Tempted by Rare Plant Fairs

The 2017 dates for the Rare Plant Fairs have just been announced with new nurseries and a second Gloucestershire venue. I’ve been finding out what goes on behind the scenes.

Like most gardeners, I can’t resist a plant sale. Be it a flower show, fundraising community event or merely a table at the end of someone’s drive, I find it impossible to go past without taking a look. So, Rare Plant Fairs with their selection of specialist nurseries are particularly tempting.

rare plant fairs
Rare Plant Fairs are a great way to stock up

Unlike the big shows, there’s no limit on visitor numbers, high entry prices or miles to walk back to your car with purchases. As for shopping online, buying direct from the nursery with the chance to discuss growing needs and suitability for your plot is much better.

And the fairs are invaluable for smaller nurseries, who can’t afford the big shows or don’t have time to open the nursery.

“They are often one or two person bands and it’s a balance between growing plants and selling them,” explains Ian Moss, who runs the Rare Plant Fairs with his wife, Teresa.

“The fairs really do offer the opportunity for these smaller and very good nurseries to get out and put their wares in front of the gardening public.”

rare plant fairs
The Old Rectory in Quenington is a regular venue

The idea of Rare Plant Fairs started in the early 1990s with events organised by Derry Watkins, of Special Plants nursery in Wiltshire. She ran them for several years before handing the organisation on.

By the mid-2000s the events were floundering and it was then that the nurseries took over running them, with Gloucestershire grower Victoria Logue of Whitehall Farmhouse Plants one of the first to be involved.

The idea behind today’s events is simple: gather a group of diverse nurseries and let them set up shop in a good garden; entry to the fair includes admission to the garden.

“We try to price the event to be at or slightly below the normal cost to visit that garden,” says Ian.

The money raised is divided between the Rare Plant Fairs to cover admin costs and the garden owner. Some use it to help with running costs, others donate it to charity.

rare plant fairs
Highnam Court is a new venue for 2017

This year, a second Gloucestershire date has been added to the calendar. As well as the long-running April event at riverside plot The Old Rectory in Quenington, there is a July event at the 40-acre Highnam Court, near Gloucester. Both will be run in aid of Cobalt Health, a Cheltenham-based charity that provides MRI scanning for dementia and cancer.

Another new venue that is likely to prove popular is Hanham Court, near Bristol, which will be hosting a fair in June. Once the home of designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman, whose many projects include the stumpery at Highgrove, it is now under new ownership and is a classic English garden (pictured top) full of roses and lilies.

The new fair at the Walled Garden, at Cannington, Somerset, in July offers the chance to see a wide range of unusual plants, including a collection of cacti.

“It’s got quite a mild climate for the area so they get away with some slightly more ambitious planting than you would normally expect in Somerset.”

In addition, 2017 sees a second event at the popular Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset. As well as the regular March date, there will be a fair in August when the herbaceous borders are at their best.

Rare plant fairs
The Bishop’s Palace will host two fairs

It also gives Ian and Teresa the chance to showcase some different nurseries: a hellebore specialist will be there in the spring; a salvia grower is booked for the August date.

Organising the fairs is a job that starts before the previous season ends, with the couple visiting possible new venues to check their suitability – parking can be a deciding factor – and checking that existing gardens wish to continue.

Applications for a coveted nursery slot open in October and close a month later. Then comes the task of matching requests to events, making sure everyone gets their share while maintaining a good variety at each fair. There’s also the need to recognise the loyalty of nurseries that have supported the fairs for years while encouraging newcomers.

rare plant fairs
Nursery displays are simply plants on tables

For 2017, there are around 250 ‘spaces’ across all the fairs and around 350 requests were received.

Nurseries come from all over the country, including Cornwall, Essex, Leicestershire and Wales and typically there will be around 15 at each fair; the largest at Kingston Bagpuize in Oxfordshire in May has 30 stalls. Many nurseries offer a wide range of plants, such as herbaceous perennials, others are more specialised: orchids, shrubs or alpines. All are ‘vetted’ to ensure they are growers rather than merely retailing plants brought in from elsewhere.

This season, new nurseries include hellebore specialist Kapunda Plants, Gardener’s Delight, from North Devon selling mixed herbaceous and Hertfordshire-based Daisy Roots with hardy perennials and grasses. Fibrex Nurseries, near Evesham, also return with pelargoniums, ferns and ivies after a gap of some years.

rare plant fairs

Once the details are finalised, the publicity drive starts with 45,000 copies of the events guide printed and the newsletter emailed out.

The fairs are popular, not only with nurseries but also with gardeners; many prefer the ‘down-to-earth’ atmosphere with nursery stands merely a trestle table loaded with plants rather than the complex displays seen at the big shows.

Last year, thanks to rain-free days, the events had their best season ever with an average of 550 visitors per fair.

And they are friendly events with the growers themselves often buying from each other before the fair opens. It seems that, like me, they can’t resist a plant sale.

For more details of venues and dates see Rare Plant Fairs

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