A Small Nursery in Courson
We’ve forgotten the passports!!!!” (note the use of the plural) and experiencing a simultaneous sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, “No, you’ve forgotten them, I’ve remembered them” came the very singular response. This exchange took place in the cab of our Transit van as my wife and I sat at Dover docks waiting to check in at the freight terminal for the 6.35 am ferry, dwarfed on all sides by articulated lorries. After a wait sufficient to ensure that we missed said ferry we arrived at the booth to check in, and, as the booth was on the passenger side I disembarked to carry out negotiations. Unfortunately, the window was vacant, after quite a wait a voice from on high said “There’s nobody down there mate!” and I looked up to see another window at articulated lorry height with a rather testy man peering from it, and so rather incongruously negotiations were carried out on tiptoe. Having achieved boarding the next ferry, as ‘Freight’ we then had the unique experience of having access to the ‘Drivers Lounge’ with subsidised food and preferential exchange rates! Those that know me, know that I was not going to look a subsidised English Breakfast in the mouth! (On our return journey, at lunchtime, my wife opted for a portion of salmon in breadcrumbs, to find that a portion constituted two slices, and on saying she only wanted one, the server looked at her suspiciously and said “You are freight, aren’t you”!)
Then using the eighth wonder of the modern world, TomTom (so good they named it twice) and after months of organisation (despite the passport glitch), worry and discussions we found ourselves entering the rather imposing gates to Courson. Fortunately my brother (who lives in France) had arrived about 15 minutes before us and was on hand to translate the requests from the welcoming (by welcoming I mean they weren’t ‘Fermé’!) committee and we arrived at what would be our ‘base camp’ for the four days (one for setting up and judging, and three days of the Plant Fair). We proceeded to unload the 41 crates of plants (including a tray of miniature hostas under a Danish trolley!) that were crammed into it (there was no chance of restocking!).
We hadn’t attended Courson before, and the fact that we were asked to provide a display, (and at this event judging extends to the sales area as well), made the transport limitations even more complicated. So, when I spotted my daughter-in-law throwing out a Moses basket, I decided that this would be an ideal container to display a range of choice shade loving perennials. With tongue in cheek, I ‘christened’ the display ‘A small nursery’ which made me smile (even if, as often happens to me, not too many others did, partly because nursery in French does not have the same double meaning that it does here). The range of plants however were appreciated and provoked interest (especially Actaea 'Chocoholic' and several epimediums). A group appeared who were obviously ‘The Judging Committee’ (not, if I’m honest the cheeriest bunch of people), and they poked around for a while and then grumpily pointed out that my sales labels were in English. I responded by showing that I had helpfully provided separate labels in GoogleFrench, (not perfect I’ll admit, it translated that a grass that was ‘good in a pot’ as being ‘bon sur le casserole’!) and that the photographs provided crossed the language barrier, which resulted in a grudging nod, before departing. We ended up with a Silver medal which I think was fair, considering the limitations.
We had been invited to Courson to take part in a round table discussion about the proposed EU regulations for ornamental plants, my only qualification for this, it has to be said, is that I was instrumental in bringing the subject to the attention of Patrice Fustier, the owner, who had themed the Fair ‘Plant Diversity’ on the back of it. So, in that capacity I was asked to attend a ‘pre- meeting meeting’ and I found myself in the company of Christian Crépin and Patrick Pineau both outstanding French nurserymen with large nurseries and respectively offering perennials, shrubs and trees. The event was being chaired by Stéphane Marie (French equivalent to Monty Don) and I was relieved to see my British compatriot, Graham Spencer, arrive from Plants For Europe (a plant marketing company, PBR’s etc) who had been involved in discussions with the RHS, Plant Heritage and many other horticultural and government bodies on the matter, (and fortunately we had our own translator) and Diane Charel from the EU commission. We then attended the conference and I was staggered to see people queuing up outside the marquee, and standing room only inside (plus journalists from Le Figaro and the French and Belgian Press and TV cameras). Considering there were 200+ nurseries out of the 260 stands at the event I shouldn’t be too surprised for so much interest in a subject that could affect so many of us. So I found myself on the top table representing British nurseries, with all these luminaries and hoping that nobody noticed how many times I pinched myself.
Another first on the Friday night was dinner in a chateau, we had been invited by Patrice and Hélène Fustier (Hélène is a distant relative to Napoleon, hence the chateau) as a thank you for participating in the round-table discussion. After a short tour of Napoleon heirlooms, quaffing champers and canapes, we enjoyed dinner with myself next to the wonderful Hélène Fustier and author Dany Sautot and sitting next to my wife was the charming Roy Lancaster! The only downside was that with the plant fair finishing at 7 pm and being advised that dinner was 7.30 for 8 pm we had no time to get changed and so I sat down to dinner in my walking boots (they were my best ones though!).
Yet another first came on the last day when I was interviewed by TV presenter Luc Noël (Belgian equivalent to Monty Don) for Belgian TV and I gave a ‘piece to camera’ on Dicentra 'Filigree', thankfully they don’t subscribe to YouTube.
The visitors to the event were very tolerant of my lack of French, and when required my brother was a godsend for the tricky translations. I learned quickly however, that vivace meant perennial, rustique was hardy, and l’ombre and soleil for shade and sun. I, however, missed being able to interact with other plants people as happens normally. The weather was outstanding being sunny every day, and the only slight disappointment was that I didn’t sell as many plants as I would have liked, ie. it would have been nice to break even. However, having just revisited some of the highlights of the experience writing this article, I would have done it all again (although I might have taken a change of shoes to the dinner).
First published in the Kent Group Newsletter Summer 2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Colin Moat
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.