If you come to think of it, horticultural shows are pure theatre. From the staging of exhibits and displays of flowers, fruit and vegetables, to competition gardens. Some showgrounds are set in idyllic landscapes – the splendour of Hampton Court, the magnificent parkland at Tatton Park and the majestic beauty of the Malvern Hills. I have covered RHS Shows at all three venues on this blog during 2013 and returned to Malvern last weekend for their Autumn Show – a splendid mix of food, gardening and nostalgia; indeed a true celebration of harvest.
Malvern always excels itself with their theatre settings where visitors can enjoy a vast range of talks and demonstrations, and this year’s was no exception. For once I had time to actually sit in on some of the talks as the subjects were all so topical and were of particular interest to me. I particularly admired the setting for the theatre in the ‘Good Life Pavilion’ – a stage set and garden combined. Not for the first time has talented designer Mark Walker been engaged to provide a stage setting at Malvern as designing authentic gardens that tell a story of past and present is a speciality of his. ‘Grange Cottage’ was closely based on his childhood memories of his Mum’s childhood home in Oddingley near Droitwich where his? Grandad grew his own veg, kept chickens and worked the land. Mark takes such care with ‘dressing the set’ with ‘props’ that I returned to take another look more than once to imprint it in my mind.
I went to a demo on foraging, given by Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods in the ‘Wot’s Cooking’ Food Hall Theatre. Apart from being highly entertaining, she was also concerned that we should play with food, and with food heritage, not just around the lanes but utilising plants we grow in our gardens. There’s an inspirational larder out there. Honeysuckle flowers and rose petals make delicious sorbets, sprinkle clover flowers on salads, don’t eschew the elder – and did you know that common hogweed seeds (Heracleum sphondylium) are edible? www.foragefinefoods.co.uk.
Eating weeds seemed to be generally on the agenda as I dashed across the Showground to attend two Plant Demonstration Sessions – fascinating. Two Committees from the RHS – the ‘Fruit Vegetable and Herb’ and ‘Tender Ornamental Plants’ – had joined forces with the National Vegetable Society in the Harvest Pavilion. Particularly intriguing was ‘Amazing Edibles’ given by Jon Wheatley of the RHS Council, the gist of which was to encourage you to graze your garden – “if you can grow weeds, you can grow anything!” We need to transfer information down the ages before we lose it (use it or lose it). He recommended chickweed eaten fresh and available all year round, hedge mustard, salad burnet and even ground elder!
He moved on to vegetables that can be grown as feature plants in an ornamental garden and suggested broccoli ‘Romanesco’ and winter-keeping squash, and then suggested edible flower petals – calendula, viola and daylily. Rosa rugosa was suggested for syrups, garlic to be planted in succession for leafy snippings, rosemary was the most popular herb (keep it clipped), use ton-building bags for raised beds – runner beans for floral effects as well as food.
Equally fascinating and informative was the demo on Growing Vegetables in Containers given by Mark Hall, Trustee of the NVS and Grounds Manager at Harper-Adams University. He explained that “anything and everything” can be grown in a pot, the advantage being that you could more easily control what you grew and where (greenhouse, moving to outdoors or conservatory etc) and that protecting pots was easier than covering rows of veg.
Back to ‘The Good Life Pavilion’ to enjoy the ‘edible gardens’– show gardens in which a proportion of the plants grown had to be edible. As the catalogue outlined, the GLP is “all about sowing, growing and cooking with fresh wholesome food harvested from the garden. It’s about enjoying and preserving a year-round supply of fruit, vegetables and herbs … and living a sustainable life.” Designers had taken this definition into account, using prepared food and drink as part of their design.
The ‘Tregothnan Tea Garden’ celebrated the British passion for teas of many types and was set amongst their calm tea plantations in Cornwall – a small space at the Show but one where you instantly felt you could relax, drink tea and think “green thoughts in a green shade.”
‘A Place to Grow, A Place to Dream’ was, in my view, somewhat weird – where functionality did not quite work – a central island cooking area that dominated the garden, with sink for washing veg with constantly running water (was this really eco-friendly??) but nevertheless some lovely edible planting, so I have still included it.
‘Out of the Red, into the Green’ was a sweet garden, subtitled by its designer as ‘The Love Nest’; a gentle space where one could imagine unwinding with one’s partner at the end of a long, hard and busy day working away from home. The analogy of austere times when one should reflect on what really matters in life, and save money by growing one’s own food, was for me overshadowed by the idea of enjoying the plants, nibbling saladings whilst enjoying a glass of wine.