If you spend any amount in England, you’ll soon realise that we’re a nation obsessed with gardening. We’re obsessed by quite a lot of things – weather, queuing, politeness, just to name a few – but in the case of gardening, we’re also collectively rather good at it. I have to say collectively because I personally am no horticultural goddess but in our own rather modest way, we are a nation that’s quietly confident of our international superiority when it comes to matters of spade and fork. We are the nation that can probably claim more ‘celebrity gardeners’ than any other. The French have famous philosophers – we have famous gardeners.
It’s not all about grand stately home gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find hundreds of small local gardening societies running events to challenge their members to show off the best they can do. My parents are members of a gardening club which holds a twice yearly ‘Flower and Produce Show’ which inspires great competition amongst the society’s members.
For reasons of discretion and a fear of getting mum in trouble, I’ll avoid telling you where this particular F&P show takes place. My parents are gently but firmly obsessed with their local F&P show. Last summer my step-father was undergoing chemotherapy and focusing on the summer show became my mother’s most intense coping mechanism. A year later with his condition in temporary remission, my step-father was able to get more involved. The message went out to me and my husband, my sister and her partner, that attendance at the Flower and Produce Show was not optional. We would be there and we would enjoy it – whether we wanted to or not.
Actually I love these shows whether I have a personal connection to them or not. If you find yourself in the UK during the summer months, try to find a show to attend. They’re unlikely to be widely advertised and the best way to find one is probably to ask around at your hotel or B&B or to go to a local newsagent or shop and see if they know of any such events. Sometimes you’ll see small signs beside the road advertising a show and if you get lucky, do please go and have a look. For overseas visitors to attend a flower and produce show is an almost guaranteed opportunity to show off to their friends about seeing the ‘real’ England.
You will not find such a show if your travel is restricted to the big cities, or possibly even the mid-sized ones. Gardening clubs such as the one to which my parents belong, are country or small town groups, mostly kept going by the determination and tireless efforts of some of the community’s elder members. Their behaviour is ruled by the book – that book being the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) rules and guidelines. Some of these rules can be common sense and obvious, whilst others are more obscure. As in all things British, we do rather like precision in definitions and the man who runs the F&P show we attend can be heard to repeatedly state how important it is to follow the specification of the ‘schedule’. This means that if the listing is for three blooms of a single type of rose, you’ll be disqualified for two or four blooms or for more than one type of rose. It also meant that my mother was able to win a prize as the only person to enter three runner beans, despite one of the three being only an inch long.
Taking part in a show is usually restricted to members of a garden society or people living in a particular village depending on whether it’s a garden society event or village show or church show. Tourists will therefore be present only as observers but if you want a really British afternoon event, you can’t beat something like this. What you can expect is to pay a small fee to go in – perhaps 50 pence or a pound with reduced entry for children or seniors. There will be an exhibition venue – perhaps a village hall or community centre, or in some cases a marquee. Inside you’ll find the best that members have to offer in a wide range of different categories. In some places where things are taken very seriously, gardeners will have laboured for months to grow the biggest pumpkin, the longest runner bean or the most perfectly matched carrots. At the one we go to, things are a little more relaxed and you’ll find vegetables to make you laugh as much as to impress you. Typical categories include baking and cookery, flowers, vegetables, photography and children’s classes. The list of classes will be published weeks before the event so that people can decide what they want to enter. At the one my mother attends, exhibitors have up to a few days before the show to submit their entries and specify in which categories they wish to compete.
For weeks before the show my mother will have been baking. Some of the items she submits may have been made in advance and frozen for the show. Some of the less expensive to make items will be made several times in the run up to the show to get them perfect. She will have been knitting and crafting the strangest of things in preparation. On the day of the show, she gets up at around 6 am to hunt around the garden for the best flowers she can find and to photograph everything for her scrapbook before she goes. At around 8.30 am, she and I drive round to the hall to set up. This year she competed in every single cookery class, several of the flowers and plants classes, a couple of fruit and vegetable classes and in one of the handicraft classes. In total I would guess she had a go in about two dozen different competitions.
People can get very snippy during the set-up. Some try to move their entry into a more advantageous position on the table, some will snipe about how big or small or pathetic someone else’s entry may be. Last year one woman took issue with my mother entering three hydrangea flowers on the grounds that they were "shrubs, not flowers" and "shouldn’t be allowed". My mother showed her that they did meet the instructions in the schedule and she harrumphed off. This is the woman my step-father refers to as "Her with the rat-face".
All exhibits have to be set up by 10 am so that judging can then take place. The show opens in the afternoon at 2 pm and exhibitors can then return and see how many certificates they’ve won. Typically there are different coloured certificates for first, second and third places and in some places ‘highly commended’ certificates are also given. Within each category – e.g. cookery, fruit and veg, flowers, craft, photography – there are typically challenge cups to be won and in some cases additional prizes. Children are especially encouraged and generally get a certificate just for turning up as many of the societies are desperate to encourage a younger demographic.
Judging can result in controversial decisions and many people who take part (and many who attend) are quite forthright in expressing their disagreement with the results. Last summer we were subjected to what a friend of mine refers to as ‘Cheese Straw-gate’ after the judge decided that none of the 10 or so entries in the cheese straw category was "cheesy enough" and refused to award a first place certificate. Sometimes you’ll hear some quite spiteful comments but more often you’ll overhear people saying the loveliest things. I heard one young man exclaim with delight when he saw mum’s entry in the ‘knitted toy’ class. "Jeez, can you believe someone knitted a cat? Wow, that’s amazing".
Expect to find a village hall or a marquee stuffed full of neatly laid out entries, a serving hatch where you can get teas and home-made cakes and outside an area with children’s games, a raffle, a bric-a-brac stall and other entertainments.
My mother won the cookery ‘rose bowl’ this year for the summer show. In spring she won the cookery ‘cup’. In total this year she won 16 certificates for her various entries. It takes a lot of work, a lot of practice, and a very special brand of British determination to work like an ant and accept the praise and rewards with a shrug and an "It was nothing". You can find the best, the worst and some of the most eccentric aspects of British life at a Flower and Produce Show – so please don’t drive on by. Stop, park up, pay your pennies and have a look around.