Where they cultivate the spirit of adventure

Over the last 10 years gardening has grown up, as the flourishing of specialist plant sales demonstrates.
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A few years ago I went with a gardener friend to one of the April sales of Rare and Unusual Plants at Clapton Court, near Crewkerne, in Somerset. "That's so misleading," he muttered grimly, as we passed one of the posters advertising the event. "I bet we don't see anything rare. Or particularly unusual. There'll just be loads of Lavatera 'Barnsley' and Gold Lace primulas and Helleborus orientalis. You'll see."

And I could see what he meant; when a new plant or variety comes into fashion you find it everywhere. Some gardens, like the wardrobe of a fashion victim, can be accurately dated by the presence of certain items. The brown-flowered Cosmos 'Chocolate' was the plant of 1990. Two years later it was Corydalis flexuosa. In 10 years' time, this will be the horticultural equivalent of flared trousers.

When my gardener friend and I met up in the Clapton tea room, I was holding a chunky specimen of the honey-scented Euphorbia mellifera and an expensive little corydalis. "I could have given you one of those," he sighed. "You can get them anywhere now." It was a bit like being with Baudelaire on a bad day. Whatever would it take to cure such terrible ennui? We passed through lovely, enclosed gardens into the woodland walk. There we came upon the "oldest ash tree in England", its 500-year-old limbs dotted with black, sea-urchin like growths. My companion's eyes lit up with pleasure at last as he gently removed one and dropped it into his pocket.

This memory was with me as I drew up a poster earlier this year for a sale of Rare and Unusual Plants at Clapton Court, as part of a fund-raising appeal for my son's school. The proposal was made more with optimism than certainty. Would anyone come? And if they did, would there be anything remotely rare or unusual for them to see? It was time to enlist the help of nurserywoman and fellow parent, Vanessa Lill.

The specialist nurseries we approached were initially cautious about the proposal. The April plant sales for which Clapton Court had become well known had ceased with a change of ownership, and it was necessary to establish what kind of sale we were talking about. Vanessa understood this. There are two types of sale: those organised by branches of the Hardy Plant Society or the NCPPG (National Council for the Protection of Plants and Gardens), designed to promote plant diversity. Sales of this type are populated by serious plant professionals. The other kind of sale is dominated by what these professionals refer to as "the yoghurt pot brigade".

A few years ago you might have found the two parties rubbing shoulders, but something of a rift has developed. Serious plants command serious prices; a distinct edginess creeps in at the thought of proximity to potted up cotoneaster seedlings and geranium cuttings selling at 20p a shot. Vanessa and I, however, were serious about our sale; it was safe for any gardener to come.

There is a circuit of specialist plant sales from early spring onwards, which left only one possible Saturday in June. We discovered later that it clashed with an important Euro 96 football match. This and a mini-heatwave fuelled our anxieties. Plantsmen like cool, grey days for their sales; plants and punters wilt and would rather be at home when the sun is too fierce. But as the first vans and trailers were unloaded, the simple presence of the plants and their growers overcame any lingering doubts about the value of the exercise.

Gardening has grown up in the last decade, as the recent flourishing of specialist plant sales demonstrates. Serious gardening is no longer all about growing prize-winning dahlias or having a po-faced attitude to weeds. The emphasis is still on growing plants well. But the spirit of adventure, the willingness to experiment, and the sheer sense of the fun to be had in the garden is what makes serious gardening so exciting.

Penny and Mike Cox, who have gardened at Clapton for more than 10 years, remember what the early specialist sales were like. "They were an opportunity to buy what were then regarded as quite unusual plants," said Penny, "the sort you wouldn't have found in garden centres at that time. The NCPPG saw to it that a much wider range of plants than most people had ever realised were available was brought into cultivation".

Penny, a Mertensia addict, was giving keen attention to a Virginian cowslip she had spotted at one stall. Elsewhere, stallholders were talking about plants with their customers or with each other. The exchange of information was generous and genuine, and inevitably concluded in a sale.

Derry Watkins, a Connecticut-born specialist in tender perennials and organiser of several rare plant fairs herself, observed how well Sutera pristisepala 'Snowflake' was selling: "It's a fantastic hanging basket plant - a sheet of white all through the summer." But will it ever dislodge the ubiquitous lobelia? It would be nice to think so.

Vanessa, too, was cheerful; her variegated grasses, shrubby salvias and euphorbias had been selling well. The bestseller, however, had been the bizarrely twisted corkscrew rush, Juncus decipiens 'Curly-Wurly'. Not rare, nor particularly unusual these days, but even Baudelaire would have liked that one.

Anna Pavord is on holiday

Rare plant sales this summer

Plant hunters are advised to go early to specialist sales; stall holders can bring only limited supplies and fashionable or particularly good-looking plants will sell out quickly. Most plants are intelligently labelled; read these labels carefully before asking for advice on cultivation. Do check hardiness, however, as many of the choicest perennials on offer may require bringing indoors for the winter or propagating to ensure survival into the following season.

Biennials are becoming increasingly popular. Plants bought this season should have established a good, leafy base, from which flowering stems will develop next year. Although flowering marks the beginning of the end of the biennial's life cycle, they seed themselves freely, ensuring continuity. The difficulty lies in predicting where they will next appear: circumspect weeding in the spring is essential.

The next specialist plant sale at Clapton Court is on Saturday 28 September at 11am, organised by the Somerset Hardy Plant Society. Admission pounds 2.00.

Derry Watkins' next Rare Plant Fair takes place on Sunday 8 September, 12-5pm, at the Royal Free Hospital Recreation Club, Fleet Road, London NW3.

Other specialist plant sales taking place later this summer include: 14 July (NCPPG), South Molton Pannier Market, Devon - from noon onwards; 3 August (NCPPG), Pollok Park, Glasgow, 11am-5pm; 18 August, Pashley Gardens Summer Plant Fair, Ticehurst, East Sussex 11-5pm. 24 August, The Savill Garden, Windsor Great Park, Windsor, 10am-5.30pm. 1 September (NCPPG), University of Leicester Botanic Gardens, Beaumont Hall, Stoughton Drive, Oadby, Leicester, from 11am; 8 September (NCPPG), Beningbrough Hall, Shipton- by-Beningbrough, North Yorkshire, from 11am.