The grass had been cut on Monument Green, the weather was in fine fetal, the tables were laid out and there were great expectations for a good days trading at the Plant Fair which coincided with the start of the Chelsea Flower Show.
From humble beginnings some twenty years ago when there were just a cluster of tables at the foot of the Monument – sold out within two hours – the week-end before last saw another successful event, although takings were down on the previous year.
On the Saturday the staff put in a shift to move the plants from their winter quarters at the College to be laid out on the Green. The local Scouts were prepared for their night-time vigil guarding the stock, and as barrow-boys on the Sunday. Sarah organised the event for the second time and there were the usual stalwarts like Janet and Ray, apart from whom there were only a few recognisable volunteers – mainly the plant sellers who donate their time and plants to Ashridge.
Plant fairs have been a cultural event since the sixties when gardening first took off in suburbia and outdoor eating became part of the lifestyle. Bedding and rose growing was universally popular at the time, but fashions have changed with the abundance of new plants and varieties available.
The first garden centre to open selling container plants was in 1954 in Ferndown, Dorset, and nearer to home Frosts Garden Centre in Woburn converted in 1962 from a nursery where plants were lifted from the ground from October to March.
The first plant containers were recycled biscuit tins – good for the environment but devilish difficult to remove the plants. Then the ubiquitous plastic plant pot arrived which turned out to be a problem for recycling – the N T are looking at ways and means of replacing them in their garden centres before 2022 by which time they aim to be plastic free.
As with regular markets, popularity powered by public sentiment determines the future of annual fairs. Once a decline sets in it is very difficult to reverse the trend which can be self perpetuating and is evident today on our high streets. Like any retail offer the sales environment needs to be fresh and relevant, and advertised just to keep going. It was the Daily Telegraph who first promoted plant fairs with funding over a five year period, but when the funding finished so did a lot of the fairs.
Long live the fair!