Award-winning gardener and presenter of The Beechgrove Garden and GLTS speaker Chris Beardshaw spoke to GLT about how the gardening industry has blossomed and why there’s so much on offer for groups across the UK and beyond.
Q. How much has the interest in gardens grown for visitors in recent years?
A. For the last 15 years all the research indicates that gardening is the number one hobby in the UK. At the Group Leisure & Travel Show at the NEC in Birmingham in October I mentioned the value of the industry. It’s a £5bn industry; garden centres and nurseries have flourished. Everything indicates that there’s more appetite for seeing gardens. In my parents’ generation, people would visit a garden but there wasn’t anything about recreating that garden. But now it’s different.
Q. Why do you think there is so much interest in gardens now?
A. People genuinely fall in love with gardens and the experience; gardens touch people in a way that nothing else touches you. They are truly transformative. They will bring people to tears of joy and tears of frustration. You can have unbridled passion and you can have absolute terror. That is the theatrical world that we create when we create gardens; we try to take people on a rollercoaster. You play with peoples’ emotions with the way you use space. You see that in gardens, for example at Great Dixter, Hidcote and Sissinghurst. They are pieces of art and theatre using horticulture. That’s what people fall in love with.
Q. And what about knowledge of gardens and their history?
A. There’s definitely a greater knowledge now, brought about by media and the internet but also the range of plants. Over the last 20 years we have moved from an inward-looking horticultural industry to a very outward-looking industry and it’s a celebration of the fact that, as a nation, gardening tells our story.
Q. Is it impossible to tell us your favourite garden to visit?
A. Yes, I always find it very difficult to isolate one particular garden because you’re always looking forward to different seasons. But if I had to narrow it down, it probably would be either Wollerton Old Hall in Shropshire or Hidcote Manor Gardens in Gloucestershire. Hidcote was the first garden I visited as a child and there’s something very soft and quirky about the character of the gardens at Wollerton.
Q. There are many gardens that are all-year round now, including the RHS sites, tell us about that.
A. What’s great now is that you don’t need that encyclopaedic knowledge of gardens and you can enjoy the total theatre without knowing your begonias from your onions. With smaller gardens the expectation is that it’s for really hardcore gardeners whereas with the bigger, more open sites, it’s more for people who are looking for that day experience in the garden environment. In a way you need both.
The challenge for anyone who organises group trips is to suit all. You may have one person who’s a gardening expert and another who is perhaps less interested. It’s useful to go to sites where there’s multiple appeal, for example there’s a garden with a Lawnmower Museum so if you’re not interested in looking at the chrysanths there’s still that appeal. At Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight you can walk around the grounds and immerse yourself in the stone and history but the garden is a very bespoke piece of work that appeals to others.
Q. Finally, many GTOs will want to know about your own garden, what do you enjoy growing?
A. My garden is an experiment which is a subtle way of saying it’s not finished. I don’t think your own garden is ever finished. The very nature of where we live is a windy hilltop so you have to create a series of enclosures and a series of walls and hedges. I grow plants that are enthusiastic and want to grow. Life’s too short to deal with prima donnas. It’s about trying to contain their enthusiasm rather than encouraging them to be enthusiastic and grow.
This Q&A also features in the annual Gardens and Flower Shows feature, available to read in the January issue of Group Leisure & Travel magazine.