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Cornucopia - People watching

People watching
Jane Allison

There are many really enjoyable aspects of selling plants at plant fairs. I take my plants ‘on tour’, (as one friend’s husband put it) to two dozen beautiful locations every year. When you have set up your stall, you might have a spare precious half hour to wander round the beautiful borders at Arley, Dorothy Clive, or Ness before the public come in, and everywhere is dew-coated and quiet, except for birdsong.

The weather is, of course, a vital factor. Nursery owners watch the five day weather forecasts anxiously, even though we all have webbed feet and skin like leather from being exposed to the elements on the one day out of the five that isn’t sunny and warm! We frequently look like orphans of the storm at the end of the day, but there is always a gazebo or parasol to shelter under; someone always has a primus on with a cup of tea, and there is nearly always a cake to share. The camaraderie is one of the great pluses of the events.

After all, there has to be something to repay you for the alarm clock going off at 5.30 am on the day of the Fair, and the two days of preparation involved in choosing, titivating and loading your best plants. That ‘something’ starts immediately with the drive to the venue.

On Sundays, the world doesn’t really wake up until 11 am, and there is something magical about having the road to yourself, driving through beautiful countryside on a sunny day, or a sparkling frosty landscape, a Bach CD playing, and the van full of plants you are proud to have grown.

The greatest pleasure of a Plant Fair, however, is the people you meet. On rare occasions, you are too busy selling to observe or engage much, but most of the time you have the opportunity to chat, or watch people as they browse your stall, and those of the other nurseries.

People bring a little snapshot of their relationships with partner and children with them to plant fairs. You learn who does what jobs in the garden, and whether children have been taught anything about plants. Very keen gardeners will often bring a gardening buddy with them so that they can really go into the details of a plant’s ‘curriculum vitae’ without a less interested partner at the side of them saying “where are you going to put that - the garden’s full” or “when are we going for a cup of tea?” These keen buyers will always be the first through the gate, and usually know exactly which nursery to head for first, because they’ve been to several plant fairs already, and look out for you. We love our ‘groupies’, and hearing about how past purchases have (hopefully) flourished.

Children can be a joy or a menace at Plant Fairs. They are frequently fascinated by textures and colours, and will wander down the stall, treating the plants like a petting zoo, tugging at every leaf until you want to grab all your plants in your arms to protect them. Those under eight years old will always stop at a pink flower and demand a purchase, (it must be the Barbie doll influence!). However, there are some children who critically survey your stock, serious expression on face, and tell their mothers that they haven’t got this variety of Lychnis or Digitalis, and should they try it. These children are obviously involved in the creation of the garden, and it invariably prompts a proud parental response, and a purchase!

People approach plant buying in different ways. Some have glazed expressions from the start, and really appreciate some advice and recommendations. Others walk round with a ‘wish list’ and will not deviate from it, or discuss alternatives which are just as good. There are impulse buyers, (“that’s fabulous - I must have one”), lengthy deliberators who will stand over a plant for quarter of an hour, and those who are creating, for example, a shade border and say “choose 10 of your best - I trust you.” Lots of people come just looking for something different and interesting. Getting it right for all these people is very important. When you’ve nurtured a plant from a tiny cutting or a seed into a 2 litre pot, you want to see it going off to its new home knowing it will thrive and be worth the money people have spent on it.

Conversations at Fairs are always held quite loudly, and remarks made as people browse can be hilarious, particularly if taken out of context.

For example, this conversation about geraniums:
“I’ve got 'Patricia' and she’s spread out all over the bed. I prefer 'Ann Folkard' - she’s much better behaved.”
“Well actually, 'Rozanne' is a better ‘doer’ than those two.”

Then there are the casual asides that are unknowingly rather insulting to the nurseries, or sometimes prevent a more timid friend from buying a plant they actually liked and wanted to try:
“Don’t buy that - it’s a weed.“
And...
“I’ve looked at every stall and there’s nothing I haven’t got.”
And...
“I can give you some of that - it’s spread all over my garden.”
And...
“Don’t bother with that - mine died.”

Finally, there are the idiosyncratic ones:
“Have you got that ‘man-in-a-boat’ one?” (Dierama pulcherrimum.)
And...
“Do you know anything about plants?” (Standing in front of a stall full of healthy plants!)
And...
“When does this flower?” (Standing in front of a flowering plant.)
And...
“I won’t buy this Digitalis until I’ve read the toxicology report on it!”

Generally, however, people love to buy plants, ask interesting questions and display a genuine enthusiasm and knowledge. We smaller nurseries enjoy this human aspect of Plant Fairs as much as the horticultural one. After all, where would we be without you all?

First published in the Cheshire & Friends Group Newsletter, Spring 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 27.
© Copyright for this article: Jane Allison

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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