Three views of the RHS by Elizabeth Musgrave

October 16, 2012

in Articles, General Interest, Media Reviews, Reviews

Apologies – this one has jumped the queue.. (nothing to do with me overlooking what’s on my schedule, of course..)

Does the RHS offer anything which meets the needs of the thinkingardener? Elizabeth Musgrave gives that some thought..

Anne Wareham, editor

Welsh Hills picture copyright Elizabeth Musgrave

Elizabeth Musgrave:

I am a serial joiner of the RHS.  I join for a year or so, then when the year ends I fail to renew my membership.  Three or four years later something will jolt me into rejoining, I will be a member for another year and then drop out again.  I have no idea if this profile is the norm.  Do other people dip in and out like this or, if you are a passionate gardener, does the RHS for most people offer you something that makes membership feel like more than a “nice to have”?

At the moment I am a member.  Last summer I spent a week garden visiting with some friends.  We were in Devon and wanted to visit Rosemoor, The Garden House and Wildside.  Wildside isn’t an RHS partner garden but The Garden House is so with two gardens available to RHS members it would only take another garden visit or two over the year to make the membership financially worthwhile.   I signed up again.

I was also a member in 2006.  I had just taken on two acres of unimproved field and as part of my slow and quiet thinking about making a garden I wanted to go backwards and forwards over the growing season to look at something working on a larger scale than the town gardens which were all I had ever had.  Bodnant was my nearest RHS partner garden and, like my land, was surrounded by high hills.  From March until October of that year I went to Bodnant once a month, marked and inwardly digested, found things that were quite irrelevant to what I wanted to do, things I liked, things I didn’t like at all and things that made me think.  In 2006 the RHS membership fee felt like money well spent.

But I am not normally much of a garden visitor.  I admit that it is sometimes good for me to lift my eyes from my own place but generally I would rather be working in my own garden than looking at someone else’s.  So if you join the RHS primarily in order to visit gardens it is perhaps no surprise that I am not a constant member.  Certainly the RHS’s own publicity stresses garden visiting as a reason for membership.  Earlier in the spring the RHS was pushing membership as a present for Mother’s Day:

“With RHS membership, she’ll enjoy free days out at more than 80 gardens all year, as well as discounted tickets and priority booking to inspiring RHS Shows such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, plus free personalised advice and The Garden monthly magazine. All this for just £51…”

 Free days out?  I am not sure that will make me renew this time.

Who'd leave this for a day out? copyright Elizabeth Musgrave

But of course the RHS is not just about free days out.  Its own mission statement says “Our goal is to help people share a passion for plants, to encourage excellence in horticulture and inspire all those with an interest in gardening.”  Passion, excellence and inspiration, all in relation to plants and gardening: now that sounds like a place where I should find a home.

So why is my membership so intermittent?  I think it is partly that the RHS feels to me to be very focussed on the South East of England, with Wisley and Hyde Hall gardens, and shows in London at Chelsea and Hampton Court.  There is no RHS garden in Wales and even the two gardens which are not based in the South East are too far away for garden visiting. Rosemoor is around six hours’ drive away and Harlow Carr perhaps three.  I have been a couple of times to the Malvern Spring Show, once to Tatton and once to Hampton Court.  I enjoy visiting the shows but I can do that without RHS membership. Maybe if I lived in the South East I would be able to take advantage of more that the RHS has to offer but I don’t.  It all feels quite far away.

And this is perhaps part and parcel of a more general feeling that the RHS is not aimed at people like me.  For example, I am not interested in pests and diseases and the RHS website has a huge  section devoted to them.  I try to grow healthy plants but living in challenging conditions has taught me that the most important thing you can do for a plant is to give it the conditions in which it wants to live.  I also grow organically which is not the driving force for the RHS as it is for me.  I am interested in growing wildflowers.  This is partly to do with a desire to encourage pollinating insects and partly because such an area sits sensibly within my rural garden.  There is a section on the website about establishing a wildflower meadow and while it is all sound advice it is pretty scant compared with the amount of advice about using chemicals and battling pest and diseases.  I don’t feel quite at home.

I go back to the website to see if I am doing the RHS an injustice.  Remember that mission statement.  It’s a cracker.  And there is some fabulous stuff aimed at families and gardening for children and in schools.  This is really first rate and in my view the liveliest and most vibrant part of the whole site.  They even have Dawn Isaac, one of my favourite gardening bloggers, blogging for them.  That is a bit of a departure because generally the use of social media on the site is patchy.  The forums for example are far from lively but the twitter platform is good.  I start to feel that maybe the problem is a communication problem rather than one of substance when I hit on the pages on sustainable gardening.  These turn me off all over again: the link to the wildflower meadow is not working, the pages on climate change are from scientific papers produced in 2008, the section on Biodiversity seems to think it is 2010 and the whole thing feels out of date and tired.  Perhaps there is too much potential for controversy here and the RHS is fighting shy of nailing its colours to any particular mast and alienating the other half of its membership but I wish they would just go for it.

So at this stage the jury is out.  In some areas (education, families, training) the RHS is blazing the trail.  In others it hangs back.  To finish with I consult my daughter and my mother.  We are a family of gardeners.  I might be more obsessive than my mother but my daughter and her husband run two allotments which sounds pretty obsessive to me.  In the past I know my mother has been a member.  Why did she stop?  Too expensive, too focussed on garden visiting which she can no longer do.  And my daughter?  Never a member.  Why not?  I don’t think it is aimed at my generation she says and there are so many great sites about veg growing I would never think of going to the RHS site.

So three generations of a gardening family do not seem to feel that the RHS is their natural home.  Is it just us?  If it is, tell me what I am missing.

Elizabeth Musgrave

Elizabeth Musgrave copyright Elizabeth Musgrave

Elizabeth’s website: Welsh Hills Again




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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

doug baker November 19, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I have been an RHS member for 10 years or so, sucked in by that mission statement and too naive to question it until recently. I find them tremendously self-serving and hypocritical on a lot of issues. Raising the status of horticulture as a career for example. They spend a lot of time telling us how much they are doing to attract a new generation to gardening, but the paltry sums they pay their own highly-qualified gardeners undermines this. They are utterly devoted to the master-serf model of gardens and gardeners…stately, grand gardens enjoyed as a leisure pursuit by the comfortable and dull…they lack any conception of gardening as anything more urgent or vital..
Have only just caught up with Anne’s NGS critcisms, and they seem just as relevant to the RHS: guilty of encouraging the thoroughly mediocre and keeping everything comfortably banal.
Very good at promoting themselves though. Their campaign for school gardening is no doubt a really good little fundraiser for them – with expensive training courses offered to schools and teachers they conspire to keep clueless, and plenty of heart strings plucked into extra donations. First hand experience of trying to work with the campaign has shown me that they don’t care much for practising what they preach.


Rob Edwards October 31, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I too am an intermittent RHS member. I have been a member occasionally, even when I lived in Cheshire, W. Cornwall, North Cambs and other places in Darkest Outside the M25.

Now that I am near to Wisley, and the Horticultural Halls @ Vincent Sq, London SW1, I still struggle with the benefits.

I was at the Autumn Show recently at Vincent Sq. Nice exhibits certainly. The National Collection of Dahlias stand was a wonder. Good nurseries there also, but I understand it to be a shadow of how it once was.

I even went to their open/free day at Wisley a few weeks back. It was rammed. Parking was a nightmare. Lots of footfall though. As a person who is aware of what goes on commercially in horticulture, I left wondering why the RHS doesn’t do much more regular free days and reap the benefits comercially.

So perhaps even the favoured geographically are scratching around for benefits of membership.

There have been moves towards incorporating items of wider interest, such as those mentioned above, for families, and novice veg growers et al. However, they do fight shy of nailing their colours to any kind of green agenda. I think like our current govt, it’s green-wash, not any kind of commitment. All of which is an aside really.

Sustainability is NOT perennial gardens by Piet Oudolf. The people interested in horticulture are not confined to Surrey, being well-heeled and with gardens of at least half an acre. Things have moved on.

I think they are trying harder. The Nov 2012 issue of THE GARDEN did exhibit more of an awareness of the real situations in which many try to make a garden. However, I think the regional bias remains. Perhaps like the BBC moving to Salford, it needs to be addressed. Just one of many issues…By all accounts.


christine dakin October 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I liked your thoughts regarding your fluctuating membership of the RHS. It does seem that the magazine is becoming more bland and too full of the ‘how and when’ and is too similar to Gardener’s World and other middle of the road publications.
I do sometimes wonder why I keep paying the subscription and, if I’m honest, its almost certainly due to paying by direct debit. I skim the magazine, rarely visit RHS gardens and have only once or twice used the advisory service.


James Golden October 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

As a North American, I realize the RHS did not have us in mind in crafting their mission statement, but there is one thing I find very annoying. I want a subscription to The Garden. I joined one year, but found the cost too high because I can’t take advantage of any of the other benefits of membership. I do wish they would make the publication available by subscription, without full membership, for others around the world.


Elizabethm October 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Totally agree. I think my mother would have a magazine only subscription too.


Rob Edwards November 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm

To James Golden. Love your blog/website by the way… I too have sometimes just had the magazine and not been a member of the organisation of the RHS. However, even as such magazines go, it was pricey. What’s more, it seems to be almost impossible to buy….Now at least. Even over here. But then again, I have at times been in the US and bought mags I liked and couldn’t find here….I like the different view and varied climate take on gardening that you have over there.


Nick Mann October 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I’m an RHS member and have been really impressed by some of its staff too, but like Elizabeth and Elspeth share significant reservations about it.
I am specifically concerned about the RHS’s failure to embrace increasingly pressing and serious agendas – Elizabeth is right about promoting biodiversity, for example. The RHS should be in a unique position to do this but doesn’t; as she points out, it seems much more concerned with reducing it! At Chelsea, there is usually a seperate zone for wacky green ideas, physically removed from the main show. Bless the folk who have exhibits there – they’re doing a really super job saving the planet.
The RHS seems to be horribly compromised by its relationship with the horticultural industry, who one often gets the impression it represents more than its members. There’s no real money to be made in wildflower meadows or using native flowers in more formal planting too (I should know!), but there is in selling pesticides or F1 annuals. Becoming involved in commercial ventures itself hardly helps; is the RHS really going to promote British wildflower seed when it sells French stuff in its own shops? We live in a commercial world I suppose; perhaps the RHS should openly embrace that and actively support good quality British growers and garden retailers rather than maintaining an elaborate ambivalence.
Its Victorian structure, membership demographic (as noted above) and dependence on legacy income make it innately conservative however; perhaps these structural issues render it largely irrelevant to an increasing majority.
Does all this matter? You bet; talk to any ecologist or urban planner and they will explain the increasingly critical roles gardens have to play .
Sorry about the rant!


Jack Thorneycroft October 16, 2012 at 4:51 pm

A number of interesting points have been raised and whilst it is always easy to make observations about what we would like an organisation to do better it is sometimes harder to recognise the valuable work that it does do, which we can come to take for granted.

One of the many useful areas of work the RHS carries out is its AGM and I know from lecturing to many gardening clubs and societies that many people use this as a tool when selecting plants for their gardens. As has been written eduction of all types including bursaries are second to none and I believe that from their design RHS gardens are not meant to be considered as great English domestic gardens but rather gardens of education and should be considered when thinking of their appeal and design very much along the lines of Botanic Gardens, such as Edinburgh. They are store houses of some of the best garden plant collections and have inspired countless gardeners to grow new plants and try different ideas.

I have been a member since my late teens and never has it occurred to me not to be. I don’t always visit each garden every year and I do not read every magazine in the month it is delivered by the postman but I do appreciate the many faces of the RHS and the work they do to promote nurseries, budding and established designers, writers and promote business through their shows and magazine.

The challenge for the RHS is to satisfy a very diverse range of objectives. For every potential member who wishes for informal social media driven solutions there will be one who prefers in print traditional information and experienced on-hand staff both are equally valid desires. I for one will continue to support the RHS and I don’t believe I have ever felt ‘thats not for people like me’


Elizabethm October 16, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I agree wholeheartedly about the value of the AGM. I also agree about the education element of the RHS. The fact that some things are done very well doesn’t stop me wondering about some of the things that could be done better or differently. I absolutely appreciate that some of this is purely subjective and personal to me (not everyone wants to grow wildflowers, I know that, and there are specialist websites which cater for enthusiasts) but the point of the article is a curiosity about how much my semi-detached/attached to the RHS is just me or is shared by other gardeners!


Walt (Gardeninggolfer) October 16, 2012 at 11:09 am

I took up RHS membership around the time my Wife terminated her Gardeners’ World subscription, at the time the cost was similar with the bonus of RHS garden visits. I agree the RHS is very South East orientated. Our nearest RHS garden is Rosemoor, but it’s about a 2 hour tiring drive from here so we don’t go very often, every other year. We do visit the Garden House occasionally, I believe that’s out nearest Partner Garden (I exclude Coleton Fishacre as we access it via National Trust) again at least an hour’s drive from here. It would be nice to have something closer, although when the new link road is finished in three years time, life should be a bit easier, if we’re spared!!


annewareham October 16, 2012 at 11:41 am

This is so hard. We had to stop being a Partner Garden because it means giving RHS members free entry,(with no recompense) and since we don’t have people exiting through a gift shop, and can’t do teas, the gate money is what we open for. It’s galling to see you talking about travelling to a garden which is free to you, when there must be many more like us: invited to be a partner garden, but simply unable to afford it. It doesn’t cost much to support a garden and that’s what our takings do.


Walt (Gardeninggolfer) October 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Entry is free for me but not my Wife, she is not a member,so normal entry fees apply to her. I am surprised that there is no payment from RHS to Partner Gardens, I had thought they kept a record of RHS visitors with some sort of reimbursement arrangement by the Society.


annewareham October 16, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Not a penny.

We ended up thinking it was a rip off (after starting by being flattered). I hated the way people would reach for their RHS cards looking so smug, while I saw our entrance fee vanishing down the drain!


John Kingdon October 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm

Let’s not forget that until very recently, “Partner Gardens” were termed “Recommended Gardens”, implying that the RHS recommended them as worth visiting; as being better than non-recommended gardens. In effect, this meant that in order to be “recommended” the garden owner had to provide the RHS with someting it could give it’s members – a freebie (which used to apply to member +1). At least “partner” is a more honest word in the circumstances and the free +1 has gone unless the +1 is also an RHS member.

RHS gardens are too far away (I’m also in Wales); I rarely use the website (which is generally public anyway); attending the London “shows” is not economically feasible even if they were to attract me at all; my only abiding memory of this year’s Cardiff show was being prodded in the back by an umbrella held by a lady with an effusive hairdo (she must have been a committee member) as I was blocking her way whilst I avoided being run over by an out-of-control electric wheelchair. I’m wondering whether “The Garden” is enough to justify the annual subscription.


Vanessa Cook October 20, 2012 at 10:49 am

I can manage being a partner garden because usually couples come with only one membership but I feel ill when 4 women, usually women, turn up and all have RHS membership. I think the RHS should make it clear that we are not paid by them and only have free pubilcity. The other strange fact is that very few RHS members even visit our nursery and very few buy plants. Do they all live in flats ?


annewareham October 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Vanessa – I do agree that the RHS should make it more public that the partner gardens get nothing in return but the – ahem – honour of being a partner garden. In my experience people are quite shocked when they discover this (and less smug about not paying) and maybe review their perception of what sort of honour it may or may not be.


Elspeth Briscoe October 16, 2012 at 10:46 am

Overall – I am pro RHS. I think what they try to achieve, the amount of money they raise, and many of the individuals involved are very talented. I have several observations however. I have been a member since I was in my teens – but as above (sporadically). I’m now in my late 30s.

1. It never feels like it’s aimed at me. It feels like it’s for a very specific demographic and I’m not it. To me the ‘brand’ feels dated. But maybe this doesn’t matter if I’m not the target audience.
2. To get anything done, seems to be rather process heavy. I have found pockets of very helpful people. But no-one seems to know what other departments do and how it all works (a focus group of one – so may not be valid for everyone else’s experiences)
3. As I run a very globally orientated business, I find the RHS too focused on Britain, and not the bigger picture of gardening for our planet. Perhaps the rest of the world isn’t their bag,

I retain my membership as I like to visit gardens, and I do attend the shows when I get time. I also get The Garden Magazine, which I flick through – but again always feel it’s not really meant for people like me – it’s more for hearty allotment growers and plant collectors who want to know the minutiae of species and bugs (nothing wrong with this – again it’s just not me)



Elizabethm October 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm

I agree with so much of this. I am overall pro RHS too, but with reservations!


Simon S October 16, 2012 at 10:33 am

An interesting piece Elizabeth in which you have raised several issues the RHS would do well to consider.
A couple of the things you have written about struck a chord since I have wrestled with these myself.
I agree that there are times when the RHS seems determined to avoid controversy and simply steer a steady course but with such a wide and disparate membership it is difficult to see how it could do otherwise without the danger of alienating its members & jeopardising its cashflow.
My mother, like yours, is unable to visit any of the RHS gardens & for this reason I asked the RHS whether they had considered a “reduced” membership for individuals in her position. By “reduced” I naturally mean in both entitlements & cost. Their reasoning for not doing so was that there were sufficient other benefits (the Garden magazine for one) to justify the current membership fee. I am not sure I am convinced by this argument. For balance, I asked my mother why she didn’t cancel her subscription since she was not getting value for money. Her reasoning (apart from inertia) was that she considered the RHS membership fee as a “charitable donation” & was happy to continue donating.

Simon (with over 30 years unbroken membership)


Paul Steer October 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

I visited Rosemoor in the summer, and I felt processed, the same way you feel processed when moving through a supermarket. There were parts of the garden that were satisfying, but it really feels like a shop window, it had no soul. The best bit for me was the older garden the other side of the road. I particularly disliked the fact that you have to exit through the plant sales and shop area. To be honest it did not feel real. I have not visited any other RHS gardens so I cannot comment, but I am sure there are many people who enjoy this kind of structured commercial/educational is what it is but it is not for me, and would not encourage me to be a member. I prefer informality I suppose.


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