Its displays not medals that sell bulbs for Avon…
A display to stop people in their tracks – that is what
Chris Ireland-Jones aims for at Chelsea, and he certainly
seems to have achieved it as his clutch of gold medals prove
A HUGE amount of work goes into presenting Avon Bulbs to the public for Chelsea Flower Show. While owner Chris Ireland-Jones is very pleased to impress the judges – and he has done this to the extent of winning 11 gold medals in l2 years – he is concerned that his stand should be as eye-catching for visitors on the Friday as it was for the judges on the previous Monday.
"It is quite stressful setting up the stand and we are kept out of the way while the judging takes place, but winning a medal does not affect sales at the show during the rest of the week. It is the display on our stand that slows the people down and there is such a crush round it that they dont notice a medal," says Chris, who takes a dedicated team of staff to London with him.
And what a display it is – one that would never occur naturally. More than 100 varieties of plants in perfect bloom together despite the fact they would normally flower between January and July.
"Our strength is that we have so much to display," he says. "By May most bulbs have been and gone so we have to chill up to 120 things for our exhibit. We dont concentrate on any one thing and much of what we sell you wont find in garden centres anyway. Some of our bulbs are in very limited numbers and once they are sold that is it for another year."
* Moved early
The business has been based at Burnt House Farm, Petherton, Somerset, since 1990, having moved from its previous premises rather earlier than Chris had planned. Originally from Zimbabwe, he came to Britain in 1980 and after studying agriculture at Wye College, where he met his wife Caroline, he worked as a farm manager then a printer before settling on horticulture when he bought Avon Bulbs. "When I heard this business was for sale I thought it was close enough to agriculture for me to be able to make an impact," he says. However, gale force winds made their mark on it too, lifting all his rented glasshouses into the air complete with plants. "It took us six weeks to clear up the glass," he recalls. "Fortunately we already had a glasshouse up at the farm and were going move here six months later anyway. We got ourselves organised and as we own the farm we wont have to move again."
The farm is not run as a garden centre nor is it open to the public. Orders from the Avon Bulbs catalogue, which details up to 600 plants from Alliums to Zephyranthese, are sent by post either in late summer or autumn. It is the place to contact for a wonderful selection of anemone, including nemorosa, the white wild wood anemone; a vigorous blue form – as yet unnamed but very desirable, and others in shades of pink and yellow. One variety – nemorosa Virescens – has no evident flowers at all, and wears a frothy green topknot instead. Hellebores too are something of a speciality and these are pollinated by hand to keep the seed true.
* Wide range
With such a wide range, trying to show the best of it for Chelsea can be quite a headache. "With a hundred different plants for the show you need to think about every one – whether it needs to be forced a little or a lot or put in the cold store." says Chris but he admits it is well worth the effort.
"It is through shows like Chelsea that you build up a reputation. People see you there and are confident to deal with you by mail order."