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Country & garden: A fine bunch of Northern show-offs

Contrary to popular belief, spring does not begin at Chelsea. Head for Harrogate to see the first show of the season. By Ursula Buchan
LARGE FLOWER shows are growing bigger and becoming more numerous, thanks to the seemingly limitless enthusiasm gardeners have for good plants, design ideas, gadgets, and a good day out.

Two years ago, the Royal Horticultural Society added a show in Scotland to its portfolio, and this year its influence spreads to the north-west, with one at Tatton Park in July. No doubt, if you live in the south of England, you have already ordered your tickets for the Malvern Spring Show and for the grand-daddy of them all, Chelsea.

The RHS does not have the monopoly on shows, however, even if it sometimes appears that way. The long- established Harrogate Spring Flower Show, for example, held by the North of England Horticultural Society, occurs four weeks before Chelsea, at that wonderful time when daffodils coincide with tulips, the world feels fresh and new-minted, and hopes are high.

This society was founded in 1911, the same year that Chelsea moved out of Temple Gardens to its present site in the grounds of the Royal Hospital. The Society's principal raison d'etre has always been the organisation of two large flower shows, in spring and autumn.

(By the by, this society should not be confused with the Northern Horticultural Society, which is based at Harlow Carr Botanical Gardens in Harrogate, and which was founded to conduct garden trials and advise amateurs living in the north of England on gardening matters, at a time when the RHS concentrated its efforts in the south.)

For many years, the two Harrogate shows were settled in Valley Gardens in the centre of town, but the pressure to expand, and the need to provide extensive car parking, encouraged the Society four years ago to move the autumn show out to the 22-acre Great Yorkshire Showground site on the outskirts of the town. The spring show followed two years later.

The enormous size of the site, much of it under cover, coupled with the ease of communication, have increased visitor numbers; 60,000 people are expected to attend the spring show over its four days, whilst perhaps 35,000 will visit the three-day autumn event.

The autumn show has always hosted a number of competitions staged by specialist plant societies (13 at the last count). There also are three important competitive exhibitions at the spring event this year: those held by the National Daffodil Society, the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, and the Alpine Garden Society.

The show provides a coveted opportunity for these specialist societies to show the world what they are about, in particular the breathtaking standards of cultivation that they achieve. Watch out for miniature alpine gardens of 20 to 30 different plants each, in 36cm-diameter terracotta pots, in the alpine marquee, as well as new daffodils bred by amateur enthusiasts, in the daffodil and tulip marquee.

There is far less emphasis at Harrogate than at Chelsea on display gardens, but Douglas Knight's "Monet Garden," which makes its debut here before moving on to Chelsea in May, should be an intriguing layout, for he is an award-winning designer of rock and water gardens and well-known for the careful study he has made of the interaction between geological formations and water.

Most of the large nurseries which show at Chelsea can also be found at Harrogate, displaying (and, more to the point, selling) plants, but a number of more local firms, who confine their activities to the north, will be exhibiting as well. Examples include Taylors of Doncaster, with an extensive list of clematis; Springwood Pleiones from Selby displaying pleiones and other terrestrial orchids, and the Hartside Nursery Garden of Alston in Cumbria, offering unusual plants grown at 1,100 feet above sea level.

So, if you live north of the Trent, Harrogate is the place to buy plants which will thrive in your garden, and to seek expert advice from people who really understand the conditions in your garden.

Ticket prices range from pounds 8 to pounds 10; tickets pre-booked before noon on 16th April, will be offered at a pounds 2 discount.

The show opens on Thursday, 22nd April and runs for four days. Telephone the North of England Horticultural Society on 01423 561049, e-mail infoatflowershow.org. uk, or visit the website at www.flowershow. org.uk, for further details