Fair Trade: The Great British Plant Fair

By Andy McIndoe

I really don’t know if the Plant Fair is a British thing or if Plant Fairs happen elsewhere in the world; perhaps you can tell me? For any readers not familiar with this event I’ll explain. Basically nurseries, especially small growers and specialists turn up at a venue and set up a stall for a day or two alongside a handful of food purveyors and stands selling garden accessories, hats, bags and paraphernalia that visitors are likely to buy. The Plant Fair is not to be confused with the garden or flower show where the plant stalls are an ancillary activity alongside an exhibition of plants, flowers and gardens. It may be in field, large garden or any suitable venue without facilities but relatively difficult access: all this adds to the experience.

With the uncertainty of the British climate the Plant fair can mean shivering stallholders and an overcrowded tea tent, but whatever happens it brings out the determination of the gardener to acquire more plants that he or she had not intended to buy. The Plant Fair is a place to meet friends and acquaintances. Purchases come with bragging rights, especially if you have just snapped up the last one of a small batch of treasures. This is the place to find a bargain: whatever its price. Plants are here for their own sake; not because they are alongside the more sophisticated environment of a garden centre with coffee shop and home accessories. The appeal of a home grown, unbranded, unlabelled plant is hard to resist. Often it’s the same price as a garden centre, and often its readily available but that’s not the point. It’s all about the shopping experience, and this is different!

At the beginning of May I was at The Bishop’s Waltham Plant Fair in Hampshire, England. This is an annual event in aid of St John’s Ambulance. I do a few Gardener’s Question time sessions during the course of the morning and judge the stands. Winners get a free stand the following year. I also talk a bit about the plants I’ve seen, and yes I end up buying quite a few plants.

Primula ‘Francisca’ was one of my first acquisitions a few years ago. I grow it in pots that I move onto the steps outside the conservatory for spring display. When it finishes lowering sometime in June I move the pots into a shady corner for the summer. I’ve had my plants for three years now; what great value for just a few pounds.

Last year I found Philadelphus ‘Innocence’. I love the soft creamy yellow suffused foliage and sweetly fragrant flowers. It’s not the strongest grower. My plant fair purchase was my second of this plant. I’m hoping for more success this time. I buried the last one alongside Lonicera ‘Baggessen’s Gold’ which clearly got the upper hand. This is a good example of one of the appeals of the plant fair: you do find plants that do not suit commercial production.

Viola 'Maggie Mott' I remember a friend of my mother’s raving over Viola ‘Maggie Mott’, the delightful, sweetly scented pale blue viola. That was well over forty years ago. She searched in vain to buy it at one of the few and far between small nurseries in our neighbourhood. It’s now a treasure you might easily pick up at a plant fair and I have bought it on several occasions; partly for nostalgia and partly because I love it.

I often extol the virtues of Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’, that lovely creamy variegated form of common box that’s so good for small gardens and pots. It’s slow growing so you rarely see it on garden centres. I was delighted to find three lovely plants this year at the Plant Fair, so I snapped them up before anyone else got in there.

One of my great summer successes last year was the lovely purple black opium poppy, Papaver somniferum ‘Black Peony’. I’ve grown it before but these days I rarely seem to get round to growing it from seed. One of my favourite small nurseries always has pots of seedlings at the plant fair so I’m looking forward to it again this year. I also managed to find some nice plants of the lovely white foxglove, Digitalis purpurea var. albiflora. This isn’t rare but it’s always in demand and disappears as soon as it becomes available.

Sometimes a plant fair subject finds its way onto the flower show circuit. I remember buying Antheriscus ‘Ravenswing’ a few years ago at a plant fair. This is the “”black” leaved form of cow parsley; glorious in flower, but a short season. This was the plant of the hour at this year’s RHS Chelsea flower Show. The late spring contributed to its introduction into just about every show garden.

I think my most exciting purchase this year is a really interesting Fuchsia hemsleyana ‘Silver Lining’. It has sprawling red stems and small leaves of the most stunning steely blue-grey. Tiny scarlet buds have appeared in the past week but I feel these are of very secondary importance. I know nothing about this plant. I don’t suppose it’s very hardy, but that doesn’t matter. That’s all part of the adventure of gardening: it should be a voyage of discovery.

Why not share your Plant Fair purchases and adventures below: we would love to hear from you. Also do tell us about any

Andy McIndoe

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