Calm before the storm: Before risking life and limb at Chelsea, discover the relative peace of the Malvern Spring Gardening Show

Emma Townshend
Sunday 23 October 2011 09:04
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Grandmas wield their handbags as weapons, genteel ladies elbow their way through the crowds using rolled-up programmes, whacking ankles with their 4x4 green-plastic plant trolleys, and husbands on their last legs trail back to the car with unfeasibly large armfuls of choice purchases. Yes, it's flower-show season again.

But if your idea of a May flower show is Chelsea's toff-toting bonanza, it's time to expand your horizons. There are promising out-of-town treats that don't mean a squash on the Tube followed by a prize view of someone else's knapsack.

Way to the west, Malvern hosts the first flower show of the year, a spring fling that wakes the horticultural world back up and provides a fresh cordial to palates already jaded at the very thought of SW3.

Malvern Spring Gardening Show runs from Thursday to 9 May, right in the heart of PG Wodehouse's Emsworth country. It is organised by the Three Counties Agricultural Society, and I've always suspected that the competitive tendencies shown by Lord Emsworth with regard to his prize-winning pig, the Duchess of Blandings, are alive and well in Malvern.

You would certainly think so if you arrived at the show in time to catch a Gardener's World tussle, in the form of James Alexander-Sinclair's annual flower- arranging competition, head-to-head against Joe Swift. Some truly, er, stunning displays normally result, though I doubt if most local Women's Institute floral-art groups would invite them back.

Aside from the somewhat eccentric entertainments, it is the sweet, local flavour of Malvern that makes it worth seeing. It's a little jewel – from the plant stands to the stalls selling Herefordshire honey. Nearby schools and colleges are creating nine gardens this year as part of their study year. And at the top end of the range, many of the 15 show gardens are by local designers, evoking the nearby beauty, fresh air and clean water of the Malvern Hills. And as Alexander-Sinclair points out in a more serious moment, "The gardens have got better and better, and Malvern is now a first stop for young and emerging talent."

This year the show also celebrates its 25th anniversary, and the RHS has stuffed the Floral Marquee with 100 of central England's finest specialist nurseries, from the reliably tempting Cotswold Garden Flowers to the aficionado delights of Mendip Bonsai Nursery. And even if you don't like gardening, watching the rolled-up programme brigade in action buying plants has its own special joys.

For information and advance tickets, see threecounties.co.uk/springgardening

It's show time!

Tatton Park Flower Show

Cheshire's brassy best in time for the summer holidays, and just off the M6 for those travelling by car. Two kids under 16 go free with each adult (more than can be said for Chelsea, where under- fives are actually banned). 21-25 July, rhs.org.uk/ tattonparkshow

Southport Flower Show

The north-west of England's finest, and the biggest independent show in the UK. Dahlias, begonias and summer flower power out in force. 19-22 August, southport flowershow.co.uk

RHS Wisley Flower Show

These Wisley shows have gone from strength to strength, with loads of interesting exhibitors plus a chance to see the gardens in full late summer colour. 10-12 September, rhs.org.uk/Gardens/Wisley

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