I called in at RHS Wisley during their annual show this September. Now that’s horticulture on a very grand scale: an extensive, beautifully tended collection of plants displayed in 170 acres of gardens, a 40 foot high Glasshouse, a plant fair where old favourites jostle with new cultivars for attention, a fascinating library of garden-related books and one of the most successful garden centres in the country – all in one space. Oh, and the National Dahlia Society Show was on too!
I already knew that RHS Wisley’s plant centre was one of the most successful ones in the country, and was keen to visit the sales area. My marketing head whispered that the point of sale material was not particularly special, but this just conformed my suspicion that the best way to sell plants is by stocking them, in tip top condition, alongside a world-class display garden. If you have well trained, enthusiastic staff on hand to help gardeners make the best choice, so much the better. This may sound simple, but believe me, it takes vast resources, dedication and commitment. When it’s done well, it removes so much of the guesswork from buying plants.
I regularly attended Press Preview Day at another RHS Show – the Chelsea Flower Show – but generally dashed back to the office next day to help follow up on questions and requests. However, for my first Chelsea, I couldn’t resist the temptation to help out on the stand for one of the Member’s Days. I was eager to learn and frankly amazed to find out just how knowledgeable so many of these gardeners were.
There’s no garden show on earth quite like Chelsea. As the day whirled on, I started to have a strange feeling. Helping so many gardeners choose roses to suit their tastes and desires, that would thrive in their garden conditions, seemed more like running a dating agency than anything else.
Did the gardener prefer a particular type of rose, or have a colour or shape of flower in mind? Were they looking for one that would climb, form a medium shrub, or produce lots of cut flowers? Was fragrance important to them? Were they planning to grow the plant in full sun or partial shade? How much care and attention were they able and willing to give their new plants?
When a gardener chooses from plants that have been prepared for a show – or bred to look beautiful in a pot at a garden centre – they may be rather surprised to see the character of the established plant after several years in the garden.
That’s where a little research, such as talking to plant experts, or reading the variety label, can be handy. A row of plant cultivars on a nursery stand may all look pretty much the same, except for their colour, when presented for sale in a pot. After a few years in the garden, their differences will be all too clear. Some will thrive in a wide range of conditions, even with very little care, while others will sulk and start to look weedy if neglected for too long or planted in shade. Some plants will flower more freely, spread more rapidly, or grow much taller than others. One of them may even be sending its roots out on a rather scary garden domination project, prompting some urgent attention.
If a new gardener doesn’t like their purchase, or if the plant fails to thrive, they may think it’s their fault and – worst case scenario – may never try to grow plants again. It’s all about having the ability to make the right match in the first place. That’s where display gardens win hands down.
If my dating agency comparison holds true, the well-tended garden at RHS Wisley that allows gardeners to compare the scale and beauty of thousands of established plant cultivars in a garden setting is horticulture’s equivalent of speed dating on a massive scale – except you can take home as many plants as you like! No wonder they’re so successful at selling plants, year in, year out.