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Verwood’s blooming marvellous society

The Verwood and District Horticultural Society celebrates 60 years of independence this year. Chairman Ron Johnstone talks to Joël Lacey about clay, committees, climate change and chrysanthemums.

A judging bench at the society's spring show

A judging bench at the society’s spring show

It is a matter of record that on May 14 1964, the organisation which would become the Verwood and District Horticultural Society decided to leave the British Legion in Verwood, of which it had been a part. 50 years ago on 7 April 1966, a resolution was passed that the aforementioned name should be adopted as its title, but, as the current chairman, Ron Johnstone, explains, the V&DHS goes back further than that.
‘It’s 68 years since the originator of the society – probably a Captain Pearce who worked at the Verwood British Legion – got things going. In those days, there was only one show a year in the autumn and the village’s children were encouraged to enter the handicrafts section of the show. Of course, there were no distractions like present-day children have, and the children had all summer to work on it, although in those days a lot of children also took time off to help on the farms.’
Verwood was also a fraction of the size that it now is (its population has grown by a factor of seven since the society was launched). ‘As for who definitely started it, we’ve no idea. We’ve just lost our president – who was our longest-serving member – Alan Leicester, who was there when I joined in December 1993,’ Ron remembers.  ‘I joined when the then Vice-Chairman, who lived across the road, came over just as we moved in and asked us if we were interested in gardening and whether we’d like to come along to a meeting that night as there was a talk on vertical gardening; that’s how we joined. It was a break from our unpacking!’
Unsurprisingly, Ron is one of the longest-serving committee members, but his passage from new member to committee member was a speedy one. ‘I became show manager in 1995 – we did three in those days too – and have been Chairman since 2002.’
In terms of the size of the society, it’s impressive: ‘We get 80-100 people at our meetings. Some of our speakers are very impressed as they’re used to speaking to around half-a-dozen people at some societies; we’ve probably got around 150 members.’
The district covers a wide variety of conditions with a certain feast or famine (or more accurately flood or drought) element to the soil composition across the district, as Ron explains: ‘Horticulturally, the soil in Verwood varies. With me I’m on a clay base, but other people in the town are on a sandy base, so they complain that when they water their gardens the water just runs away and goes, but with me I’m waterlogged and my garden’s on a slight slant, so I’ve got water running down the hill and staying there. I lose a some plants due to the damp; they just rot off.’
This has had an influence on what Ron grows: ‘I change from time to time; I used to grow begonias – the front garden was a very colourful display in the early days – but they’re such a fuss that I gave it up. I just largely grow herbaceous,  which need very little attention in the summer, I hack ‘em down in the winter and then watch them come up in the spring.’
I also grow Primula auriculas,’ also known as mountain cowslips or bear’s ear, ‘but it’s a mountain plant so it’s not wild about being too damp. I’ve got them in a green house to keep the rain off them and I can leave them in the greenhouse and let them get on with it; that’s my kind of gardening,’ he says with a smile.
Obviously there has been a huge amount of coverage to extreme weather in recent months, but Verwood Horticultural Society was well ahead of the pack in 2008 when it spent a year trying to educate itself and its members about the causes, effects and remedies of climate change. ‘One of our committee members at the time was Pat Morrow [who was later Mayor of Verwood] and she applied for the funding – which was about £6500 – after we put forward a case for educating our members about what’s going on about climate change. We had a programme that included visits and lectures as we didn’t know for sure that the bid would be successful and we had to change the whole year’s programme when we were successful.

Charcoal burner at Bonsley Wood during a Climate Change field trip

Charcoal burner at Bonsley Wood during a Climate Change field trip

‘We had speakers from all over – a chap from the Eden Project came to give a talk, we went to Chelsea Flower Show that May because they had a lot of exhibits about climate change; we went to Ventnor to see the tropical gardens and to the Three Counties Show in Malvern.’
It wasn’t all far flung visits, though, as Ron remembers: ‘We had a local chap called Terry Heard who gave us a day over at Bonsley Wood near Blandford and he took us over there to tell us about how to produce charcoal in the traditional British way so we don’t have to import any and all the charcoal is carbon neutral. We went to the Bath and West Show and also had a conducted tour around Hilliers in Hampshire on the same topic. ‘

There is still a close connection with the flower group

There is still a close connection with the flower group

About halfway through the year we had a huge Gardeners’ Question Time event about Climate change at the Verwood Hub and we brought in local individual expert speakers – we had the head gardener from Kingston Lacy, Nigel Chalk and Ray Broughton turned up and a couple of other local characters too.
‘At the end of the year we asked our members: “Are you convinced about climate change?” and of course there’s always the sceptics, but some were sure that we were in a period of climate change and saw the evidence for themselves. It was a good project. We had quite a few sceptics before, and they weren’t all convinced by the end, but there were one or two who admitted that they needed to think about it a bit more. It’s fair to say that gardeners tend not to be at the forefront of political agitation.’
There are those within the society who are very much involved in their gardening, though. ‘In our shows, we have several large growers, who do the rounds nationally,’ says Ron. ‘In the spring shows, for example, we have growers who specialise in daffodils, but these are guys who go all over the country showing them; in the summer you get the rose growers and that kind of thing and then in the autumn a lot of dahlias, but fewer chrysanthemums as they’ve gone out of fashion now.’
The big showy blooms are not as common in gardens as they once were, as Ron recalls: ‘We had some good growers of chrysanths when I was show manager. We had Billy Andrews – the local butcher – but when he died they seem to have died with him.

Dahlias on display at the Autumn show

Dahlias on display at the Autumn show

It is certainly a strength of the society that there are expert growers within the shows in terms of raising the standards, but, as Ron points out, it can appear to be a little daunting for other members who ‘might look at this huge bench from one of the specialist growers and think “I can’t compete against that!”,  but they should as it’s about showing, not just winning.’
Members may be daunted by nationally competing growers, but the influence of popular culture in the form of programmes like Great British Bake Off and Kirstie’s Handmade Britain means that the uptake in the craft classes is strong: ‘What we do get a lot of is cooking (cakes and things) and homecraft where these days you get a lot of men entering.’
It is ironic that the society should have, in this sense, come full circle, with the home crafts being the way into the group. While the society as a whole is still very well supported, if there was one thing that Ron would wish for, it would not be plant-related, but the gift of time for some of his members: ‘In common with a lot of horticultural societies, we’re having trouble getting people onto the committee – I know of a few horticultural societies that have simply ceased to exist because they’re having problems getting people to sit on committees – and the same’s true of the Verwood Historical Society, too.’

One of the society's outreach efforts to children to encourage them to get into growing

One of the society’s outreach efforts to children to encourage them to get into growing

The society still does three shows a year, and a full programme of talks, meetings and day trips, which are initially restricted to members, so there are good reasons to join. All Ron needs to do is to make sure that, along  with his auriculas, he can bring on a few new hardy committee members too.
◗ For more information about the society, pop along to one of the meetings (on the evening of the first Thursday of the month 7.30-9.30 at the Verwood Memorial Hall) or visit www.verwoodhs.co.uk

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