WHATEVER peace may reign in an English garden, it is certainly not in evidence when keen gardeners scent a bargain. 'Abandon the car and run]' is a cry often heard from those anxious to get to the start of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens' annual sale in Northumberland.
The North-east Group of the NCCPG is not alone among the society's regional divisions in holding a grand plant sale. The organisation, worthy though it is, has always been strapped for cash, despite receiving a handsome blessing from the Royal Horticultural Society and, more recently, the patronage of the Prince of Wales. What better way to raise funds than to sell plants to gardeners?
Newcastle is a kind of island. It is the centre of a great tract of thinly populated land stretching from York to Edinburgh. Historically, it has always been one of those places people pass through on their way to somewhere else. And when you live on an island you make your own entertainments.
Northumberland does not have the balmiest of climates, and it comes as no surprise that the strongest gardening societies in the region have traditionally been the Alpine Garden Society and the local Leek Clubs. When the NCCPG came along years ago and set up the North-east Group, it filled a timely gap, providing a serious focus for gardeners with catholic tastes in ornamental gardening. And community spirit as much as a love of plants seems to keep the group together.
The North-east Group has been selling in a big way for seven years, and is returning this year to its most successful pitch, the gardens of Belsay Hall. The sale has become something of a local tradition and visitors to the Hall frequently ask not if but when the next sale will take place. It may not be the Chelsea Flower Show, but it is a satisfying day out. There are no horrendous crowds, no parking problems, and no bomb scares on the Underground to worry about.
Imagine enough plants to supply a constant stream of cars, full of gardeners, buying from 10am until mid-afternoon. That is a lot of plants for an amateur group to raise. But propagation, like procreation, can become an addiction, and enough of the group's members are sufficiently hooked to produce the goods.
Before the sale there arrives a caravanserai of estates, hatchbacks and people-movers, each loaded to capacity with carefully stacked trays of plants. Some will go home for another load, or even two. The group hopes the day of the yoghurt pot is over. All its plants are professionally produced and realistically priced. 'Why sell newly dug-up bits of sedum 'Autumn Joy' in a yoghurt pot for 20p,' ask members of the sale subcommittee, 'when for just a little more effort you can be selling fully rooted pots of Tropaeolum speciosum for pounds 5 and pounds 6?' They are right, of course. But planning is required.
The group buys in plant pots in bulk during the winter and distributes them free to its members. Labels are free, too, composts reimbursable. Then the members get busy, propagating from their gardens. The countdown lasts six months.
The aim is to produce as many unusual plants as possible, but also to include generous pots full of easy plants for people starting new gardens. 'The day we stop potting Alchemilla mollis and Solomon's seal we know we're bound to be asked for them. Not everyone wants plants such as Ribes menziesii or epigaea. Some people pounce on them at once. Others will take one or two less- known plants, just to get to know them.'
Invariably a stretch of selling space is devoted entirely to hardy geraniums, and bespoke sales staff are around to answer questions about them. And with sales such as this, held in a garden, whatever is looking good at the moment is bound to be in demand. 'You know that thing at the bottom of the steps with spotted leaves . . .' or, clutching a severed bloom, 'Have you got any of this?' In fact, questions are as numerous as purchases, and an advice table is there to relieve the sellers of some of the pressure.
It is assumed by the scrum of buyers that members of the NCCPG must automatically be experts, or at least off-duty botanists. Not so. They are, in the main, just enthusiastic gardeners with a passion for plants, although there is a sprinkling of horticultural specialists, academics and landowners.
The group's easy democracy seems to be its success. There is no top table of county glitterati when the group picnics on a garden visit. Nor has there ever surfaced that vein of internal grumbling that destroys charity groups: Mrs A muttering about Mrs B, who priced her fruit cake far too low, or that man with the shoes and funny ears who never stays to clear up.
The NCCPG's annual plant sale draws on the efforts of a commendably large number of its membership to get the show on the road. Around 70 are involved in the event, transporting plants, writing out tablets, pricing, bringing in tables, arranging publicity, directing traffic and, of course, selling.
English Heritage's ticket office staff at Belsay have one of their busiest days of the year, grabbing lunch on the hoof if they are lucky. When the site closes at six, everyone is ready to drop. The event serves a dual purpose: the group has made vital funds for its parent charity, and English Heritage has drawn new gardeners to Belsay who will surely return.
English Heritage's main responsibility at Belsay is to maintain the monumental hall and old castle. The fact that these come gift-wrapped in 30 acres of well-kept garden makes the organisation's task considerably easier. 'We had no idea English Heritage ran real gardens,' is a common comment.
'All we need is the weather,' chant the members of the Plant Sale Committee. 'Some years we've been frozen stiff standing here, even though it's June. Some it's been so hot we've struggled to keep the plants watered and looking good.' The chairman chips in with a rather disbelieving, but none the less satisfied, smile: 'But you know, the public seems to come whatever the weather.'
NCCPG NE Group Plant Sale is on Sunday 13 June, 10am- 4pm. Belsay Hall lies 15 miles north-west of Newcastle upon Tyne, on the A696 to Jedburgh. Other NCCPG regional group plant sales include: Cambridgeshire - Monday 31 May, 2-5pm, Childerley Hall, Dry Drayton (0223 892399); Guernsey - Monday 31 May, 10.30-12 noon Sausmarez Manor, St Martin's (0481 53535); East Midlands - Sunday 6 June, 11am-4pm, Albrightly Hall Farm, Battlefield, Shrewsbury (0743 272475); Yorkshire - Beningborough Hall, near Thirsk, Sunday 12 September 11am-4pm (0904 608332).
LAST week we said the plant sale for the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, East Midlands group, would be at Shrewsbury. It will in fact be part of 'a rare and unusual plant fair' on 6 June (noon-4pm) at Felley Priory, Underwood, Nottinghamshire NG16 5FL.
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