Any Other Topics: Attracting new members-a polemic
Started by: Tim IngramGo to latest contribution by Tim Ingram, 29 December 2011, 11:08. Go to bottom of this page.
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There is a useful word, polemic, which allows you to introduce controversial thoughts into a discussion. Thus I would like to raise a question about the ability of the AGS to attract new and younger members. I believe we have become too exclusive in our outlook and the responsibility lies with all of us to be more welcoming to new members; in fact to go out of our way to make this a priority. As individuals many members will feel that they do this already, and there is no dispute about this. As a Society though we have signally failed and it is difficult to ascribe economic conditions or cultural change as the sole reasons.
The desire for excellence is commendable and essential but needs to be tempered with a realistic sense of the perspective of new gardeners who will eventually take the Society forward. I believe more stress should be placed on our gardens and on the propagation and distribution of plants (see my article in the Bulletin, 78, pp.57-9).
Of course the nature of polemic means I could be wrong (and I am sure I am in part), and the position I take is more to do with the presently limited exploitation of the assets we have as a Society, rather than any criticism of the Society itself. It could simply be the case of the Society learning how to flower!
I think it is an important time to develop a debate about ways and means of attracting new and younger members to the Society, and that the very process of doing this will stimulate new ideas and a more concerted approach, which could begin to raise the profile of the AGS countrywide. We should be keen to share knowledge with others and to
benefit from their interests and input to the Society too.
As an addition to my previous note I have appended details of the second Garden Safari that we intend to hold in Kent. (Unfortunately the pdf file used for the poster was not accepted by the website but I will send a copy to anyone who is interested). This attracted around 100 people to ten of our gardens in 2010, but more to the point introduced Kentish gardeners to us personally, and hopefully helped to increase the profile of the AGS in Kent. It also raised some very helpful funds! We hope that by promoting this event with the Shows and Group meetings we will show the strong and varied credentials of the AGS in Kent, not to say countrywide. My conviction remains that our gardens are a very underused asset in showing prospective new members our wide gardening tastes, and it is very enjoyable sharing your garden with others!
I would be very interested in the experiences of other Groups in aiming to attract new members, and any approaches that have proved effective. In the absence of any other forum the online discussion seems the best way of disseminating ideas.
It may be of interest for you to see UP FOR DISCUSSION - MAY I RESPECTFULLY REQUEST OPINIONS PLEASE
This thread, started by Cliff Booker, led to a whole raft of suggestions - but very little outcome.
Nonetheless, any effort to gain new members has to be welcomed.
Many thanks John,
The thread in question can be located under 'AGS Events'.
Dear John and Cliff,
Thank you for pointing me to your previous discussion, which I had seen earlier and have had a good read through again. There are many valuable points made, the most pertinent being the one right at the end about publicity. My interests have always been gardening and propagation of plants and although I love the Shows (and really enjoyed selling plants at them) it is growing plants in the ground that really appeals to me. Hence my particular perspective on the AGS.
However, it was very noticeable how few people took part in the discussion, and no doubt will in this one too, and for a forum like this to work properly it needs to run through the Society in general. I suppose the good thing that can be said is that those who do read the discussion threads will be those who move the Society along. I thought that the membership symposium, although it didn't fully grasp the nettle, was more effective because it enabled us to meet each other and compare notes directly. I would hope that such a gathering could occur again now that we have had time to digest ideas and come up with initiatives in different parts of the country. It may be a cost but it does bring together prime movers in the Groups and a huge amount of accumulated wisdom in many spheres. And it does seem a particularly important time to consider such things.
For me it is simple - it is trying to use those things the AGS does and really telling people about them, in variety. Many prospective new members will be inevitably more interested in buying plants and in seeing gardens, and from this making their own gardens. These 'simple' things do not have any prominence on the website - nor the passion that lies behind them. As a Society we cater wonderfully to the present members but do not take ourselves back to when we first joined and what it was that caught our imagination.
At the risk of making this a personal discussion I shall finish with the following:
Frank Kingdom-Ward in his little book 'Common Sense Rock Gardening' began and ended his Forward with the line 'Rock Gardening is Fun'. Reginald Farrer in his writings often expressed this more poetically but no less accurately. And Roy Elliott in 'Alpine Gardening' quoted R. Arkell, 'A garden should be rather small, or you will have no fun at all'. Small of course is in the eye of the beholder.
Some of the most marvellous writing about plants comes from North America, notably from figures like Lincoln Foster and Claude Barr. And in Britain there have always been exceptional individuals who span the realms of gardening and botanical detail (and we all know many in the AGS). The point I am trying to make is that at the centre of these books are individual gardens. And this is why I feel so strongly that this same sentiment should be expressed more effectively by the AGS in general. We all have gardens. We all love them. And I think we should show other people more of what we do. If this is done in concert with improved publicity by the Society in general, and equally for the Shows and Plant Sales, there is the greatest chance of beginning to raise the profile of the Society and bring in a new generation of gardeners. I speak having opened our garden for over 25 years for the NGS, and enjoying it immensely. It has often been weedy, invariably a work in progress, but always what a garden should be, completely fascinating.
Dear Cliff Booker,
I wonder if it is possible to ask whether I may use one of your plant images to publicise the AGS to visitors at the above Show? The picture I have in mind is a rather beautiful one of Eritrichium nanum on the Bindelweg which was posted on the srgc website. I am trying to focus on some of the features of the Society that catch our breath so strongly; plants in the wild, their jewel-like beauty, the excitement of growing plants from seed, and the fact that there is so much that we can learn about plants. What I want to do is to direct these thoughts to gardeners outside the Society and try and catch them as they come into the Show so they can gain a full impression of how special the Society is. We have worked hard to really publicise the Show a lot more widely this year and the hope is that if significant more people attend it will show that this can work and other aspects of the Show (notably Plant sales) and Groups in Kent can be worked on too to increase the overall profile of the Society. Many thanks, Tim Ingram
If you would like to send me your e-mail address to:-
then I will forward you a larger image file.
Very few people have responded to my comments under 'Any Other Topics' about attracting new members to the Society, and I grant that part of the reason is that there are no easy answers. There is a very strong and thriving Showing fraternity in the Society and although these are a minority of members, as are those who run the individual Groups themselves, it is they who really set the agenda for the Society, and clearly this will always be the case. As someone who only rarely exhibits plants, therefore, it can be difficult to express one's views. None the less, the Specialist Nurseries and members Gardens play as important roles, in different ways.
It is clear to me that the Shows and Plant Sales associated with them should be made more visible to gardeners outside the Society, as should our Gardens, and by extension our Group activities. If, as must be the case, it is the propagation and distribution of plants which lies at the heart of the Society, this can only be stimulated by convincing other gardeners of the value of what we do. Publicity, therefore, is about expressing our strengths and enthusiasms, and the diversity of our interests. It should be a joint and integrated process between the Groups, Shows and the parent Society.
Criticising the Shows will not win many friends, but seen simply from the perspective of attracting new members they could seem quite intimidating. This is despite the fact that many of the plants on display are good garden plants. They create the impression of a great divergence between beginner and expert, which while true, is something to be bridged.
Those who can follow my train of thought will sense that it is not so much the Society that needs to change but our ability to express what we do more effectively. In my estimation this will happen by a greater sharing of ideas and successes across the country, and a determination to show the importance of the AGS to other gardeners.
Publicity in itself holds few attractions (as well as significant costs) and success will depend on those who are prepared to work on it, and on the general level of support there is across the Society as a whole. This is where members who are prepared to open their Gardens are so valuable; it is always easier to share what one does oneself with others, and to be truly enthusiastic in putting this across.
These thoughts are the basis of what we are doing in Kent and we aim to share the results of our initiatives to attract new members over the coming years. It may take some time to really show gardeners what we do, but there are few other plant societies which carry the same breadth and depth of interests as does the AGS. I would like to feel that more of a debate could open up across the Society, and that it would be valuable for us all.
I seen to agree with the majority of what you say. However my wife and I enjoy the majority of what AGS membership brings us.
I wsh t discuss your ideas further as I believe we have a lot in common.
E mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for your comment and I am grateful for a response. However, my purpose is to try and generate an open debate across the Society, either on the website and/or in the other forums where we meet, so I would prefer to discuss things in this way rather than by email.
Understood Tim. Better if it can be done your way. I'll try to collect my thoughts and contribute.
I have been lurking for a while and watching this thread and would like to thank you for opening this discussion. I perhaps have an unusual perspective on this topic having joined the society at a relatively young age (28)and being actively involved in our group committee very soon afterwards. My wife and I are still the youngest group members 17 years later...
I believe that we may have drifted away from the group, the AGS in general and certainly would not have started showing, if it had not been for one or two members who really encouraged us.
Publicity does help; my first encounter with our group was a chance meeting with David Mowle at a flower show and I noticed he was wearing an AGS sweatshirt. He encouraged us to attend our first group meeting which we would have found daunting except for a very friendly welcome from some members - I think this is crucial. No point encouraging people to turn up and then effectively ignoring them.
Also I think show publicity (and venues) should perhaps be re-examined. The Northumberland show is in a terrific town-centre venue next to a big supermarket, which on a saturday morning means a lot of passers-by but most importantly it is advertised as a 'spring flower show', not an alpine flower show. I think this has the effect of drawing in more casual visitors who may be put off by the more specialised sounding name. Once inside I hope it is self evident that many of the plants on show and on sale are, as said elsewhere in this thread, perfectly good garden plants and not what they might have regarded as 'alpines'. I meet lots of people who say they 'don't grow alpines' but have lots of plants in their gardens which I have seen on our showbenches...
This comes back to the image of the society and how it is projected. The fairly recent change to AGS publicity material to talk of 'small perennials, bulbs etc' is a good start in broadening our scope as it appears to outsiders but I feel more could be done.
I have other thoughts on this but they will need to wait for another day.
As an inhabitant of the little town that stages the Northumberland Show (although I hasten to add that I had no part in the establishment of this splendid venue), I just wanted to say that I agree wholeheartedly that this central location and massive hall next to a supermarket on a Saturday morning has a huge effect and literally hundreds of visitors attend who would not normally visit an alpine plant show. The venue is undoubtedly expensive, but this pays off in terms of entrance fees and nurserymen's donations (and they all do very well there!). I am sure that other Shows are put off using central sites because of the expense, choosing instead out-of-the-way and dilapidated schools which only the most dedicated visitor (mostly members) bother to visit. Perhaps more Shows should consider biting the bullet and choosing central, public facilities with good parking (Pudsey, and to a lesser extent Whitworth come to mind), gambling that increased visitor numbers will offset the extra expense. I also agree that the term 'alpine plant show' is often off-putting to visitors, and that some such phrase as 'Spring Flower Show' is a better draw. It is definitely the case that the specialism involved in alpines tends to frighten 'ordinary gardeners', not least the Gardeners World Team and the egregrious Monty Don. Most (but, self-confessedly NOT M. Don) would come to love alpines once they knew them.
Dear Darren & John,
Many thanks for your comments, in particular the observations about the Northumberland Show. Do the increased numbers of visitors translate into a steady number of new members? We have found in a different context (a Snowdrop & Hellebore Day) that while very significant numbers of people attend, next to none consider joining the Society (the HPS in this case). The Alpine Shows, though, have potentially a much greater appeal with the wide range of plants on display. In Kent we have advertised the event as a 'The Spring Plant Enthusiast's Show' and downplayed mention of alpines. At the same time I am hoping that we can make more mention of our gardens (viz.: our Garden Safari) at the Show, perhaps including photographs and encouraging visitors to come and see us. This would gradually introduce features other than the Competitive image of the Society, though I appreciate the fundamental value of this that underlies the AGS. Most important of all, I think are the Plant Sales and encouraging the Specialist Nurseries which have had a hard time of it in recent years.
Like Darren, I took over as Chairman of our local Group some 25 years ago as the youngest member, and still am, which doesn't say much for our abilities to attract new gardeners - and yet it seems certain to me that gardeners with the same strong interests and insights into plants exist, even if they don't yet realise it! My feeling is that many people doing different things, depending on their own enthusiasms, is the way forward. And a really good programme on television, notably looking at plants and their ecology in the wild, would be tremendous. There are plenty of people (young and old) who love mountains, and a few might look down at their feet and realise the remarkable beauty of the flowers that grow there!
Sorry about that - I'am not sure how I managed to double up on the last contribution. Perhaps a little too much enthusiasm!
Tim, I sorted the double posting
Thank you John for supporting my views on the shows, and why your group gets it so right!
I absolutely see your point Tim about greater numbers of visitors perhaps not translating into greater numbers of members. My own group had a gold-medal winning display at the Holker Hall garden festival for many years and people still ask if we are going back ? but I don?t think we ever signed up a new member at the show. Of course we can?t tell if any went away and joined later after we had attracted their interest!
At Blackpool Show on Saturday I recruited a new member personally ? someone who came to the entrance and asked for me specifically as they remembered my lecturing to their branch of the British Cactus and Succulent Society ten years ago. This led me to think that there is not really much difference between the demographic attracted by any of the specialist horticultural societies. I myself am a member of the BCSS, Mesemb Study Group, South African Bulb Group and several others. Given that all specialist groups are seeing either static or falling membership perhaps there would be some scope for joint activities to address this (I could envisage a joint show for instance ? pooling resources might help fund bigger and more public venues, divvying up the costs and takings would need some careful negotiation of course). Youngsters are very attracted to cacti and carnivorous plants ? once through the door the alpinists could work on broadening their interests! Many of our beloved ?alpines? are similarly charismatic ? Asarum and Oncocyclus Iris spring to mind, not to mention hardy orchids and aroids.
More use could be made of non-competitive classes where space allows ? I could bring loads of plants to shows which would normally be marked ?NAS? but would add colour to the benches and/or help stimulate conversation. For instance, I have taken part of my collection of Conophytum to group meetings where they caused great interest. Though some form nice cushions they can scarcely be called alpine. I?m sure others with broad horticultural interests could do likewise.
Unfortunately I feel there is conservatism within all our specialist societies which would prevent any of this happening until memberships fall so low that desperate measures are needed.
The bigger problem is, of course, that younger people simply don?t join societies these days as they are too busy tweeting or facebooking. I could make a sweeping statement about their having no attention span too (an essential for a gardener) but it would not really help and I?m sure that it would unfairly tar them all with the same brush. There are certainly keen young gardeners out there.
I agree a lot could be done to attract younger (or at least new) people to the hobby with a really good TV programme. The Channel 4 show ?Bloom? a decade or so back was good as a garden show for specialists but I agree that a show concentrating on plant ecology might make people realise why we are attracted to our plants with their many evolutionary adaptations (and I would include cacti and carnivorous plants in this too). This show would ideally have a horticultural slant too of course ? showing how these plants needs are met by growers.
Gardening generally is still a big interest, even among youngsters, but emphasis these days has definitely switched to edible crops rather than ornamentals, at least partly due to legitimate concerns about ?food miles?, pesticide use, the economy etc. But I also see worrying signs that ornamentals are increasingly being regarded as ?non-PC?, which certainly does not help our cause. I once approached the head of our garden club at my workplace (an environmental research site) with details about our local AGS group programme, to be told (very bluntly) that ?we don?t grow ornamentals?.
It is very encouraging to read your comments as they correspond very much with my own thoughts, and indicate to me that many others in the Society must have concerns. but also very positive ideas about how new gardeners may be attracted. I have said elsewhere that a goundswell needs to run through the Society, and I mean by that a strong desire to show other gardeners why we value the AGS so much. There will be different individual reasons, but much has to do with the detailed appreciation of plants, where they come from, the enjoyment of propagating them, and the stimulation of displaying them to others. One would imagine that environmental concerns and a high level of education would accentuate these factors, but there are always more dramatic calls on our time. So the profile of alpines, woodland plants etc., needs to be raised in every which way is possible, whether by writing articles for magazines and local papers, improving publicity for the Shows and Plant Sales, organising conferences aimed not only at existing members but also students studying the Plant Sciences and Horticulture and inviting people to our gardens.
I think that the important point about the AGS is that it is very much more than just a gardening Society; it does have a very wide appeal to many different gardeners (as can be seen in the make-up of individual Groups). It has always had more than its fair share, you could say, of very eminent and talented people, and therefore its attraction clearly goes beyond its name. It is in many ways a 'Plantspersons' Society as described on the website, and part of the way of attracting new members must surely work on this image.
I am very aware that encouraging new members is probably not an activity that many want to spend their time on, but the more who do in whatever way they can, the more likelyhood that progress will be made. It is always interesting and stimulating to meet new people who have similar interests and with the range of expertise there is in the AGS it can't be beyond our ability to express our interests more effectively.
As always words are all very well. So I hope we do find we are able to stimulate more interest in our Groups and the AGS in Kent in the next few years. It won't be for want of trying!
Thank you Tim. I would certainly like to help with this and do what I can but you are right - it is going to take more than a few of us. Many groups consist of passive members who are happy to pay their subscription and turn up for an evening in the warm and a lecture. But even getting existing members to support (for example) trips out to visit gardens has been very difficult for us.
As an aside - I have never managed to visit your nursery but the two plants I bought from you at Alpines 2001 are still going strong 10 years later. Pelargonium endlicherianum has survived even the last two winters unprotected, where new stock raised from seed turned out to be much less hardy. The other is Agave utahensis, quite happy if covered from the rain.
I promised to make a progress report on the Kent Show this Saturday. As ever the plants on display were very fine and varied, and we are lucky that it is a particularly good time to see such a wide range. For this reason it also seems a very good Show to really make an effort to publicise more widely. This did seem to work; we spent probably twice or a little more on printing more striking posters and distributing them a lot more widely, in addition to what has been done before. There were several valuable mentions on the local Radio. The result was some 50% more visitors than last spring which is encouraging and hopefully will lead to more local people in particular looking out for the event in the future. Having said this a real effort was made to contact significant places further afield too because the aim is to convince committed gardeners throughout the South-East that the 'AGS' Shows (and here I suppose it is more valuable to label them 'Plantspersons' or 'Enthusiast's' Shows) are really not to be missed! My hope is that if we can show a consistantly higher number of visitors in future years it will be possible to strengthen this with more and varied specialist nurseries and introduce other attractions, like other Shows do, such as a talk or demonstrations. This may change the outlook of the Show somewhat, which I think would be a good thing, without really influencing the real wonder of the displays themselves. As far as publicity goes it is particularly hard work when left to few members, so the more who are able to able to disseminate information in their local areas the better, and as a consequence the much more effective coverage.
So glad to hear that your show in the far south of the country went as well as ours up here in the north.
We attracted a good influx of the general public and an unfortunately undetermined number of Society members. Sixty two exhibitors graced our delightful show venue here in Whitworth and brought with them an amazing array of magnificent plants.
I was wondering if you have 'About My Area' internet sites down your way? We make very good use of this ever expanding resource to publicise and publish reports on our events. Only a little aptitude is required to use this site to the full (even I have risen to the challenge) and the potential for free publicity, advertising and reportage is immense.
Many thanks for the suggested internet site - I will look it up. The site I have found most responsive, though only based on this one Show, is ?Where Can You Go?. This stimulated interest in France and so far is the only one who has reacted after the Show to ask how it went and for further information. I shall try to put as many details on there as possible.
There are a host of Kent Sites, both official and semi-commercial, and I have worked my way through as many of these as possible (not the most stimulating of occupations you could say!). Unfortunately we didn?t question people as they came in to discover how they heard about the Show, so don?t really know which forms of advertising are most effective. (Also as you said we don?t have a record of numbers of AGS members). However, in many ways it is an ongoing process which builds the presence of the Show every year in the memory of Kentish gardeners, so as wide a variety of places as possible is best, and probably (although not accepted by many), a steadily increasing amount spent on publicity linked to the observed results. This is something I think the main Society needs to take on board because we can?t rely heavily on the efforts of relatively few individuals (and often at times on their underwriting the cost). Once significant numbers of new gardeners are attracted, I would imagine that word of mouth would begin to have a much greater influence again, because from those people I meet it often seems to be that colleagues at work and neighbours are those who first drew them into the Society.
I also sent posters out to places like theatres, art galleries, bookshops (I think many of us who love gardens also love books!), florists, etc. It is a moot point how many were put up and here the more personal contact of individual members who visit such places and know people could help a great deal.
However, I see this as only a beginning in the way the Society makes a much more positive effort to make itself more visible to new gardeners. One of the questions at the membership symposium was whether we really wanted to do this, and although everyone obviously responded ?Yes? to this, clear initiatives were less forthcoming. At the last AGM the subject was hardly debated despite a great deal of time being devoted to the Shows and Tours, which understandably members find a lot more stimulating and enjoyable!
I found Darren?s comment about potentially combining with other specialist gardening Groups to hold Shows and Sales, an interesting one, despite the fact that it would be anathema to the purist. In particular this could be a way of making the Plant Sales themselves more diverse and satisfying to a greater range of gardeners. I think no one would contemplate changing the Shows themselves, though there are individuals who do bring a wonderfully eclectic range of plants which must sometimes cause consternation to the judges! The prospect of non-competitive displays seems a very good one and could begin to introduce greater variety and novelty year by year. I imagine this would require some vetting(!) but nurseries have often put on displays (I once did one on silver foliage plants and Aberconwy?s autumn displays of Gentians are superlative). Individual members who specialise in certain groups of plants could be encouraged more. I for one would like to see more ericaceous plants, like those that Barry Starling used to grow and sell, and also the much maligned dwarf conifers that really deserve to be grown a lot more widely again. Counter-intuitively this might also encourage members to actually start showing competitively in the future, even if they don?t want to do so at present!
I am sure everyone is likely to have their own ideas and I will continue to stress how our gardens carry the same import as the Shows in our desire to attract new members.
I append details of the Garden Safari we are holding in East Kent for any members who are interested. As with the Kent AGS Show I will provide more details on how we got on after the event. Although a lot of work for the Group, I think it probably has the greatest potential of all our activities to attract new members, partly because it is very personal, and partly because our gardens vary greatly and are likely to identify with different visitors. As a way of raising money for the Group it has been by far the most effective and depends only on having enough members prepared to participate.
Well you won't have made out much from the posters (they seem to either be files that are too big or too small! A sign of my inability to make head or tail of computers). There are ten gardens open on Sunday 8th May from 11.00am to 5.00pm. These cross East Kent from the Maidstone and Faversham area, via Whitstable and to Walmer and Deal. We have prepared a map of their locations and, on the reverse potted descriptions (hopefully reasonably accurate and fair). The colour poster is to wet the appetite of those gardeners who have yet to discover us and realise that we are a lot more interesting than they might imagine.
We are a long way off the beaten track but for those who may be interested the gardens are as follows:-
Eagleswood,Slade Rd, Warren St, ME17 2EG
Frith Old Farmhouse, Otterden, ME13 0DD
Bayfield Farm, Painter's Forstal, ME13 0EG
Copton Ash, 105 Ashford Rd, Faversham, ME13 8XW
40, Hillside Rd, Whitstable, CT5 3EX
43, The Ridings, Chestfield, Whitstable, CT5 3QE
Wingham Roses, Preston Hill, Wingham, CT3 1BZ
Mounts Court Farmhouse, Acrise, nr. Folkestone, CT18 8LQ
34, Cross Road, Walmer,Deal, CT14 9LB
Forstal Cottage, West Langdon, CT15 5HG
I can provide more details for anyone who would like them. I can recommend the day to any Group thinking of doing a similar thing. It has the benefit of being novel and different from the popular Garden Safaris that centre on small areas around villages; it has greater potential to attract really enthusiastic gardeners who are looking to learn more about plants; and it brings members of the Group together in an aim to attract new members. Advertising is obviously very important but these were only 20-25% of our returns on the day last year. Most importantly it shows people that the AGS has a lot more to it than just alpines (in the best possible sense!)
When I started this discussion thread it was with serious intent. For several years I have been writing to gardening magazines, the media and to the BBC, with the intent of raising awareness of the qualities of alpines, woodland plants and ?Plantsman?s Gardens?, all of which with the AGS excels. The response has been virtually non-existant, which to me only highlights the importance of carrying on. In particular the relative lack of really thoughtful and searching programmes on gardening and on the Natural History of plants does little to make people properly aware of the plant world. Are plants just commodities that come from the garden centre? Are they items that can simply be ordered up from the Plantfinder? The answer, to some extent, must lie within our own Society, which has a much deeper and educated understanding of the value of plants, and has the ability to transmit this to others. This is after all what we do to each other and enjoy so much.
Although I am a long term member of the AGS in discussing these things I feel something of an outsider, and perhaps this is of value. A relative lack of response either leads one to question one?s analysis, or provokes one to try harder. Ultimately these come to the same thing.
The very first Bulletin was prefaced with a fine poem by Dorothy Wellesley which concluded [to] ?turn the year?s first furrow with a plough of gold?. Individually and collectively this is what good gardening continues to do, and it is closer to poetry than anything else.
However, Sir William Lawrence described it in a different way when opening the Northern Show in 1931, when he ? declared that when once infected with the virus [benign] of Alpine plant cultivation there was no cure for the patient, and he hoped that the infection would spread quickly throughout the North?. To continue the analogy viruses do change subtly, and so perhaps should the AGS.
Sir William Lawrence described it in a different way when opening the Northern Show in 1931, when he ? declared that when once infected with the virus [benign] of Alpine plant cultivation there was no cure for the patient, and he hoped that the infection would spread quickly throughout the North?. To continue the analogy viruses do change subtly, and so perhaps should the AGS.
The infection certainly spread throughout the North - callianthemums growing in clogs; saxifrages in weaving shuttles; meconopsis in miner's helmets and nototriches in Newcastle Brown bottles - local groups became large and influential in these northern climes and the shows were bustling with competition and welcome humour. Where are the southern 'Pudsey Pig' competitions or home counties AGS members bedecked in Society sweatshirts and proud to sport the gentian logo?
Do southern exhibitors adjourn to the local pub at every show and attract a band of followers who enjoy the banter and the crack?
I may be exaggerating the 'cultural' divide, but the northern AGS shows became (in the '80's and '90's in particular) somehow more welcoming, more populist, more, dare I say, 'down to earth'? This trend remains but the numbers (of shows and exhibitors) are gradually subsiding and it would be wonderful to reinvigorate this sense of belonging to something other than a distant society (no matter how splendid that society is) and local groups and interaction between them must be at the core of society thinking to encourage this genuine sense of belonging.
I was just waiting to see if anyone else would join in. I loved the images you came up with! They reminded me of the perennial gnome that tries to infiltrate the Chelsea Flower Show. The mischievous nature of a leprechaun might be more effective at poking fun at some of the pomposity! I think you are right, down in the south we do lack some of the common sense that runs through the north, and we are certainly less down to earth. Probably the best societies are made on a scrap of paper over a pint down the pub, and they probably always prosper when there is strong but respectful rivalry which keeps them bouyant. That is the strength of the AGS Shows of course. But the places I shall always remember are the nurseries; Joe Elliott's, Ingwersen's, Jack Drake and so forth. These and the distribution of plants to each other are the true heart of the society, and what is most likely to stimulate new members.
It's of no consolation to see the changing demographic of gardeners; whereas the older generation were brought up with patience and hard work as virtues the younger generations are finding themselves in a world of 'I want it right now'. Thus younger gardeners are happy to spend £50 (if they have it) on a big plant for the garden because they don't want to wait five years for a cheaper plant to catch up. Likewise pre-planted containers are popular with younger gardeners who lack the skill and knowledge, and quite often the interest, to get stuck into gardening. Quite often young gardeners are experiencing gardens because they have moved into their first home, and many will be burdoned with financial woes as well- all in all not a good situation for the young gardeners or for societies hoping to recruit them. A comment above said something about the Facebook and Twitter generation; this is true, but young people are using these services to make lifestyle choices as well as keeping in touch with friends. Anyone on Twitter interested in plants must follow BensBotanics, the Twitter extension of Bensbotanics.co.uk - me! I think it is good for the society to be worried about attracting new members, and not just young ones necessarily, because burying our heads in the sand will not help our organisation or our beloved plants. As to how we could make alpines 'cool'... who knows?! The 'I want it now' generation have little concept of the sense of achievement (blame it on the 'nobody loses' culture in the education system!) so wouldn't be attracted to the friendly one-upmanship that is found in the society and it's shows- 'I can grow this better than anyone else' kind of thing! Also the possibility of a plant being exacting in it's requirement and challenging, albeit very rewarding to grow, will not appeal to young gardeners. How to get things accross- every sector of gardening (retail, open gardens, societies etc) must be more accessible and will literally have to spoonfeed information to most of the younger generation. Everything has to be presented in 'bitesized' chunks... BBC gardening's website is a good example. The most important thing of all is not to empty the AGS of it's existing loyal members- it is here that the experience is found, and we need to add to our membership and not simply renew existing with new. The AGS does a great job and is, certainly to me, a more serious organisation than the RHS. This must not be comprimised.
Oh, and I'm 26, have been a member for 11 years and enjoyed every moment of it!
It is really good to hear from a younger gardener - I am in my 50's but that is just a detail! It is the value we put on things as a Society (and I mean generally here) which is important and values are often learned young. If there is a generation divide it is as much the fault of the older generation as the younger.
I have described my take on gardening and the Society earlier on but as an additional example I append an article on 'Plantsman Gardeners', which many of us must be and I for one would like to see more of.
If there is one thing that unites thinking people it is the importance of our environment and maintaining as much of the natural diversity of plants and animals as we are able. This is a simple statement, a simplistic one indeed, and yet it must lie close to the heart of very many gardeners and particularly those whose gardening draws them out into a study of the wider world. These, you could say, are ?Plantsmen?; perhaps an elitist term in some ways but truthfully expressing a desire to understand plants beyond their purely aesthetic values of colour and form.
You could also say that they, and we, are literally a ?curious? group; individualistic, often academic, green-fingered, prone to collect and classify, and hopefully keen to share knowledge and plants with others. ?Plantsmen? really are just an exaggerated version of gardeners everywhere - the same passions and enjoyment underlie our gardens but are taken in different and specialised ways. So where is the new generation of plantsman gardeners? Am I wrong even to pose the question?
Membership of specialised gardening societies, like the Alpine Garden Society and Hardy Plant Society, has always been relatively low by comparison to more ?mainstream? gardening, inevitably. However, in recent years fewer people have been joining such societies, and the result in the future seems likely to be a reduction in the enduring expertise that they have built and maintained over the years. No doubt all societies fluctuate from time to time, but the really important feature of many such specialist groups lies in the sense of gardens being developed in the long term, often over lifetimes, and for this to happen members need to be attracted early on and expertise passed on.
The essence of gardens is that, like fine wine, they mature slowly - in effect they mature as the gardener matures. The modern age is less tolerant of such a laissez-faire approach, though it is probably true to say that relatively few gardeners have ever had the deep appreciation of plants that underlies the kind of garden I describe. For me it seems all the more important that such gardens and gardeners exist for they do more than just holding an extensive variety of plants in cultivation; they help distribute plants and seed; they share skills and knowledge; and they lead to a more informed and careful view of the world we live in. Why should I argue this in a country which has always led the way in gardening?
Well because the gardens I describe are often those of individuals - they are not finely manicured acres. Neither are they even the honed gardens of the National Trust and RHS, magnificent though these are. What they may lack in impression can be made up for in numbers. Very many gardeners doing their own thing is likely to be of the greatest benefit in maintaining diversity both in plants and skills. And although we have Seed Banks and a
few fine Botanic Gardens which carry collections of plants and both inspire but also express our concerns, it is far more effective to also have a strong living tradition of gardening to take us on into the future. As individuals we have as strong motivations as we do as a Society.
Society gets what it asks for and the quietness and steady pace of gardens seem out of synch with the 21st century. Yet paradoxically there can rarely be a time when our focus on the environment, on sustainability and actually on more natural ways of gardening, has been greater. Japan probably provides the closest comparison of any country in the world. Here there is an even greater contrast between the immense creativity and economic drive of people, and yet still a deep reverence for their environment and an extraordinary history of gardening. The Japanese are also closest to British gardeners in their detailed appreciation of plants, and are even more dedicated to specialist garden societies. But nowhere in the world is there such a tradition of making gardens as in Britain, and at no time has it been more important to encourage and stimulate this as one generation passes the reins onto another.
Of course gardening is an expression of our individualism, but like any other activity it is also dictated by fashion. Fashion in a rapidly changing world lies uneasily with the natural cycles of gardening and the ?Plantsman?s? garden, which tends to evolve slowly and often lacks the drama of those displayed in glossy magazines, is not accorded its true value. It is for this reason that I ask ?where is the new generation of plantsman gardeners?? For it is these that carry much of the expertise of gardening and are most in touch with plants and their multifarious ways.
I must admit to be being strangely deflated after starting this thread. I have also beloged to the NARGS for over 20 years and have recently been posting comments and photos on their forum. There is a lively discussion about plants in the garden and experiences growing them, and it is very encouraging and welcoming. Although I don't belong to the SRGC there is the same feeling of inclusivity there too. I think it highlights a fundamental imbalance in the AGS which, as I keep saying, is the importance of our gardens in attracting new members. This is not to deny the great worth of the AGS and its pre-eminence in the Horticultural and Botanical world. Just that this needs to be maintained.
The views of one member may not be of great concern. On the other hand they are based on the fact that I have been a member since 1978, I have helped run our Local Group for nearly as long, I have grown and sold plants for much of that time, I have an extensive garden and I have always had a deep fascination with plants of all sorts. So I have a broad sense of the Society and the way it could appeal to a much wider range of gardeners. So far this has not really been addressed except by a few members. It may be that I am the wrong person to raise such issues and someone of greater stature would be better placed to drive the debate; but any Society surely thrives on debate, and we are as much a 'gardening society' as an exhibiting, botanical and scientific one. There seems little point continuing to discuss this unless others in the Society have strong opinions and thoughts too.
Though I've read every word of the submissions in this thread, and have found them very interesting indeed, I'm in as much of a loss as anyone as to exactly how to proceed to address the various problems.
Today was the South Devon Group's AGM, combined with a garden visit, that attracted, for various reasons, just 14 members. It was reported at the meeting that during the year the Group's paid-up membership reduced from 43 to 33 (inclusive of two deaths!). The greater proportion of those members are not AGS members however hard we try to get them to join. This reduction in membership has obviously a knock-on effect on the Group's financial viability and were it not for individual members 'padding out' the programme of speakers, without charging fees and expenses, we would be far from financially viable. We've discussed, ad infinitum, how to go about recruiting new members, without, so far, actively doing much about it but the present situation is surely going to force the pace.
I would be very surprised if other Groups were not having similar problems. It seems very much to me that in lots of ways the membership "lifeblood" is slowly slipping away and unless we can "simplify" the advantages of being a member of the AGS and widen and increase it's attractiveness and usefulness the future appears quite bleak.
I believe our sister organisation, the SRGC has addressed the problem and the SRGC Forum is a wonderful recruitment tool. I don't think though that the recent widening of participation in the NARGS Forum to non-NARGS members has had a similar advantageous recruitment effect.
Perhaps the existence of two similar Forums saturates that particular market and the AGS needs to determine a "place for it's on-line offer?
I am not aware if the recent National Conference operated at a profit or if both Society and Club will have bills to foot to make it break even. But, if this is the case, and I accept that hindsight is a wonderful master, it does make me think that resources could be better used in addressing some of the major strategy issues surrounding the wider issues of the recruitment and retention of members.
Methinks I've "rabbited" too long without providing concrete evidence or indeed suggestions but I'll wait for any responses.
We only had 50 people visit our gardens, half the number of last year (though quite a number of the latter were AGS members and far fewer visited this year). This was a personal disappointment having spent considerable effort publicising the day and producing more striking posters. What of the positive side? 1. Well we all enjoy our own gardens whether people see them or not! 2. The fact that we organised the day did encourage us to work on our gardens (in an analogous way to preparing plants to Show but without the comparative judging). 3. Those members with smaller gardens in particular (and which have not opened to the public before) found the day very enjoyable and visitors friendly and interested. 4. There was quite a bit of interest in our Group which we can only hope will be translated into some new members. 5. It is an ongoing event run by the AGS in Kent, which with the Shows and our meetings will become more visible to Kentish gardeners year by year. 6. It encourages to work together more in seeking new members and transmitting our enthusiasms.
The negative side (apart from the low numbers)? 1. Virtually no AGS members from our Group visited our gardens!! (a particularly good reason to look for new members!). 2. There is no strong history of AGS gardens being open to visitors (I remember years ago being captivated visiting Eric Hilton's Garden just north of Bristol - see the Alpines'86 Proceedings) and 3. neither has there been a strong promotion of our individual gardens in the Bulletin over the years. 4. The media is as bad as the AGS at not bringing alpine 'gardening' more into view.
It is a learning experience for the Group which in time will bring in new members I am sure, but could be made a great deal easier and more encouraging by more joined up thinking across the Society.
More power to your collective elbows, Tim!
Wouldn't it be wonderful if other local groups (or a set of local groups 'conjoined' for the event) could arrange coach trips to take in these very tempting open gardens (and perhaps a specifically arranged lecture)?
It only requires sufficient advance planning and a modicum of co-operation to arrange trips that could create inter-group friendships and immense satisfaction for everyone involved.
Although several of us were a little disappointed that more people didn't visit our gardens, at our meeting on Friday there was an upbeat feeling. Everyone had found sharing their gardens stimulating and more to the point four or five of the visitors came to listen to Gill and Peter Regan's talk on the AGS trip to Yunnan. We hope they felt welcome, and certainly it was very nice to see them. Quite a number of visitors also left their names to be reminded of our next season's talks, so all in all more encouraging than we might have first felt.
I know there are other Groups making strong efforts to attract new members but I would particularly like to mention Kevin Pratt in Cheshire who almost single-handedly revitalised his Group by personally delivering leaflets throughout the area they meet. This inspired and convinced me to be more persistant in publicity in Kent, and I think this contact between Groups and sharing of ideas is important and should be recognised.
There seems to be an attitude in parts of my Group that small(in membership terms) is beautiful. It may well be but with our age profile small too easily equates with dead!
I think David there is a comfort in the people you know, which of course is very understandable. A fine and far seeing Society though is more like a University, it maintains its strength and traditions by attracting new people and being tolerant of change - it is realistic in other words as well as respecting achievement. I see little difference between the small and large in this respect. My sense of the Society is that it is rather resistant to change, perhaps because as we become older we become wiser but also more set in our ways. Individually the reward for growing plants beautifully is the recognition and stimulation of others at the Shows, and expression of this in the Bulletin. For the nurseryman it is the enjoyment of growing and propagating plants and selling them to gardeners who are really fascinated by them. For the publicist it is little recognition apart from the hard won trickle of new members, and yet at this stage in the Society's history it is these that are really the most important.
I suspect that what I have written has been more for my own and our Groups benefit than for anyone else because it has focussed my thoughts if no-one elses. The democratic spirit of the web does come through elsewhere but is less evident here, just because it has not developed to the same extent, and quite fairly because we all have immense respect for the Society and its ways. But my father used to always say, 'Don't let respect stifle the critical faculty'. The charitable aims of the Society are to encourage and disseminate information and the practice of growing alpines and small perennials and this means to new people as well as old.
My apologies for going on a bit(!) but I do have quite an analytical and philosophical mind and it takes a while to put things across.
I think I am on a losing wicket as far as stimulating any debate is concerned! Thank you for all those who responded; it has been greatly appreciated.
Many thanks for all your efforts Tim ... we who tried before understand your frustrations!
There's no one answer to how to encourage new members but at least efforts are being made. Just for information's sake; one thing I love about the AGS is the communication. I'll confess that the shows and awards bits of the bulletin are glanced through, but I enjoy finding out about other people's experiences growing things, and I've had many golden nuggets of information through the years.
I see and hear things about other gardeners showing other things, eg Dahlias and vegetables, at major shows and there's a whole world of secrecy in getting the best blooms etc. At AGS shows things are so often quite different- several times I've heard medal winners giving cultivation and showing tips to other members who would, in other societies certainly, be bitter rivals. Maybe this open joy of gardening and nearly always friendly nature is our real asset?
And I'll be lending a copy of the bulletin to someone at work who I think might be interested in the more specialist areas of gardening. Hopefully a new convert!
I wonder what Reginald Farrer would think of the Society in the 21st century? It is hard to imagine such an extraordinary character emerging in our present times with such a combination of ecological insight and intimate knowledge of plants and a thirst put this across to others in such unique prose. Which would he find most stimulating? The perfect plants at the Shows or the ways and means of growing them in the garden? I imagine he would be fairly intolerant of many of our efforts, working on a grander scale than most of us are able to manage. But I suspect the garden would be the place for him, perhaps a heretical statement to make in a Society of such consummate growers. What he would identify with is the love of wild and mountainous places and the way plants carry this into our gardens. This I would say is the most important feature of the Society, and not an intense and analytical botanical examination of plants, however much many of us (including myself) find this fascinating at times. He would certainly find fellow feeling with nurserymen and the processes of seed sowing and propagation. He might like a little robust debate followed by a good meal and some fine wine. He would definitely be for some fun in gardening even if not entirely happy himself all the time. He would revel in friendship.
To support my arguement that the actual processes of gardening should lie at the heart of the AGS, and to make me feel better as I struggle with the brambles (!), I have really enjoyed reading an article in The Hardy Plant Journal (Vol. 32, Autumn 2011, p.13), entitled 'Gardening is Easy'. Written by a professional it comes across as so down to earth and sensible, and gives gardening a value way beyond any pecuniary measure. And gardening is not so easy as all that.
I have not managed to wade through everything in this thread, but I have read a lot and learnt a lot too. My view, for what it's worth, is that the way to attract new members is to concentrate much more than we have done on gardening with alpines (and other small plants). One has only to spend some time manning the AGS exhibit at Chelsea to know that many, many people are enchanted by what they see and would like to grow the plants in the wonderful show gardens that we regularly stage. Few people ask botanical or technical questions, most just want to know 'what's that?' and 'how do you grow that?, and that's what we should be focusing on much more both in our Bulletin and on our web site. Of course, we have always had good gardening articles in the Bulletin, and Vic Aspland's Alpine Gardening section has done a lot to achieve what I am talking about, but we could do even more. But there's a snag which is (I know because I have been intimately involved with the Bulletin for many years) getting people to write those popular gardening articles. The Editor was (and probably still is) awash with travelogues, which have become increasingly easy to produce with the advent of cheaper, easier travel to foreign parts and advances in Digital photography that have dramatically reduced the cost and hassle in producing a photodossier from which to choose the images to accompany an article. And lest you think I don't like or appreciate travelogues, I do, but it's not what I like that counts, it's what will attract potential new members, and if we want practical gardening articles in the Bulletin and online then more of us will have to write them. So come on, if you have something to contribute on gardening and the cultivation of alpines but have not contributed in the past, make a start, perhaps by contributing to an existing thread on the web site or starting a new one. Potential members visiting our site should find it easy to obtain advice that they can understand and that will help them to be better gardeners and wish to learn more.
John - thank you for that. There is an aim to put more about our gardens onto the website and, as you say, very much depends on members sending in information and contributing. It seems little different really to what we do within the Groups and with friends, visiting and enjoying one another's gardens and learning from them. This is really what I was trying to say at the beginning because I felt, as you do, that we are the Alpine GARDEN Society, and have a wide range of talents amongst the membership.
Many thanks to John and Tim for their valuable contributions to the website. There are a couple of new schemes in the pipeline to increase the number of garden-related items on here. One of the main ones is 'Garden of the Season', which I hope to have up and running soon after the New Year. This is going to be similar to 'Plant Portraits', but will be written by you about your gardens. If anyone would like to write a short piece for this new section please email me at: email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you!
Robert, quite a few of us who try to make use of these pages have, on a number of occasions, mentioned that the ability to use hyperlinks in posts would make the Online Discussion much more flexible and easier to use.
Further to that David - I have just found the most superb series of photographs and information on the alpine flowers of New Zealand, posted by Dave Toole on the NARGS forum:-
I have always found this flora completely fascinating for its geographical isolation and it is beautiful to see such plants photographed so well in the wild. Highly recommended!
You make a good point, Tim. The chance to share links to topics on other sites such as Dave Toole's NZ pix on NARGS is one not to be missed.
For those of us who are not able to travel, the several dozen threads, with hundreds of pages, in the SRGC Forum from Dave and other New Zealand plantsmen over the last six or so years have been a real education.
I begin to wonder, after a great deal of thought, whether I am wrong to think of 'gardening' as an important feature of the AGS. That may seem an absurd statement to make, and much depends on how you define the word 'gardening' itself but to me it stands as the foundation of the Society and is always what will attract new people to join. Those of us who have much greater knowledge of plants, who are professionally involved with them, who Show, who travel and see them in the wild, have a much more sophisticated view of the Society, but it is evident from the SRGC and NARGS forums that such an outlook can still be very open to new gardeners, and my opinion is that this is not the case with the AGS. The remedy, I think, lies across the whole Society in showing gardeners better what we do and using the marvellous resources we have in the Shows and member's gardens. Why do I say this? Because it is ridiculous that so many gardeners are unaware of the extraordinary amount one can learn about plants from specialist Societies like the AGS. But the key word is 'learn' and that gives the practical side of the Society as great import as any other.
I am not sure this debate has still really got going despite considerable effort and nothing is ever likely to change quickly. Any change that does occur will occur because members think it is important. I suppose you could say 'I rest my case'.