Face to Face: Sue Biggs

Sue Biggs, director-general at the Royal Horticultural Society, talks to George Clode about the blossoming appeal of gardens.

Q: What is the appeal of visiting gardens?

A: One of the top three things that international visitors want to see in the UK are beautiful gardens. We are world-famous for our green spaces.

That might be a park in London or a garden such as Wisley, Surrey, or a Cotswolds village with beautiful hanging baskets and pretty gardens.

It works domestically too. There are 27 million gardeners in England, all looking to be inspired. Research about the importance of wellness means more people want to experience our beautiful spaces.

Q: How do gardens compete with high-tech attractions?

A: People are looking to escape busy, high-tech places. Terrorism is a difficult thing to cope with, and poor London saw the effects last year. In times of trouble, people turn back to nature – being in a calm, beautiful place is a wonderful antidote.

It’s also a wonderful antidote to miserable British weather. Even when it’s grey, windy and raining, gardens look beautiful. In spring, horticulturalists come for inspiration and buying seeds; summers are always strong; you get spectacular colours in autumn; and winter provides lovely winter stems, the outlines of trees, and winter blossom.

Q: Can gardens provide for growing numbers of ‘experiential travel’ seekers?

A: People don’t want to just look anymore, they want to learn, and RHS is offering more hands-on experiences. Activities such as the Field to Fork programme, where visitors learn to grown food and cook it, are increasingly popular.

Our shows have changed in recent years to offer more experiences. Lessons on how to pot a ‘bulb lasagne’ – where you have a succession of bulbs coming through for several months – or how to create floral decorations are increasingly popular.

Q: How are you marketing overseas?

A: We’re starting quietly. I was in China recently and also promoted our gardens at World Travel Market London – there’s huge potential. Our gardens range from 55 to 300 acres, so you don’t feel you’re being hurried along to make way for the next group. You can really wow group visitors. Our fifth garden opening in 2020 in Salford – RHS Garden Bridgewater – will have amazing opportunities for domestic and inbound groups. We’re really waking up to the groups market, and groups are waking up to us as attractions.

Q: Why do you think that’s happening now?

A: More people are holidaying at home, and are far more agreeable to the idea of coach travel if it involves meeting Raymond Blanc at Hampton Court Flower Show or Monty Don at Tatton Park.

The groups market presents a huge opportunity. Caring for the environment, nature and wildlife is very much of the moment, and it’s time for people to rediscover that going on a group tour to visit a garden or a plant show is not boring, nor just for the elderly, nor just for horticultural experts.

Q: What are the plans for 2018?

A: At Wisley, we’re building an amazing welcome and arrivals area with a huge plant centre and events space, which open in spring 2019.

We’re investing £30 million in a new national centre for horticultural science and learning, which will have a herbarium and events space with a rooftop champagne bar overlooking the garden.

Hyde Hall, Essex, will open an events building, restaurant and learning centre this summer. Rosemoor in Devon has just opened an events building, which is excellent for groups on their way to or from Cornwall.

Harlow Carr, North Yorkshire, has been growing over the past two years and is the best place to see blue Himalayan poppies – this is the one for unusual colours and design, perfect in the age of Instagram. We are also looking to do more private events for groups looking for exclusive access to gardens and shows.

Ultimately, our remit is to get more people to explore gardens, which really is a lovely objective to have.

Pictured: Sue Biggs in the library at RHS Garden Wisley.