Despite an enjoyable day buying plants and talking to nursery owners, I’m not convinced the Malvern Autumn Show has found its niche. Here are some thoughts on what is for many the final show of the year.
There’s no doubt that the Malvern Autumn Show has a very different feel to its springtime cousin.
Its RHS flower show is smaller and less crowded, there are no show gardens – it’s been some years since Malvern had its autumn ‘edible gardens’ feature – and the mood is more one of calm reflection than the fizz of anticipation.
It is, of course, not billed as a purely gardening show but rather a seasonal celebration with a large ‘harvest festival’ element, food, and, for the past three years, the National Giant Vegetable Championships, which this year broke four world records, adding to the mix.
As such, the gardening section is but one part and it was good. The nursery stands were beautifully put together, there were quality plants to buy and many things sold out with nurseries reporting lots of new customers rather than just their regulars.
Yet, over the years I’ve had the impression that the gardening is being squeezed, although I’m assured the number of nurseries was just one short of last autumn’s show. The vintage section, once farm and horticultural machinery, now encompasses cars and even caravans, while trade stands are selling everything from handbags to rugs.
It was disappointing to see empty spaces in the flower show area and on the trestle tables displaying vegetables raised by amateur growers, although that may have been due to a tricky growing season.
Perhaps gardening at the Malvern Autumn Show suffers coming as it does at the end of a long year of shows; many of the nursery owners I spoke to looked quite simply exhausted after months of driving stock across the country and staging displays. It will be interesting to see how the addition of RHS Chatsworth next year will affect things; I can’t see how a shrinking number of nurseries can fill ever more flower shows.
Does this perceived dwindling of the gardening element in the autumn show matter? It should. The two Malvern shows offer the chance to buy from a wide range of independent nurseries to gardeners for whom the likes of Hampton and Chelsea are too far or too expensive.
And autumn should be important for gardeners. It’s widely acknowledged as the best time to plant, giving things time to put down roots in still-warm soil before having to think about fruiting and flowering. It’s also often easier to reshape planting schemes while they are still fresh in your mind rather than waiting until spring.
There have been moves to revitalise the autumn show. Last year’s introduction of a celebration of home-grown flowers and British florists added a much-needed buzz. It was repeated this year and showed just how vibrant September gardens can be; the dahlia display by Jon Wheatley around the theatre stage was also a widely admired injection of colour.
Yet, while the floral exhibits were still innovative and interesting, I felt the ‘Floral Fiesta’ would have been better in one of the many Malvern ‘tents’ rather than being somewhat lost in the ‘tin sheds’ between trade stands selling labels and tools. The Floral Art section is another area in need of a rethink, if it is to attract a younger audience.
I also think there is a need for some design element – possibly small scale to fit with many people’s available growing space and to encourage design newcomers; award-winning designer Paul Hervey-Brookes started with a tiny garden at the Malvern Autumn Show.
There’s no doubt the spring festival is on the up, thanks to its partnership with the RHS. It’s now the RHS’s third biggest show, is attracting more nurseries, designers and visitors and Jane Furze has just been appointed as its head after a successful stint as Cheltenham Festivals Director.
The Malvern Autumn Show will also be under new leadership with Diana Walton starting as a new Head of Shows in December. As yet, what are described as “exciting plans” for the show are under wraps. I for one will be watching with interest.
• Read about my plant-hunting at the Malvern Autumn Show here
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