Visiting gardens and buying plants are two of my favourite pastimes, so a trip to a plant fair can be a real treat as it often combines both. For gardeners, visiting a plant fair is the ultimate ‘child-in-a sweet shop’ experience and we are spoiled for choice with many events taking place around the country, especially from now until mid-summer.

For readers not familiar with this type of event, it involves mostly small growers and specialist nurseries from all over Ireland assembling at a venue, usually outdoors in a field adjoining a garden, and setting up stalls for a day alongside a handful of food purveyors and stands selling garden-related paraphernalia.

Guest speakers

Some of these events also incorporate guest speakers or short demonstrations by expert and experienced gardeners. Many of the nurseries present are members of the Irish Specialist Nursery Association (ISNA), showcasing beautiful, unusual and hard-to-find varieties of plants for sale. Most of the growers are also great talkers, never tiring of imparting their expert advice on plant care and growing.

Of course, these events are not intended to diminish the important role of garden centres which carry a much wider range of good quality, garden-worthy plants that include classic and reliable favourites as well as the rare and exotic. This has been a very difficult spring for nursery growers and garden centres and, as gardeners, we must try to spread our purchasing across all sectors to help maintain diversity and buoyancy within the industry.

In a garden centre I frequent, I was recently overjoyed to find Rhododendron augustinii ‘Electra’, a rare plant that I have been in search of for years. It’s a stunningly beautiful, compact-growing rhododendron with electric blue flowers.

Commercial production

One of the main appeals of a plant fair is that you find plants that do not suit commercial production. These are plants that are often hard to propagate, and success comes with only small quantities being available.

A plant fair is also a unique type of shopping experience. It’s a place to meet gardening friends and acquaintances and carries a huge social buzz. It also brings out the hunter-gatherer instinct of the gardener to acquire more plants and seasoned plant fair goers will arrive early to take part in the scrum of eager beavers in search of that small batch of treasures. Some will come prepared with trollies and most are equipped with large, sturdy bags.

As soon as the gates open into the event, there is something about the prospect of finding that rare gem that turns even the most arthritic gardeners into fleet-footed gazelles with very pointy elbows. If you see something you like, you must snap it up in a vice-like grip in case others around you have their eye on the same plant. Hesitation often brings regret!

Clematis florida var. florida ‘Sieboldiana’

Last year, at the annual Rare and Special Plant Fair, I bought the incredibly eye-catching Clematis florida var. florida ‘Sieboldiana’. The creamy white flowers, about 10cm across, are adorned with a large, domed centre of rich purple stamens. The main flush of blooms occurs in early summer with sporadic rebloom into autumn.

This truly beautiful clematis is ideal for scrambling through shrubs or grow it in a large container, at least 45cm in diameter, with support. It will quickly reach around two metres in height, thriving in a moist, free-draining soil, in a sheltered spot with full sun. Part shade is tolerated but this clematis needs sun from the ground up for better blooms. Most clematis prefer having their ‘heads in the sun and their feet in the shade’. Keep the roots cool and shaded by other plants or add a layer of pebbles or flat stones at the base.

Another lovely find last year was Geranium nodosum ‘Blueberry Ice’. I often extol the virtues of hardy geraniums for their versatility, easy care and tolerance of a wide range of garden situations. ‘Blueberry Ice’ caught my eye with its rich, velvety purple blooms, distinctly edged with ice white and overlaid with a shimmering lustre. The flowers are quite remarkable, and it is a particularly useful plant for dry shade, of which there is plenty in my garden. It grows to around 30cm high and is very long flowering.

Direct sow seeds of poached-egg plant

Many insects help gardeners by pollinating crops or feeding on troublesome plant pests. To help attract these beneficial allies, sow seeds now of plants like Limnanthes douglasii with flowers rich in nectar and pollen. This easy-to-grow hardy annual forms a spreading carpet of fragrant, yellow-centred white blooms, ideal for the front of the border, rockery or path edging.

Poached-egg plant

The seeds can be sown directly outdoors where they are to flower, into finely-prepared, well-drained soil. Seedlings usually appear in 14-28 days. Thin them to 10cm apart and water well until plants are established.

Re-pot into fresh compost containers grown plants that are showing signs of being pot bound or are starved of nutrients.

Remove faded flower heads on daffodils, tulips and other spring flowering bulbs to divert energy into development of the bulb for next year’s flower.

Out and About

  • Sunday, 21 April: Fota Annual Plant Fair. Venue: Fota House, Arboretum and Gardens, Fota Island, Co Cork. Time: 11am-4pm

    Saturday, 20 & Sunday, 21 April: Festival of Gardens and Nature. Venue: Ballintubbert House, Stradbally, Co Laois.

  • Sunday, 30 April: Clare Garden Festival. Time: 11am-5pm. Venue: The Showgrounds, Ennis, Co Clare. Garden expert talks, plant fair, crafts, artisan foods and more.
  • Kilkenny Castle Talks – a series of free garden talks on 23 April, 30 April and 7 May in the Parade Tower at Kilkenny Castle. Talks start at 8pm sharp.
  • Sunday, 5 May: RHSI (Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland) Russborough Plant Show. Time: 12am-4pm. Venue: Russborough House and Gardens, Blessington, Co Wicklow. Garden expert talks, plant fair, workshops and demos, music and entertainment.
  • Sunday, 12 May: Rare and Special Plant Fair. Venue: Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Co Carlow. Time: 10am-4pm.
  • Mary Keenan and Ross Doyle run Gash Gardens, Co Laois open to the public.

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