Flower Shows are for Gardeners that have Gardeners
Are flower shows failing to appeal to the grassroots gardener?
In my roundup of the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show yesterday, I mentioned that some people had voiced their opinion on the show before I visited. Comments from fellow plot holders included comments such as my headline - "Flower Shows are for Gardeners that have Gardeners". Whilst that's clearly not strictly true, I came away yesterday completely understanding why people could form that opinion.
I want to stress from the outset that I'm a big supporter of the RHS - I'm a member, and I appreciate a lot of what they do. The RHS Campaign for School Gardening and Greening Grey Britain campaigns in particular DO bring gardening to the 'everyday' person. As an RHS member, I have access to a great many resources, and free entry to a whole host of gardens - so I'm certainly not about to allow my membership to lapse. It is however clear that the flower shows are heavily geared towards higher earners, and to a degree, retirees. A review of the RHS media pack confirms as much, with 79% of it's membership falling into the ABC1 category (described by the Cambridge dictionary as "a consumer from one of the three higher social and economic groups, which consist of people who have more education and better-paid jobs than those in other groups"), and 50% of it's membership being retired. A staggeringly large proportion of it's membership are over the age of 50 - despite incentives such as Student membership, with all the same benefits, costing only £10 per year.
Whilst it was clear that some visitors to the show yesterday were both knowledgable and passionate, the above statistics were also clearly visible. Most (though not all) of the trade stands were selling, or showcasing, items that were priced at levels inaccessible to anyone other than high-earners. Yes, to an extent you get what you pay for and the greenhouses for example all looked stunning - but at £7,000+ you'd expect no less. But I came away with a heavy realisation that there's a huge gap in horticulture. This is an industry that attracts a significant amount of money, yet those working in it are relatively poorly paid - Fishbourne Roman Palace advertised for a Head Gardener role back in January, the salary offered - £18,489! There's something very wrong with an industry whereby a job that requires significant skill, knowledge and experience pays little more than that of a refuse collector.
Exhibiting or Trading at an RHS show isn't simply a case of paying your money and turning up on the day - you effectively have to ask permission first, and agree to all manner of do's and do not's - some of which appear absurd to me (for example, you may not give out promotional gifts or samples) - and heaven forbid you dare bring a gnome to the show! Essentially, it comes across as elitist - and the end result reflects that, both in terms of the show and, to a degree, the attending visitors. Gardening should not be about class or money, it should be accessible to all regardless of age, income or social status. There is no difference between Lord and Lady Snufflebottom and their collection of Begonias, a show garden designer or an unemployed 20-something with a half-plot allotment - they're all gardeners.
The RHS does a great deal for the wider gardening community - and they're certainly less 'elitist' than they were back in the 90's (so I'm lead to believe). However, their membership is still largely made up of a certain demographic, and the shows are reflective and appeal to that demographic primarily. In this time of food insecurity, biosecurity and climate change, they need to appeal AND cater for much wider scope. Whilst RHS membership itself does, to a large degree, accomplish that - there's no hint for example that they'll only offer free advice if your garden is an acre or more - the shows let them down. No-one wants to sit at a table thinking you're the poorest person in the room.
I'll counter my own critique with perhaps an alternative view though. Most of us gardeners will spend our time covered in soil, perhaps knee-deep in horse poo on occasion - maybe gardening needs a time and place to 'get the glad rags on' and show off?