Stephen 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 Stephen’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 Stephen 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!