This weekend sees the start of the inaugural Ascot Spring Garden Show - and we're very much looking forward to seeing our tools on display in one of the show gardens there. This new date in the gardening calendar has been put together by Stephen Bennett, former RHS shows director. We recently interviewed him about his 28 years working on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and got his top tips for garden show organisers - read more here. We now catch up with him to find out what's in store for us gardeners at this exciting new show.
Stephen, what inspired you to put together an entirely new show for 2018?
When I left the RHS four years ago, I vowed never to run another flower show! I really wanted to do something completely non-horticultural, as I imagined I could never do another garden or flower show of which I would be so proud. I spoke to a lot of people, and explored a lot of options, and then I learned that Ascot Racecourse was thinking about staging a non-racing event – the very first in its 300-year history – and was considering the idea of a garden show. Well, I have to say that the thought of that exceptional venue with its unique heritage, combined with the privilege of guiding a new show through its launch and debut season… the appeal was irresistible.
The venue and its facilities have of course influenced the shape of the garden show, and has given us a unique setting for the event. The racecourse stands on Crown Estate land, on the same beautiful patch of land in fact as Windsor Castle, Windsor Great Park, the Savill Garden, the Valley Gardens and the Queen’s garden at Frogmore. Ascot has such a rich history and a spectacular and accessible location, and we’ve worked with the Gardens of Windsor Great Park on the new show, which is very exciting. Gardeners from the Savill and Valley Gardens will be on hand to give gardening advice.
What will make the Ascot Spring Garden Show special?
Each show with which I’ve been involved is unique, with distinct differences and personalities; I’ve never been interested in simply churning out replicas. There are lots of ways to create something really distinctive and special, whether it’s the season, the venue, or other specially-created features – so why not use them? At the RHS we worked hard to give each show its own personality, and I’ve aimed to do just that with Ascot.
Of course, Ascot Racecourse with its rich history and traditions, royal association and state of the art facilities, is in a league of its own. But we’ve also tried to offer something distinctly different in terms of the show itself; it’s the first major garden show in the south east of England at which you can buy plants during the show days. Come along, be inspired, and go home with the plants that you’ve fallen in love with. And with professional plantspeople, designers and landscapers on hand to help and advise, it’s an exciting combination.
In part, this approach has been made possible because the first Ascot spring show has been carefully structured as a boutique and up-market garden event. Chelsea can’t easily offer facilities for retail plant sales because of the constraints on storage and restocking. The nurseries would be sold out by 10 o’clock in the morning, and that would be that. The alternative would be to remove a third of those excellent exhibitors and give the space to the remaining two thirds for plant storage, which would entirely spoil the aesthetic of it. A key part of Chelsea’s appeal is the ‘every petal in place’ perfection of the displays throughout the show which makes it photogenic and good for TV.
Happily at Ascot, we have the luxury of space for plant storage and plant sales to allow our visitors to indulge in retail therapy to their hearts’ content!
The show is relatively modest in size; does it have all the attractions you'd expect at a larger show?
The new show may initially be modest in size, but we have a full programme of brilliant speakers, including David Domoney, Simon Lycett, Pippa Greenwood and Windsor Great Park’s John Anderson to name but a few. We’ve also attracted six show gardens designed and built by professional designers, including of course the APL show garden designed by Claudia de Yong, featuring tools and accessories by Burgon & Ball. We’re so pleased that these great names are working together at the show. In addition, we have six gardens designed and built by students from six horticultural colleges competing in the Young Gardeners of the Year Competition, run in conjunction with the Prince's Foundation for Building Community. We also have top-level manufacturers and suppliers of superb garden equipment and services, and 33 specialist nurseries. We’re really looking forward to providing a new experience for gardeners at an exciting time of year and in a very special place.
What aspect are you most looking forward to seeing leap off the page, so to speak, and into reality?
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the unique combination of factors working together. Spring is when we’re all desperate to get outside and to see some colour, so that will be exciting. Secondly, visitors are able to buy plants at the show this week, to give a retail therapy buzz! It’s lovely to be able to come away with the plants you’ve seen on show. And thirdly, the venue itself is very special. My experience with other shows has underlined how important visitor comfort is. Ascot has fabulous dining facilities – we’re offering a rather special botanically-themed cream tea, a spectacular view of the racecourse, easy access, free parking, plenty of seating, permanent loos and everything else you need for a stress-free and thoroughly enjoyable day out. All in all, that’s an exciting combination - and if you book in advance the tickets are just £20 (£24 on the day), with children admitted free of charge.
The Ascot Spring Garden Show opens on Friday 13th April 2018, and runs until Sunday 15th April 2018. The show is open from 10.00am - 6.00pm on Friday and Saturday, and from 10.00am to 5.30pm on Sunday. Find out more and buy advance tickets on the Ascot Spring Garden Show website.