How do you measure up?

Stevie and I have gardened here for four years, and for most of that time I have wondered if we should join our local horticultural society.  My mum is a member of her local group, and gets involved in all sorts of activities; they have head gardeners coming to talk to them, they visit specialist nurseries and private gardens, they swop seeds and plants, they plant up communal spaces, and they all open their gardens for teas in the summer.  It all sounds like good fun.

So we checked the date and time of our local meeting, and we went along to the village hall.  We were five minutes late because we got the wrong hall, and the meeting had already started.  A sea of heads turned, as we sheepishly shuffled in, causing more of a kerfuffle because seats had to be found, and a fee had to be paid.

There were various housekeeping issues to get through before the main speaker.  Membership is down; they haven’t had a new member for some time.  A few members have passed on.  I couldn’t help noticing that we were the youngest present, possibly by a good thirty years.  The group were exhorted to welcome the new members here tonight. Everyone turned around with wide smiles. We waved back, feeling the weight of expectation.

The speaker for the evening was a member of the group, who is a judge for the National Vegetable Society.  I didn’t know there was a National Vegetable Society.  He’s been a judge since 1978.  You have to go through a strict training programme, and then you get a tie and a pin, and a handbook of rules.  These were duly passed around.  I avoided Stevie’s eye as I passed the book along.

Judge Veg then took us through what he is looking for when he judges each category.  He is exacting.  Everything must be scrubbed clean, and stems trimmed to the right length.  Uniformity is key.  No bumps or blemishes.  No bitten leaves.

For flowers, symmetry is key.  JV demonstrated with a daffodil.  The daffodil must be ‘clocked’: its petals must point to 12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 2, 4, 8 and 10 o’clock.  If your daffodil is wonky, you won’t win.  JV showed us how to manipulate a daffodil, by twisting its head.  Similarly if the angle of the bloom from the stem is not 45 degrees, it must be manhandled until it is.

JV has measuring tools.  There is a ruler, to measure the width of the cup against the depth of the cup.  This must be in the correct ratio for the class of daffodil you have entered.  For other categories there are other tools.  JV always carries a hanging weighing scale (similar to the one I remember our visiting midwife putting my baby daughter in).  He also has a ‘halo’ by which he measures the diameter of championship dahlias.

We were then asked to spot the flaws in some blooms.  Four roses.  One had uneven outer petals.  One was too oval, another too triangular.  The last one had a notch in one of its petals.  There were actual gasps of horror from the audience at this last one.  JV said that a notch in a petal is as bad as a slug hole.

Just to make sure that the message had sunk in, JV showed us the rules for each category.  For carrots alone there are two pages of rules.  In fine print.  We were also asked to laugh at the basic mistakes in presentation that JV has photographed over the years.  Flowers with stems leaning slightly too far out to the right.  Too much or too little moss around the oasis.  An unscrubbed turnip.

I shuffled in my seat. I crossed and re-crossed my legs.  After five minutes I was chewing on my nails.  After ten I was gnawing on my knuckles.  All those measuring instruments seemed a bit eugenic.  I know that agriculture and horticulture are built on breeding more reliable, prolific, disease-resistant or attractive crops.  And I love a beautiful rose.  But all of my roses are beautiful, and sometimes more so for their imperfections.  I love a wonky rose.  I love that the colours can change depending on weather and growing conditions.  I love a peony from its bud to its going over.  An aged tulip takes on a wonderful metallic sheen.  Everyone loves a two-headed dahlia.  I have a lupin which produces pink blooms on one side and blue on the other.  Once I had a cosmos ‘Dazzler’ with only one petal, which went all the way around. I treasured it. It was unique.

I don’t want to risk breaking my daffodils’ necks to make them symmetrical. I don’t want to play “my one’s bigger than yours” with a dahlia.

I couldn’t help but feel that all this measuring and primping and preening and trimming and twisting and forcing and holding back was taking all the joy out of gardening.

I can’t bring myself to perform the Chelsea chop to manipulate flowering times. I don’t use chemicals or artificial fertilisers, because we have insects and mulch. Just like I don’t use foundation or chicken fillets in my bra.  Because I think nature is doing a pretty good job already.  If we are healthy, there is no need for enhancements.

We made it through to the tea-break and I tried to check the schedule of future speakers.  I was told that you don’t get that until you are a fully paid-up member.  Stephen suggested I take a photo on my phone, but this was met with consternation.

On the way home Stevie and I discussed the membership issues.  How are they going ot attract new members?  We are garden nuts, but are hesitating.  The group felt very white, very middle-class, of a particular age.  There was such a stark divide between this group and the blogging community of which I am now a proud member.  The blogging community feels exciting and vibrant and sparky and young.  Not in the sense of actual age, but of outlook.  You can find your niche, or skip around.  There is quirkiness and eccentricity and passion and experimentation: rare and unusual vegetables, exotic plants, succulents, wild-flowers, cut-flowers.  There are wildly different approaches: gardening with the cycles of the moon; no-dig; organic; hydroponic. And different lifestyles: there are high-rise gardeners, coastal gardeners, gardeners on crofts and on house-boats and in treehouses. The diversity is the appeal.

I’d like a gardening club that is like ‘Six on Saturday’. (A meme started by The Propagator). Just having a wander and a wonder, seeing the myriad ways we can make our little piece of Earth a slightly nicer place to be. Sharing expertise, ideas, creativity.

So what of the local horticultural society?  I know that I am judging from one evening with one speaker at one group.  I know from my mum that there is liveliness out there.  It’s not all about competition. It is likely that everyone in the audience that night were cowed by the instruments of torture, and sat still and quiet for fear of losing a petal.

Do you belong to a local gardening group?  How does it compare to blogging? Have you ever entered into a local competition?  How did you fare?  Feel free to argue back!

My aim on this site is to share the sense of wonder I get from gardening and being outdoors.

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38 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharon says:

    I think it’s about finding your groove. I know that I’m not ever going to enter a horticultural show; it’s enough that I compete with myself (will I ever grow a round swede…) but I enjoy the community of being an allotment holder. Pick and choose I say. But maybe give the group another go, different speaker etc.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, I think you’re right. There may be a completely different vibe with a different speaker.
      We’ve never grown a round swede either. Ours are elongated and lumpy. But we still love them.

  2. I like wonky. Our tomatoes were amazingly varied, organic and rampant. I think old style horticulture etc is off putting. Gardening has changed so much in the last 50 years and we want it more natural and environmental. I hate snobbery and I think a lot of local meetings can be too neighbourhood driven.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, it does feel as though there had been a culture shift away from perfect veg. I like the idea of having a local group, but am also nervous about it! Is it a judgement thing?

      1. Judgement or guidence or experience.

      2. Ali says:

        Good point, Judi!

  3. Tish Farrell says:

    It’s all a bit batty, isn’t it – judging vegetables. One of the old hands at our allotment speaks of all sorts of dastardly deeds in bygone days when allotmenteers were competing for the longest parsnip and fattest leek – theft and sabotage. I think the old school gardening club (with too many daft rules) has rather had its day unless you are very lucky to hit on one that has good speakers. What we need is a composting club. I think that might attract far more interesting people 🙂

    1. Ali says:

      Compost does seem to be a big interest! And admiring composting bays!

    2. Stevie says:

      I think that’s a good point, Tish, about the old school. It seemed very 1950s, with forms and regulations. I think gardening now is much more than just that. It’s about making a space to live, about cooking and preserving what you grow, decorating your home; a way of life or state of mind.

      1. Ali says:

        indeed it is, Stevie. A way of life, and a cornucopia of delights. ❤️

      2. Tish Farrell says:

        I agree on all fronts, Stevie.

  4. Island Time says:

    I’m afraid I simply would not measure up! Prefer wonky and quirky. I agree with previous comment re: a composting club. Good idea! I like seedy Saturdays

  5. Laura says:

    I tend to be a bit suspicious of clubs that cannot get new members. Maybe it is their attitude towards newcomers 🙂

    1. Ali says:

      To be fair, I think they were delighted to have prospective new members. I got the impression the membership has stayed the same over a long period though, and perhaps haven’t moved with the times. I probably wouldn’t want to be the person to come in and shake things up, but I think that in order to survive, there will need to be new ideas.

  6. bcparkison says:

    Oh my goodness. I did look at the veg.picture and wonder if they were real. Of course he is a judge and there must be rules…I’m just not very good at rules. You know not to judge a book by it’s cover..give them another chance.

    1. Ali says:

      Good advice, thank you.

  7. Tiny Urban Farmer says:

    This is similar in the orchid world – the society I was a member of were all about perfection. I was proud that I grew some nice flowers because it is hard to get it right but I never would have taken them to ‘show and tell’ They should have ‘show and tell’ where you can say this is the first time I managed to get a carrot to grow and people say ‘well done! keep doing having a go’

    1. Ali says:

      Yes! Exactly how I feel! To share your delight at where you’ve got to, and to delight in what other people are doing in their own completely different ways. I do really hate all the rules with gardening. I don’t think you need to follow half of them – many are just repeated from outdated wisdom, or might work for one person’s garden but aren’t right for you and yours.

  8. Claudette says:

    Sound ghastly – not about growth at all. Nature is free – not regimented.

    1. Ali says:

      My sentiments, exactly Claudette. It’s like the difference between being taught by rote sitting at a desk and copying things down from the board, or being free to play and experiment. There is a time to sit down and learn, but gardening for me is about being creative, trying new things, and enjoying nature’s happy accidents.

  9. Emma Cownie says:

    I think you must have a soul of an artist, loving the wonky roses. All those rules for the veg competition, I am surprised that they get any entries at all!

    1. Ali says:

      Oh, that makes me happy, to have the soul of an artist! It didn’t make it through to my hands, sadly! Maybe everyone buys their entries from the supermarket?

      1. Emma Cownie says:

        I don’t think they’d be good enough, judging from the exert’s guidelines!

  10. Jan Battye says:

    Hi Alison What an awful experience! I can assure you our horticultural society is nothing like this. We are struggling for members – but if necessary will join a larger club like Tenterden. It sounds as if the meeting you attended was taking itself far too seriously. By all means encourage uniformity for some categories of vegetable presentation – but we also have an entry for the most ugly vegetable ! I think you should send the secretary of this group a letter describing your feelings !!

    Sent from my iPhone


  11. I remember the village flower shows of my youth full of well scrubbed vegetables, flowers and home baking. It was a great hub in our community. However, my garden and I are very happy being gloriously imperfect.

    1. Ali says:

      ‘Gloriously imperfect’ is fabulous. I think this is what I aspire to in life!

  12. Flighty says:

    A enjoyable, and interesting post raising issues that affect most, if not all, garden groups nowadays. I joined my local horticultural society when I took on my plot ten years ago. We have a trading shed which opens Sunday mornings to sell canes, compost, seeds and lots of other items. We hold an annual show in September
    We have a declining, and ageing, membership which looks set to continue sadly.
    I enjoy blogging about the plot, and being a member of the horticultural society for all it’s annoying traits. As for entering the local show I do but don’t really take it as seriously as some feel I should! xx

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you for your considered and informed response. There are clear positives about being part of a gardening club, and the sharing is a really lovely aspect. Would I be right in thinking allotment groups are lively, thriving communities? Also as many are urban, I guess there is more diversity? There are also community and school gardening groups, which I would imagine are pretty buzzy.

      1. Flighty says:

        You’re welcome. I agree. Many allotment groups certainly are, but not all. I think that with a growing interest in growing food as well as the mental and physical health aspects, that perhaps the future will see more community and school groups, I certainly hope so. xx

  13. Anna says:

    Oh a group that wasn’t keen to share the rest of the year’s programme would make me feel apprehensive about a return visit. Still I would give it another go and if that didn’t work out you could perhaps consider alternatives. The veg growing for shows lark is rather esoteric to say the least so the next speaker might be more to your taste. I remember joined a local group some thirty years ago and at the time was one of the youngest members. My group sounds rather like your mum’s and through joining it I’ve listened to some fabulous speakers over the years, visited gardens and shows, shared seeds and plants and above all made some close friends.

    1. Ali says:

      That sounds brilliant; exactly what I had in mind! Yes, I think i’ll give it another go, but look elsewhere if it doesn’t work out. There clearly are some good groups around.

  14. Linda Casper says:

    I am a member of a local gardening group and enjoy the diverse talks, shows, garden visits etc. I think gardeners and writers are very generous with their time and help. Look at the Programme page on our blog to see the range of our activities.

    1. Ali says:

      Now you’re talking! I should have known Leeds would have it sorted! (I’m from Yorkshire and went to uni in Leeds). Can I come to your euphorbia talk?!

      1. Linda Casper says:

        Sadly the Euphorbia talk has been and gone but you may catch it elsewhere.
        You may remember Paxton Hall on Kirkstall Road. We also hold mini Flower Shows and my claim to fame is my Daffy Talia came third and all I did was watch it grow!

      2. Ali says:

        I lived for a while on Martin Terrace off the Kirkstall Road! Now in Kent, so a way away. Well done for your dahlia!

  15. Sounds pretty grim! Ha! Gardening societies need to get cool and up to date and grab the youngsters in otherwise they’ll just die a death. If I were you I’d give it another go and kick some life into it! Do keep us posted!

  16. Sophie says:

    ‘I love a wonky rose!” Me too! Ooh that club sounds horrid tbh. No wonder younger people don’t want to join, I think gardening is about evolving and learning from our mistakes; from tiny carrots to wonderful but weird flowers. I wonder if you will go back? Like you say, maybe it was just that speaker? I love the blogging community in general. Lots of people going about their buisness blogging about their life. It’s also so inclusive don’t you think? Love this post. Thank you for joining in with #MyGloriousGardens this month. I will post a round up post towards the end of the month. I hope you may have ‘met’ another blog that gave you a great read! Do come back in April.

    1. Ali says:

      I was pleased to discover that gardenbloggers sometimes meet up, and maybe that’s the answer. There’s a plant sale meet up at Great Dixter that we’re planning to go to in April.
      Yes, have found some lovely blogs this week! It can also be bit random sometimes just stumbling across them!

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