On a line of trestle tables, exhibition vases display the luminous blooms of club members’ finest dahlias. These are grouped according to their class in the competition – cactus or semi-cactus, pompom or ball, water lily, decorative and collerette. There are single blooms and groups of three, displayed to court the approval of an exacting judge. The show explodes into colour on the final table in the line-up, allocated to class 7, in which a vase of dahlias is required, ‘any number, variety, colour or size’.
The occasion is the annual Dahlia Competition, held in 2016 on 12 September. It is a highlight of the Painter’s Forstal Gardeners’ Club programme, although a relative innovation now only in its third year. The setting is the spacious hall of Lorenden School, where the Club holds most of its meetings. The judge is Quentin Stark, Head Gardener at Hole Park, a dahlia enthusiast of vast practical knowledge. He declares it ‘an awesome display’ in the face of challenging weather, and after announcing the winners, gives a wonderfully embracing talk, on growing dahlias from seed, hybridisation, preparing blooms for show and how to discourage earwigs, among many other topics.
Painter’s Forstal Gardeners’ Club has been going strong, with a few ups and downs, for 38 years. It currently has 86 paid-up members, of whom 30 or so are very keen and form a solid core. The original committee stayed in place until their advancing years suggested the need for new recruits. Five or six years ago, John Clarke, the founding Chairman, invited Frances Moskovits to succeed him. Frances says: ‘I didn’t know how to run a club, but I wanted it to survive.’ She is a natural for the job – warm, professional and persuasive – and has generous support and encouragement from her committee and members, an efficient Club Secretary, Marion Moore, and her husband Paul. ‘I’m only peripheral’, he says, ‘just in the background’, which is what modest but indispensable people invariably say.
The spring and summer shows, held respectively in April and July, are the most important events in a lively annual programme. Frances says everyone should have a go. ‘Most people have a daff or a tulip they can pick.’ When she first started to show, she says most of her exhibits were not ‘up to schedule’. Now, she sweeps the board and wins lots of prizes. She recounts how at one of her first shows she lent a broad bean pod to a fellow competitor, who promptly beat her with her own bean.
‘It’s down to luck’, she says. ‘One year one member has something superb, and then next year nothing.’ She admits it’s hard work to do the show and exhibit, but says shows are important and should look good. Paul comments: ‘We have actually got a few members who like competing.’ Prizes are awarded at the Christmas Party, an enjoyable event, which includes a splendid buffet supper and some testing gardeners’ quizzes. Other events during the year include talks by leading gardeners, among them in 2016 Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener and Chief Executive at Great Dixter, the country’s most dynamic and influential garden, Andy Sturgeon, winner of many Chelsea Flower Show medals including Best Show Garden last year, and Philip Johnson of sweet pea fame. There is also an outing or two, including last year to Parham House in Sussex.
Gardening clubs in Britain are rather an endangered species. A common worry is that members grow old and younger ones fail to join. As Frances notes: ‘Young people have different distractions these days.’ ‘The difference nowadays’, adds Paul, ‘is that the people who started the club were younger than anyone involved now.’ Gardening clubs are among the many small but essential local institutions that are a feature of happy communities. They have a particular value in an urbanising world full of stress. Research has demonstrated beyond challenge the therapeutic power of gardening and its encouragement of social interaction.
The annual membership fee for Painter’s Forstal Gardeners’ Club is an affordable £5.00. The benefits, in addition to outings, events and discounts on purchases at Suttons Seeds, include friendship, mentoring and advice. New members do not need extensive prior knowledge of gardening – Frances says it was her neighbour Lionel who first got her into gardening. At first, she was forever popping in with a seedling to check whether it was a weed.
Painter’s Forstal Gardeners’ Club was once open only to those who lived in the parish and Ospringe south of the A2. Membership is now open to all. The AGM will be held at Lorenden School on 13 February at 7.45pm. New members can count on a warm and friendly welcome. Contact Chairman Frances Moskovits on firstname.lastname@example.org or Secretary Marion Moore on email@example.com for further details.
Text: Sarah. Photography: Lisa and PFGC