Best in show: Horticultural exhibitions

The Victoria Dahlia Society's annual show inspires consideration of the history and future of horticultural exhibitions

The Victoria Dahlia Society’s annual show. Their society’s next tuber sale takes place April 8

Last year at this time I was travelling in Scotland and though I missed my late summer garden and the Saanich Fair, my travels led me to think about horticultural education and community pride.

In the UK, generally speaking, flower shows and festivals are not solely about flowers, but about vegetables and crafts, best baking and jams. They are agricultural exhibitions like our fall fairs, infused with the spirit of competition. And almost every wee town has one. As community events, they present the opportunity for individuals to showcase their horticultural and homemaking skills which sounds almost anachronistic until you stop to think how vital these skills are and how much richer we are for possessing them.

Such were my thoughts upon meeting a leek – a leek nearly as tall as I was. The leek was tied to black board (highlighting its fresh greens and whites) and the leek and the board stood in a humble hall in rural Fife, which made the leek all that more incredible, as if a five-foot-long leek was as a simple a thing, a row away from the eccles cakes and buns.

This past weekend I attended the Victoria Dahlia Society’s annual show and the wonder of horticulture hit me anew. The Society began as a Gladiolus Club in 1946, but they dropped the Glads in 2001 and have operated as thriving dahlia club since. Approximately 30 judges and clerks volunteer to assess the flowers every year. The number of categories stagger (dahlia forms include pompons, mignons, balls, waterlilies, peonies, anemones, orchettes, collarettes, giants, orchids, and stellars to name a few) as does the commitment of the growers.

A formality exists in flower competitions, a kind of obsessive edge that both repels and impresses me. One needs guidelines to judge certainly, but as I wander the aisles jotting down names on my wish list, marvelling at the perfect blooms I think: Dare I, a humble hobbyist?

The rules and complexity of categories intimidate me: The Victoria Dahlia Society uses the guidelines set by the American Dahlia Association.

The BC Association of Agricultural Fairs and Exhibitions sets the judging standards for the Saanich Fair (the first was in 1868). For flowers, the BCAFE uses the BC Council of Garden Clubs’ ‘Exhibition Standards of Perfection,’ a tome of 81 pages.

Flower shows began in the late 1820s as a result of the influx of new plants to horticulture and the rise of the middle class.

From the 1950s onwards participation rates have declined, with fewer gardeners joining clubs.

In many ways, such flower shows don’t innovate which makes them both horribly dated yet also wonderfully familiar. I asked one young grower how she felt about them and she said ‘stodgy;’ she’d watched a few on YouTube.

The Victoria Dahlia Society tuber sale takes place in Fairfield on April 8, 2017. If you would like to receive an email reminder of the sale date prior to the event, contact vdspublicity@gmail.com.

Christin Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener and a creative non-fiction writing instructor at the University of Victoria. She writes here twice a month on all things gardening.