The gardening-show glory days of past eras may be gone but the ones that have survived make fantastic days out, says Elly West

There’s something extremely British about a country show. Where else can you find ferret racing, sheaf tossing and tractor pulling alongside giant marrows, floriferous sweet peas and home-made marmalades? Some of my earliest memories involve making miniature gardens for entry in the local village show, complete with scourer-pad hedges, foil duck ponds and sprigs of sedum spectabile for bushes, in the hope of winning a coveted rosette and perhaps even 20 pence in prize money.

The first country show, according to Wikipedia, was held in 1768 by the Salford Agricultural Society. These early shows offered a way for rural people to gather and share their skills and interests, such as horticulture, crafts, cooking and livestock. Nurserymen and market gardeners could present and sell their wares, and the competitive element was born, encouraging elaborate displays and efforts to grow the biggest and best. The popularity of shows of every kind grew during Victorian times, alongside the craze for plant hunting, exotics and collectables. Nurserymen would travel to nearby towns with their plants and vegetables for selling, as a way to attract new customers and to show new and unusual plants they had managed to propagate.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show, launched in 1862, is now the highlight of the horticultural calendar, where plants and gardens can be seen at their absolute finest. It started life as the RHS Great Spring Show and was originally held in Kensington in just one tent. It then moved to Temple Gardens on the banks of the Thames, before relocating to its current site in 1913. Today’s Chelsea attracts top names in gardening, more than 500 exhibitors from around the world and over 150,000 visitors each year.

In recent decades, with the increase in large garden centres catering to the mass market and DIY chains selling garden products, many of the smaller independent nurseries have found the sales made at shows don’t justify the costs of exhibiting. As exhibitor numbers dropped, so have the number of shows, and gone are the glory days of Victorian times through to the post-war era. Bristol Flower Show is just one such victim, last held on Durdham Downs in 2006, after running for 62 years.

However, the ones that have survived continue to make fantastic days out and often offer a wider experience for all the family, with bouncy castles and live music alongside the traditional exhibition tents.

This month it’s the turn of the Portishead Summer Show (previously known as the Portishead Flower Show and Country Fair). This annual event is the oldest community event in Portishead, and was first held in 1863. It’s hailed by organisers as “an opportunity to come together to showcase local gardening and handicraft talent” and takes place on 27 and 28 July. The competition element remains a huge part of this show, with more than 300 classes to enter, including cookery, handicrafts, photography and, of course, horticulture. There are novice sections, senior citizen sections and 60 classes for children from pre-school to under 16s. All are welcome to give it a go.

It’s worth having a proper read through the schedule though, as in the classic tradition of this type of competition, there are rules to follow. Hints and tips are available on how to show vegetables and fruits, which are judged on a point system according to the following categories: condition, uniformity, shape, size and colour. Even Linda Hodgetts, one of the organisers, admits; “I got disqualified one year for presenting my rhubarb incorrectly – very embarrassing!”

If flowers are your thing, there are instructions to follow here as well. For example, the programme states: “An exhibit of dahlias should be arranged so all the blooms face in the same direction, are clear of each other and staged so that a pleasant and balanced exhibit is achieved.”
Other shows taking place this month include the Frenchay Flower Show and the Henbury Flower Show, both 13 July.

So, how do you go about growing competition-worthy flowers and vegetables? Choosing the right variety is vital, and a good starting point is Medwyn’s of Anglesey, a mail-order company that specialises in exhibition, prize-winning vegetable seeds. At this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Medwyn Williams picked up his 12th Chelsea Gold Medal for his breath-taking display of vegetables, showcasing harvest at its absolute finest.

Medwyn has been exhibiting at shows for 50 years, and his website (medwynsofanglesey.co.uk) includes numerous articles on how to get the best from various types of vegetables. Growing super-long carrots, for example, can involve sieving your compost, creating a bore hole and planting them at an angle in raised beds such as a water drum, or even in pipes. Head online to find out more.

Upcoming local shows

Portishead Summer Show: 27 July, 11.30am – 6pm; and 28 July, 10.30am – 5.30pm; at the Show Field, on the corner of Clapton Lane and Clevedon Road. Free parking is available at Gordano School. Advance tickets cost £5 for adults (£6 on the gate), accompanied children under 17 are free. Full details, including those all-important rules on how to enter your exhibits, can be found on the website: portisheadsummershow.com. Other attractions include live music, bouncy castle, bungee trampoline, gundog display, ferrets, falconry and a mini farm.

Henbury Flower Show: 13 July, 1pm – 4.30pm, Henbury Village Hall, Church Lane, Bristol BS10 7QG. 60 show classes to enter, plus stalls and a raffle. Visit henburyflowershow.co.uk for details.

Frenchay Flower Show: 13 July, 12.30pm – 5pm, Frenchay Common, Backspool Road, Bristol BS16 1NA. Now in its 76th year, this event features a brass band, morris dancers, stalls, sideshows and a marquee filled with fruit, flower and vegetable exhibits. Find out more at frenchayflowershow.com

Plant of the month: Sweet peas

Often seen in horticultural competitions, sweet peas are in full force right now, scrambling through gardens and offering a bounty of summer colour and scent. Favourites in cottage gardens, they are attractive to bees and butterflies, and extremely easy to grow. Seeds can be sown in autumn for early flowers the following year, or in spring for flowers in the summer. Or you can buy young plants in late spring if you don’t get around to planting seeds.

Plant them in pots or in the border, providing support such as an obelisk or trellis, then keep them well watered and look forward to a summer of scented flowers. Sweet peas are self-clinging, producing small tendrils to help them climb and reaching heights of 2m or more. Flowers can keep going into September if you dead head them, and feeding with a high-potash fertiliser such as tomato feed will also reap rewards.

The aptly named sweet pea ‘Bristol’, bred by Somerset grower Phil Kerton in the 1990s, is a beautiful blue-cream frilly variety that is a favourite with amateur gardeners and exhibition growers alike. It’s highly scented and has large flowers up to 4cm across.

• ellyswellies.co.uk