I admit to being a little unsure about this year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival. It was so good last year: stand-out gardens; a marquee full of tempting flowers; perfect weather. Would Jane Furze manage to meet let alone exceed that in her first year running the festival?
I was lucky enough to be allowed a sneak preview before it opens and first impressions are good, very good.
For the first time in the nearly 30 years that I’ve been visiting, Malvern seems to be looking outwards and finally making the most of its enviable setting. From nearly every point on the Three Counties Showground you are aware of the Malvern Hills in the background.
Continuing a move started a couple of years ago, the show gardens are positioned to be against the hills and elsewhere views have been kept clear of tents, stands and trailers, the necessary but ugly mechanics of a garden show.
Then there’s the feeling of space. Obviously, this was helped today by the fact that visitors were not on site but there’s the sense that even when the crowds arrive – advance ticket sales are already up on last year – there will be none of the past cramped atmosphere.
It is, says Jane with a smile, exactly what she had hoped for.
“We’ve opened the site up and created much more open space.”
Permanent showground trees have been incorporated into the vista, filling the middle ground and linking the site to the hills.
“We’re in a really beautiful site and I wanted to make sure that location stood out. Everything is placed in the frame of the hills.”
Exhibitors’ vehicles, which used to occupy a fairly central area, have been banished out of sight and a vast swathe of grass has been left in front of the Floral Marquee.
And what of that marquee? When I spoke to Jane a few months ago, she was excited about one of her major rejigs, namely the design of Malvern’s equivalent to Chelsea’s Great Pavilion.
It has changed shape and site on the ground several times over Malvern’s 32-year history. I think it’s finally right. The long 190m vista from one end to the other is knockout – even when the exhibits were still being put together – and the shape means nurseries are no longer in danger of being tucked away in a corner and easily missed. And as for the space outside, the marquee now has room to breathe, while keeping trade stands to a minimum means the hills are beautifully on show.
Jane confessed that her main worry before the festival had been the weather. Even that has worked in her favour. Today was a perfect sunny day with the forecast looking good. The forecast for the festival also seems to be set fair.
So, what are the ‘not-to-be-missed’ features? Here are just some of the things that caught my eye.
The best thing about RHS Malvern gardens is the chance to get up really close – and usually from more than one side.
Small enough to be relevant to the average gardener, they are nonetheless packed full of ideas.
And don’t miss Jekka McVicar’s Health and Wellbeing garden. She’s completely revamped what had been a rather neglected permanent feature. Now it’s full of edible and medicinal herbs with plenty of places to sit.
The garden, with a greenhouse donated by Hartley Botanic, will be cared for in the future by Pathways, a day service for adults with learning difficulties,
“I’m very pleased with it,” says Jekka. “It’s come up really well.”
In the same vein, there are edible borders at this year’s festival. Created by community groups, including Incredible Edible Bristol and Garden Organic, they are putting the spotlight on community projects that promote food-growing.
For me, the Floral Marquee is the highlight of RHS Malvern. There’s plenty to see with exhibits of everything from cacti to clematis. At its heart is the Plant Finders Parlour, designed by Joe Swift, and set to be the stage for talks.
Don’t miss the special Master Grower exhibit by Fibrex Nurseries. Part of a rolling programme across RHS shows, it explains a bit about the history of the family nursery and the behind-the-scenes work.
I also spotted stand-out lupins on W&S Lockyer’s stand and some irresistible peonies.
British flower growers are back at RHS Malvern in force. The austere surroundings of the Wye Hall have been cleverly disguised by Peter Dowle, giving the hall a Victorian street market feel.
Don’t miss the spectacular floral fountain, designed by leading florist Jonathan Moseley. Hundreds of blooms in glass holders hang from the ceiling, slowly rotating as they catch a breeze. Simply mesmerising.
• RHS Malvern Spring Festival runs from May 11-14. For details, see the website
• For show garden results see here