When we meet, Helen Boem is just back from a trip to Newcastle, preceded by a jaunt to Devon. She often finds herself up a mountain in Wales, in a valley in Yorkshire, or traversing across Cornwall, and this is all in a day’s work for the RHS Floral Marquee Manager, whose job it is to discover and promote independent nurseries from across the length and breadth of the land. “In my tour of the UK, I’ve visited 160 nurseries of all different plant types, groups and specialisms,” she explains. “It satisfies my need to learn about plants. When the growers are passionate about what they do, that makes me passionate about it too.”
Growing up in Slough, Helen wasn’t always quite so excited by horticulture. She studied and worked in travel and tourism, but when she moved into her first home, in Essex, the growing bug bit. “The garden was like a wilderness, so I started to clear it, and then growing from seed, taking cuttings. It took over.” At the age of 25, she decided to leave her job and study horticulture at Writtle College, doing placements at a garden centre and potting up plants in a nursery, before working for an interior landscaping company, and then as a designer at a landscaping firm for ten years.
It wasn’t until 2013, when she volunteered at RHS Chelsea Flower Show as a ‘Plant Hunter’, helping members of the public find plants in the Great Pavilion, that her true calling became clear. She applied for several vacancies in the RHS before they approached her about a brand new role, managing the floral marquees at all the shows throughout the season.
“At the shows, it’s non-stop,” she says. “As soon as I step foot on site, the noise, dust, familiar smells and intensity hit me like nothing else. There are always problems that need sorting out, and it’s my job to make sure they get dealt with as quickly as possible, and make the whole process smooth and easy for the growers.” Memorable issues she has had to deal with so far include night-time raids by curious foxes, flooding that almost washed away paving, and an exhibitor who broke her wrist during build-up (the other growers kindly stepped in to finish her stand while she was in hospital).
Initially, the job was on a freelance basis, but her role was soon expanded to help combat one of the looming issues in the industry. “We are losing exhibitors, because nursery people are retiring, but no one is taking over their businesses,” she explains. It’s tough to make growing plants pay, and fewer young people seem interested in trying to make a living in horticulture, but Helen has noticed a growing trend for what she calls ‘micro nurseries’. “They are people who are real plant specialists, but working two jobs or full time at another job, and growing almost as a hobby, who would like to pursue it as a career but they can’t quite make the leap, because it won’t sustain them on its own.”
Her efforts to recruit new nurseries include an insightful annual seminar during the build up of RHS Malvern Spring Festival. “People might think that exhibiting is too much for them, but when they get the opportunity to see a show as it is built up, it’s not as scary; and having me as a contact, someone who is there to help them, has made quite a big difference.” Some of her latest finds include Botanico nursery for tender plants; Andy’s Air Plants; and Glyn Bach Gardens’ National Collection of Monarda, exhibiting for the first time at RHS Flower Show Tatton Park this year.
At the seminar, these newbies enjoy talks on creating award-winning displays, with advice on doing a mock-up at home and how to create levels, tilt plants and pack out the planting. “What makes a good display is the attention to detail,” says Helen. “It’s the scale and balance of the design, but it really comes down to the standard of your plant material.” Old hands will go to extreme lengths to get a gold medal, refrigerating bulbs in bud for weeks, tying each individual bloom up in tissue paper or keeping them out in the sun until just before judging in an effort to get them flowering at exactly the right time. “Last year at Hampton Court, one nursery had a huge net covering their whole display until judging, to stop the bees from draining all the lavender flowers!”
These experienced, knowledgeable growers are essential to the marquees, and the reason Helen came up with another initiative, the Master Grower project. “There was a lot of emphasis on new nurseries, but nothing for the ones that had been coming to shows for years, so we decided to introduce a showcase, co-curated with them, to promote their work.”
It’s one of the favourite parts of her job, but she admits the best bit is the personal preview she gets before the shows open. “The evening before, when everything is ready but there are few people around, is my opportunity to spend time in the marquee looking at the exhibits and taking in the wonder of it all. It’s such a privilege to see everything with no one there, and I always feel a sense of pride for what has been achieved by all the exhibitors.”