colesbourne Park
It’s easy to miss what’s above your head

Champion trees, endangered species, the unusual and rare, the Colesbourne collection covers all these and more. Indeed, the garden works with Kew and others to offer a home to special trees, such as the coffin tree, Taiwania cryptomerioides, which is endangered in the wild.

“We play our part in conservation as a host to endangered trees,” explains Head Gardener Arthur Cole. “We’ve got a bit of a world view here.”

The garden is also trialling the Lutece elm, the result of a breeding programme to find something resistant to Dutch elm disease.

Colesbourne Park
Colchicums are found throughout the garden

“When we planted it 10 years ago, it was one of only three in the whole country,” comments Sir Henry Elwes, the current owner of Colesbourne Park. “I think it may be the tree of the future.”

The arboretum was started by his great grandfather, Victorian planthunter Henry John Elwes with a Wellingtonia the first tree to be planted. It’s a collection that is still being added to, although Sir Henry concedes that he is running out of space.

As we walk around the garden, he points out some of the more unusual trees. There’s the cut-leaf beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, with finely cut foliage quite unlike the commonly seen beech.

Colesbourne Park
The tilia is taking on a pink tinge

A beautiful lime, Tilia henryana, that’s getting tinges of pink on its foliage, was planted to mark Sir Henry’s 75 birthday and a Dawn Redwood marked his 21st.

The Serbian spruce, he tells me, can get to 100ft-tall but remains slender, like a giant rocket pointing skywards. Already, his tree is beginning to tower over others nearby.

Then there’s a champion weeping birch that at 100 years old is 40 years older than most birch, and the Thuja plicata ‘Zebrina’ named for its zebra-like striped foliage.

Colesbourne Park
Sir Henry Elwes

Meanwhile, the unusual cut-leaf hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Heterophylla’, was found on the estate and has what Sir Henry describes as “nettle-like” foliage.

Colesbourne Park
The nettle-like foliage of the cut-leaf hazel

One of the rarest trees is a Californian nutmeg, which produces seed on average once every 15 years.

“They’re devils to germinate,” says Sir Henry. “We had 120 seeds one year and only three germinated.”

Colesbourne Park
The Spring Garden has a blanket of cyclamen in autumn

He’s had more success with other trees and several are ‘second generation’, including a Siberian elm raised from cuttings when the original tree fell down.

“Every arboretum has its celebrity, its film star and this is one of them,” says Arthur, pointing to a large oriental plane. Walk under its twisted branches and it’s easy to see why. Moss covers some of the beautifully marked bark and the branches curve and turn, creating a living sculpture.

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There’s a sculptural element to the Oriental plane

Like many of Colesbourne’s trees, it also has a great back story having been grown from a cutting taken from a tree on an Emperor of China’s tomb by Henry John Elwes in 1902.

Similarly, a Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, was collected as a seedling in North Japan and transported back in a cigarette tin on the Trans-Siberian railway. Records show it as planted 20 yards from the Ice House in 1901 where it is still growing.

Colesbourne Park
The Ice House

Elsewhere, a foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa, was given to Henry John by planthunter Ernest Wilson. The original blew down about 20 years ago but two root suckers have now grown into fine trees.

And Arthur points out some Irish yews with pride; all Irish yews can be traced back to a tree given to his ancestor in Northern Ireland in the early 18th century.

Colesbourne Park
Colesbourne Park has several Irish yews

It is stories such as these that make the trees at Colesbourne more than just a botanical collection and a guided tour so entertaining.

Colesbourne Park Arboretum is open on September 16, 17, 22, 23 and October 21 and 22, 2017, from 12.30pm to 4.30pm. Entry is £7.50 for adults, children under 16 enter free. Free guided tours by Sir Henry Elwes and Head Gardener Arthur Cole start at 1.30pm and continue throughout the afternoon. For more information, visit the website.

Looking ahead to the Malvern Autumn Show 2017

The Malvern Autumn Show has a new boss who tells me about this year’s event and why she’s excited about the future.

For many years, my gardening life has been bookended by the Malvern shows. No matter how many seeds I have already sown, the Malvern Spring Festival marks the beginning of the growing season for me while the Malvern Autumn Show is the tipping point, a time to take stock and plan for the year ahead.

The two-day autumn show is very different to the spring festival with an eclectic mix of food, flowers and family entertainment. Harvest is always a major theme and there are displays of giant veg, orchard fruit and contests for the longest runner bean or largest pumpkin.

Malvern Autumn Show

In the past, there have been show gardens and the perception that the horticultural side had a stronger presence. Talking to other regular visitors and exhibitors, I know I’m not the only one wondering if the gardening is being sidelined in favour of cookery, animals and shopping.

Diana Walton, who took over as Head of Shows in January, is well aware of the concerns and is keen to stress that the fears are unfounded. Horticulture, she says, is “immensely important”.

“We know we have a section of the visitors who are coming purely for the horticulture and we must keep the strength and the quality in that area.”

Malvern Autumn Show
The nursery exhibits are a highlight

However, the other features are valuable: “We are offering an event that we constantly hear people tell us is their favourite of the year because they come and they can see a bit of everything.”

This year, she has ‘tweaked’ some aspects, mainly the layout to make movement around the show easier, and it will be next year that more obvious changes are implemented.

“There are certainly plans afoot to freshen the show up next year. This year’s project was spring and next year’s project is autumn.”

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Cut flowers are one of the popular contests

Drawing the various gardening elements together into one area of the showground is one possibility while the RHS Flower Show, currently in the ‘tin sheds’, or permanent halls, may also move, with a marquee not ruled out.

“The position of the RHS Flower Show is under consideration,” says Diana. “I think perhaps it’s time for a little bit of a change all around the show.

In the meantime, there are several new features at this year’s event: garden writer Alys Fowler and Jamie Butterworth, from wholesale nursery Hortus Loci, make their Malvern debuts and there will be a ‘Power of Pollinators’ display with nurseries offering pollen-rich plants, exhibits from bee-keepers and the chance to find out more about pollen with the help of scientists from the University of Worcester.

Malvern Autumn Show
Alys Fowler will be speaking at the show. © Ming de Nasty

Designer Mark Eveleigh’s permanent Tree House Garden, which won RHS silver at the Malvern Spring Festival, will be used for interactive talks for children and the National Vegetable Society returns with its national championship, held at Malvern every five years. Meanwhile, the Autumn Theatre will have masses of dahlias in a display by Jon Wheatley.

Despite being a newcomer to the Head of Shows role, Diana feels at home on the Three Counties showground as her uncle was chief executive for many years and she spent a lot of her childhood there.

“I was literally brought up on the showground, it was my playground,” she says with a smile.

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Dahlias will decorate the Autumn Theatre

While she heads up six of the Three Counties’ eight annual shows, the Malvern Autumn Show is one of the biggest, alongside the Royal Three Counties Show.

“I’m really excited about it because there’s such passion and enjoyment behind this show. Everybody I speak to just loves it and looks forward to it.”

So, what should you look out for at this year’s event. Here’s my pick of what’s on offer.

RHS Flower Show

Malvern Autumn Show

This is always top of my must-see list. There will be 35 nurseries this year including Fibrex Nurseries with ferns and ivy, Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, Derbyshire Bonsai and Plantagogo with heucheras.

Expert advice

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Carol Klein is one of the experts at the show

There’s a host of gardening experts offering the benefit of their years of experience. There will be question and answer sessions and talks on specific subjects, including growing dahlias, vegetables and what to plant for pollinators.

Carol Klein will be discussing autumn colour and propagation. Tim Miles, head gardener at Cotswold Wildlife Park, which is well known for its tropical style planting, will give ideas for eye-catching autumn plants, and the current popularity of houseplants is catered for with talks on cacti and terrariums.

Celebrating British Flowers

Malvern Autumn Show
Jonathan Moseley

Florist Jonathan Moseley returns to the Malvern Autumn Show with demonstrations of how to get the best out of seasonal flowers.

The Floral Fiesta will also have displays by British cut flower growers and florists.

Giant Veg

Malvern Autumn Show

You either love or hate these outsized monsters but either way they are worth going to see, if only to admire the skill and dedication needed to get parsnips, cabbage and carrots to grow so big.

Harvest Pavilion

Malvern Autumn Show

I love traditional horticultural shows and the Malvern Autumn Show’s Harvest Pavilion is just a bigger version. From beautiful cut flowers to perfectly matched fruit and veg, it showcases the best in amateur growing.

This year, there will be even more on display as the show hosts the National Championships of the National Vegetable Society and there will also be the popular contest for a trug filled with autumn produce.

Food and drink

Malvern Autumn Show
Selasi Gbormittah

And if you want to know what to do with all that produce, head for the Food and Drink Pavilion and the Cookery Theatre.

Andi Oliver, from the Great British Menu, Great British Baker Selasi Gbormittah and author and grower Mark Diancono are among those giving advice.

Herb Society president Judith Hann will be discussing cooking with herbs and there’s information on using edible flowers.

The Malvern Autumn Show runs from September 23-24. For ticket details, see the website.