I don't know about Chelsea and Hampton Court, but 2010 has been a grim year for shows. It's not exactly surprising. It might still be possible to find £50,000 sponsorship for a Show Garden at one of the above and it might also make sense for someone - the sponsor or designer - commercially. It's not, however, proving easy to find any money elsewhere. I spent 26 minutes visiting the "National Gardening Show" at the nearby Bath and West Showground yesterday. There were some good speakers there, including my friends from Cleeve Nurseries, but - I felt for the organizers - there was only one show garden there after funding for all the others evaporated. The rest of the show was a bizarre mishmash of beautiful and giant fruit and veg (to veg gardeners what Crufts is to dog owners), local nurseries, and morose purveyors of window cleaning equipment.
And how were these folk making any money? I bought a very prettily put together and hefty 60g packet of lovely organically produced Phacelia seed from a small Wiltshire nursery, Beans and Herbs (who have at least got a plug here from the weekend). How much do you think it was? Clue: Phacelia seeds are relatively small and the website describes the seed as "quite expensive". It cost me... £2.60. £2.60! Forget the cost of production - how much did it cost them to be there, in terms of time and effort and the direct cost of the pitch?
Beans and Herbs, forget the National Gardening Show next year. Go instead to the Stock Gaylard Oak Fair, as I did a week earlier. You will sell more seed there in an afternoon than you sold this weekend, and you will pay very little to do it. Why? It's a local show, in a field, with a clear agenda: it "is a special event for those interested in timber, woodcraft, the countryside & conservation". Guess what - that's what the stallholders are interested in as well as the punters. Organic herbs and seeds? Perfect. There was a man selling bird whistles at £2.00 each and a make-them-yourself bee box stall. The burgers were made from cows outside Sherborne (6 miles away) and the beer was from Yeovil (10 miles, and - horror - in Somerset, the next county). I had a great time promoting the business, although no-one bought my honey because all the punters either kept bees themselves or knew someone who did next door. They were those kind of people.
I've complained before about the big gardening shows because they fail to promote a cohesive environmental agenda - or any kind of agenda, come to that. Lack of strategic thinking, together with high infrastructure costs, mean they are failing the small specialist nurseries which are dependent on them, and, consequently, the customers who walk through the door. It only makes sense in the short term to take money from whoever can afford to pay you a relative fortune for a stand.
I'm off to the RHS's Malvern Autumn shindig later this month to see my friend Ian in the fruit marquee and talk about Perry Pears. It will be full of window cleaning equipment and Heucheras like it was last year. At least I've got my own agenda.