What to expect at the Rare Plant Fair at Bishop’s Palace in Wells

PUBLISHED: 13:58 11 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:29 11 March 2019

The Bishop's Palace plant fairs take place in March and September

The Bishop's Palace plant fairs take place in March and September


This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Rare Plant Fair - and a welcome return to its beautiful Somerset venue

The gardens of the Bishop’s Palace in Wells must be one of the most beautiful backdrops for a plant fair.

Set in the heart of the city, reached across a flagstone drawbridge, under an ancient portcullis, the gardens wrap around the Palace; this home to bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years is now also a venue for the Rare Plants Fair.

On March 17 exhibitors from nurseries across the country will be in the gardens with stalls stocked with a wealth of unusual and hard to come by plants.

The fairs, which take place across the country, were started by plantswoman Derry Watkins back in 1994. Although only 25 years ago, this was before the internet, when sourcing plants was a more difficult task. Nurseries were scattered around the country and there were not so many horticultural shows and fewer RHS shows; even selling plants by mail order was in its infancy, explains Ian Moss, who co-organises the Rare Plant Fairs with his wife Teresa.

Ian and Teresa live in North Petherton and are former nursery owners themselves. They retired about three years ago but still grow plants for their own garden and attend the fairs.

“It was a good way for smaller nurseries to connect with the wider public,” he says, reflecting on the origins of the event.

Plant sales within the Bishop's Palace gardens hold huge appealPlant sales within the Bishop's Palace gardens hold huge appeal

Derry ran the fairs for a number of years then others took over, but by the mid 2000s it was struggling a bit, recalls Ian. At that point the nurseries themselves decided to get together and make it work, all pitching in with funding and running it like a co-operative.

There are about 60 nurseries who now take part, with between 15 to 30 at each fair. They come from a large geographical spread, from Cornwall to Derbyshire, Wales and Kent.

“All of our exhibitors are proper growers and are vetted before they are allowed to come,” says Ian. They are not trading wholesale, but are growing the plants themselves, whether that’s climbers, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, alpines or exotics. They are experts in their area, knowing their plants inside out; it means that people will be buying strong, healthy plants, and importantly, can get expert advice on the spot.

It’s called the Rare Plants Fair, but that doesn’t mean the plants are difficult to grow; they will however be interesting or unusual and not what you’d find in a garden centre.

The venues are equally important. Plant sales within beautiful gardens hold huge appeal and it works two ways as the presence of the fair helps boost entrance tickets to the gardens, which are often run by trusts or charities, or are fundraising for charity themselves.

The Bishop’s Palace make for a perfect setting for the fairs and two are held each year – in March and September.

Ancient walls at the Bishop's Palace gardens in WellsAncient walls at the Bishop's Palace gardens in Wells

It was touch and go for last year’s March event, says Ian, with the fair taking place on the one clear date between two snowy weekends.

But whatever the weather, it’s a great atmosphere he says, especially in March when both growers and garden enthusiasts are relishing the new season’s growth after months of winter.

Need to know:

The Rare Plant Fair runs from 10am to 4pm on Sunday, March 17. Adult entry, which includes entry to the fair, garden and Palace is at a special reduced price of £6. Lunches and refreshments are available at The Bishop’s Table café/restaurant.

For more details and to find dates and venues for all the 2019 Rare Plant Fairs go to Rareplantfair.co.uk.

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