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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