Specialist plant fairs can help you create a truly original border display

Want to buy some interesting blooms for your border? Emma Townshend shows you how to shop like an expert
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The Independent Online

I'm worried about the state of gardening in Middle England. I recently visited a village where all the keen gardeners opened their plots on the same day. The Norman church was full of gorgeous flower arrangements, profuse with peonies and Sweet Williams. Every plot was nicely taken care of, every gardener sweetly enthusiastic. But every plot was boring.

Here's my complaint: everybody grew the same plants – a mass of identical irises and roses – with nothing else in the running. A Viticella clematis on a pergola, sweet peas on canes, a red-leaved acer in a tub. It all sounds so nice. But in the end it wasn't. It was samey and uninspiring.

Only one garden, run by a self-confessed plantswoman, held any interest. Behind her high hedges, pale-green sea holly eryngiums ran through alliums beginning to form big globes of seed after flowering; bronze irises leant gently on ruby aquilegias and jewelled claret astrantias. Drifts of colour lit up in the afternoon sun. "Where do you get your inspiration?"I asked her. "Specialist plant fairs," was her instant answer. "I look for the name Derry Watkins, and if she's going, I go."

The names of specialist plants-people are like a secret code among gardeners: Watkins is hardly a celebrity gardener, yet her name can bring a delighted smile to the faces of those in the know. But Watkins isn't going out of her way to keep her work secret: her website, www.specialplants.net, is quick and helpful, listing all the events she'll be going to this year, including a new one at Cottesbrooke Hall in Northants. Or search out top-rated nursery woman Marina Christopher, another familiar, friendly face at good plant fairs.

You could, of course, visit either of these specialists at their own nursery. But a plant fair brings together a big group of like-minded growers in the same gorgeous setting. For me, the most tempting is at Bury Court in Farnham, Hampshire. It's not too far from the M3 or M25, tucked away in a village called Bentley. Just three or four nurseries take part, so it's a small affair, but one of them is Christopher's Phoenix Nurseries, so you can take that as a good sign. And after piling yourself high with unusual plants, you can admire the gardens, designed by both Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole. It's very English, but a million miles from nameless Middle England. How much more inspiration could you get in one day?

The next Plantsman's Day at Bury Court is on 30 July, 11am - 3.30pm. From 11.30am, Marina Christopher will give a talk on "Bees, Butterflies and Beetles"

Pick of the bunch: A guide to plant fairs

Cottesbrooke Hall, Northants

A new, ambitious event. Many big names in a lush Geoffrey Jellicoe setting, revitalised by James Alexander-Sinclair.

29 June, www.cottesbrookehall.co.uk

Thornhill, Dorset

A biennial extravaganza featuring local nurseries such as Avon Bulbs. Not to be missed.

6 July, www.dorsetgardens trust.co.uk

Chenies Manor, Bucks

Derry Watkins will be among the specialists. Famous and popular, so get there early.

20 July, www.chenies manorhouse.co.uk

RHS Hyde Hall, Essex

The RHS autumn plant fair is run jointly with the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, so pop in and see the gorgeous dry garden at the same time.

13 September, www.nccpg.com

Read Emma Townshend's new column at blogs.independent.co.uk/independent/a_nice_green_leaf/