Obligatory Chelsea blog

I had a fascinating 3 days at the Chelsea Garden Show earlier this week, courtesy of Hilliers. What lovely folk – and while I’m on the subject, congratulations on your 66th consecutive gold medal, a record which makes you the horticultural equivalent of Don Bradman. Hilliers have been fantastic partners for our Meadow Anywhere seed project, and fingers crossed my hopeless attempts at helping on the exhibit haven’t persuaded them I’m bloody useless…

I’ve been known to grumble in curmudgeonly fashion at shows, but it seems churlish to here as I had such a rewarding and entertaining time. Let’s just say I really liked Nigel Dunnett’s show garden and really didn’t Diarmuid Gavin’s. ‘Nuff said. I got a huge amount of the show personally, and not just in terms of my own education (I can now recognise the beautiful Sinocalycalycanthus, even though I still can’t spell it). As a networking opportunity it was fantastic, and I’m looking at a whole bunch of new ideas, tie-ups and projects as a result of just wandering around and chatting to people.

For the outside world Chelsea is a great marketing opportunity for one of our best and, seemingly, most undervalued industries. I still don’t understand its economics at all; we regularly sell trees which cost more to get to the customer than they do themselves. The value and quality we get from our top nurseries is as extraordinary as the choice, and events like this are a rare opportunity to showcase them.

The show’s diversity isn’t just restricted to the exhibits and exhibitors, but it also attracts visitors from all over the planet. I was reminded of Jane Owen’s FT article on Taipei’s massive flower show earlier this year:

Michael Balston, a member of the RHS Council (governing body), created the garden to “remind the world through the quiet diplomacy of horticulture that the UK still exists”.

Don’t Bugger It Up

I had a great time at the launch of Buglife’s “Get Britain Buzzing” campaign at the Royal Society this week – video below – shame about Bill Oddie and that annoying bee quote that’s NOT Einstein, but otherwise very good, and I rather liked his alternative name for it (geddit?). The central message from the charismatic and engaging Germaine Greer was interesting. She sees the need for a change in social attitudes towards pollinators like the kind of change we have seen over a generation towards drink driving. Why, she asked, are children so interested in bugs and yet by the time they’re grown up see them as a nuisance? Pollinators are the good guys, and we should welcome them into our gardens – more than that, we should learn to take pleasure from them and the ecosystems we can create.

This is only a slightly different angle to the one I have banged on about in articles like this one in the FT, Nectar Pointers. Listening to Anne “The Bad Tempered Gardener” Wareham on Radio Four a couple of days ago I was absolutely sympathetic to her irritation with the heavy expectation on her from earnest conservationists and grow your own fans to be a “worthy” gardener. People don’t garden to be worthy, and nor should they. They shouldn’t do what they think is the right thing for wildlife; they should do what they want to do and create what gives them pleasure. The knack is to persuade them that the two things objectives coincide – to change their aesthetic. Perhaps we can do this by making it socially unacceptable to have decking like we’ve made it socially unacceptable to drink/drive (!), but I wonder if we haven’t got a better chance to make people think it’s just ugly. A good example is lawns; I bet within 10 years a flowery lawn will seem much more attractive than the manicured stripy job so beloved of lawnmower and selective weedkiller manufacturers.

I’m sure attitudes towards pollinators will change – are changing. We’re still a long away from getting there, though. If you want to see how far just go to Chelsea next week. These big gardening shows – another of my bugbears – still have “eco” or “biodiversity” areas. Why? Can’t the RHS, a real opinion forming institution, be brave and quietly embrace these ideas into the mainstream? That’s the way to facilitate change – make beautiful “wildlife friendly gardens” just appear the norm, without making a big song and dance about it or patronising people. I try and avoid talking about “wildlife gardening” and biodiversity for this reason in the context of gardening – it’s alienating to a lot of folk in the same way that “eco building” is.

I’ll be at Chelsea on Sunday/Monday/Tuesday promoting native planting and the very beautiful “Meadow Anywhere” at the Hillier’s exhibit, trying not to be worthy.

Newsletter No.14: May 2011

Chelsea is very much in my thoughts at the moment. I’ll be on the Hilliers stand for the first half of the week, where they are featuring our Meadow Anywhere seed mix. We have been growing planters for the exhibit – I say “we”, but I’ve been helped out by Steve Morton, the seed supplier, which has calmed my nerves considerably. Hilliers are handing cheques for £4,000 to Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at the show, which is the donation to them from sales. Now that’s how this should work!

Chelsea is also important to me as it gives me the opportunity to talk to landscapers and designers. If Habitat Aid is to succeed we have to persuade these folk to use native and local plants and to source them from us. We have a growing and enthusiastic group of retail customers who have been brilliant in spreading the word, but unfortunately you only plant an orchard or sow a meadow once!

New Products
In addition to the new products in the pond section we are now also offering wildflower turf – popular among designers as it gives you low hassle instant impact meadow.

Oh yes, and we have confirmed the Perry Pear varieties we are selling, for delivery bare root from autumn. How can you resist a tree called Beetroot Wick Court Alex?

I’m also revamping the “perennials” section on the website, which will end up as more “woody perennials” by the end of the month.

Our recent “making wildife ponds” course with Hugh Roberts was a great success, despite the dry weather. It reminded me what a great thing ponds are. We’ve recently expanded our product range in this area to include coir rolls and mats, pre-planted with either well established mixed plants or phragmites (reed). This is a really clever trick. If you use a butyl or plastic liner it can be difficult to create planting spots without using baskets (yuk!). Coir provides a growing medium which will keep the plants in place – plants which are already well developed, so will give you instant impact. The rolls sit nicely along the banks and you can lay the mats on gently sloping sides. Prices very according to delivery, so are available on request.

New Developments
We are chatting with a some high profile potential charity partners, with a view to designing and supplying new products for us to sell through our website, or through retail intermediaries. Watch this space!

Social Media etc.
I’m getting better at social media. We now have over 800 more or less genuine Twitter followers (I tweet as Habitat_Aid), in addition to our Facebook page, and the blog seems to be going well – I’m trying to get into Wikio’s Top 20 Environmental blogs.

According to Alexa the main website is now ranked the 393,031st busiest in the world, by the way. That looks like it might put us somewhere approaching the top 10,000 for UK traffic, whereas a year ago we were more like 20,000th. Like our progress overall I don’t know whether the result is good or bad, but the rate of change looks great!

A Functioning Coalition

Illustration: Hannah McVicar
I don’t think I’ve banged on nearly enough about the success of Meadow Anywhere, our packets of wildflower and grass seed mixes for urban gardeners. It’s such a good illustration of what we’re doing it’s irresistible.

Step 1: I have an idea for a new product, which I develop with one of our suppliers – in this case, Herbiseed. Having sorted out the right seed mix…
Step 2: I take the proposal to a small list of carefully vetted potential retailers, including the lovely Hillier Nurseries, who agree to sell it and promote it to other retailers.
Step 3: I confirm the involvement of a couple of our charity partners – in this case Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. For them it’s a no-brainer; they love the product, which is absolutely on message, and stand to make £1 from every packet sold. And it’s not just £1 – it’s £1 they can match with government funding, and which they can do anything they like with.
Step 4: We design and illustrate the packets, supply the seed and get the whole lot packaged, together with some lush Counter Top Units.
Step 5: Hilliers sell 8,000 packets – that’s £4,000 to each of BC and the BBCT – and we grow planters to feature at their Chelsea exhibit – more publicity for all.
Step 6: More sales, more money to charity, more products to roll out in the autumn.

There are two key points to make from all of this:
1. There’s a world of difference between this and just twittering on as an “environmental activist”.
2. Charity and commercial sectors can work very well in a symbiotic relationship, although they typically need someone in the middle to kick things off and make them happen.

Chelsea, Chelsea, I believe…

I saw The Fratellis at Glasto a couple of years ago, and their “Chelsea Dagger” has been going round my head all week. A cracking song.
Much of my time over the last few days has been focused on a very different and somewhat less gratuitous Chelsea, as the flower show looms. I spent Monday at an event organized by the RHS at Wisley (for which a big thank you) learning about field trials with the jolly corps of the Garden Media Guild. Lovely people, incidentally, and on message – in contrast with one of the speakers – but that’s another story, and the equally lovely RHS has only just about made it into the 20th century, so it’s excused.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the journalistas are beginning to focus on the (sorry, THE) gardening event of the season, with an excitement which this year I share. Having been a paying punter a few times over the years, I’m now helping Hilliers out with their stand, which will feature the Meadow Anywhere seed packets we supply them with. This is an ace project, which among other things has so far raised £4,000 for each of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation. Anyway, we are growing a collection of planters for the stand. I say “we”, but actually one of our suppliers is (before you panic); Herbiseed’s Steve Morton is doing all the hard work for us, and I visited him at a secret location in Berkshire on Tuesday to do a quick check on them. How are they doing?
These planters are going to make everyone wonder why they bother growing anything other than micromeadows in their back gardens. See you at Chelsea.

Newsletter No.12: March 2011

Spring is springing in deepest Somerset, although we’ve been working so hard it is rather passing us by. Over the last week we’ve been busy processing plug plant orders from our offer for Butterfly Conservation. The dogs need walking more and I keep putting off writing a book outline I MUST do. I did manage to get my act together enough to write a piece for the FT last weekend, which is always super exposure. I have also finally added some lovely lavenders on the website from Downderry Nursery.

We’ve finalized a day for this year’s wildlife pond creation day – 12th May. The course will again be tutored by pond guru Hugh Roberts, and we have a fab site in Redlynch, southeast Somerset, to develop. I’ve also posted a video of Matthew “Landscape Man” Wilson working on a project with our coir rolls and native marginal plants, which gives a helpful idea as to what we offer:[aembed:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW7pA0FHV7U]

Meadow AnywhereIt’s the time of year to be thinking of wildflower meadows – plugs and seed. Our wildflower and grass seed mix, launched with Hilliers last month and featuring at Chelsea, is going really well. We’ve had extensive media coverage and interest from other retail partners.