This weekend was one of the highlights of the gardening year in Sydney, with the holding of the sixth annual Collectors' Plant Fair at Bilpin. The concept - masterminded by Peta Trahar and her team - is to bring together 40 plant sellers with interesting, unusual and desirable plants and create a marketplace once a year for gardeners in Sydney and beyond. With the closure of many of the small nurseries specialising in 'different' plants, we gardeners are increasingly finding it hard to buy anything other than the usual stalwarts stocked by the big franchised garden centres.
The day began early for my companion and me and we arrived at the site before 9 am on Saturday and were able to get parking close to the site of the fair, directed to our spot by the efficient members of the local bushfire brigade. As we sipped a restorative cup of tea, we noticed that people had already started to enter the precinct and buy plants. We gulped down our cuppas and hurried towards the stalls in order to begin in earnest our trawl through the wares that were on display. It is truly a wonderful sight at the start of the day to see the little tents set up, brimming with all sorts of treasures and it is hard to describe the feeling of anticipation as you browse the tables, not knowing just what you might find.
There is always a wide range of stalls, varying from Pelargonium, bulb, orchid, native plant and bromeliad specialists, to those stocking mainly cool-climate perennials or semi-tropical plants. This year, one genus that stood out was Salvia: they were everywhere, with a staggering array of species and cultivars available, underlining just how popular these plants have become in recent times. Many were in flower, as at this time of year there is just such a bewildering array in bloom. I was thrilled to purchase Salvia 'Meigan's Magic', a cultivar with bright white flowers held in blue-black calyces (ht 1.4m). This fairly new introduction has become a firm favourite among Salvia fanciers. 'Blue Abyss' (ht 1.2m), is also a recent release, and said to have bright blue flowers over a long period. So I simply had to get that one of them as well!
The Secret Garden and Nursery, based at Richmond, had a stall with lots of interesting plants for sale. This most worthwhile enterprise is a not-for-profit nursery in College Drive, in the grounds of the University of Western Sydney. Proceeds from its plant sales fund the Food for Thought program for people with mental illness and disabilities, which enables them to learn horticultural skills in a safe, supportive and educational environment. They stock a wide range of interesting plants - including many edible varieties - that are suitable for Sydney, at most reasonable prices. It a place where you can get some of those old-fashioned favourites such as lion's ear (Leonotis) and scented-leaf Pelargonium, which are just not available in slick modern nurseries. The nursery is set within a lovely old garden with a delightful rural atmosphere, complete with friendly pigs, chickens, ducks and sheep. It is open Tuesdays to Saturdays. For more information, contact 0414 784 460.
The Growing Friends from the Royal Botanic Gardens also had a well-stocked stall, selling plants suited to our climate, including many from my favourite family, the Acanthaceae (which includes Justicia, Ruellia and Strobilanthes). Their plants are always good value for money and it is possible to visit their permanent nursery at the Royal Botanic Gardens on weekdays from 11.30 am to 2 pm.
A plant-holding area at the fair allows you to leave all your bags of plants for safe-keeping whilst you continue to browse - it is necessary to go around all the stalls at least three times, in my opinion, to make sure you are not missing out on some gem.
As well as plants, it is possible to buy gardening books, tools and ornaments - even chicken coops! Inspirational speakers give talks on topics including garden design and plant selection. And although the focus of the fair is on acquiring new plants, there is the opportunity to chat to some of the hard-working nursery owners who often have travelled long distances to bring their plants along. There is always also a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst the crowds of visitors, and it is a very social occasion. The fair is also a place to meet up with old gardening friends and make new ones. At lunch time, groups can sit under the trees in the beautiful garden created by Peta Trahar and relax, taking in the spectacular views and enjoying the country air. All in all, the fair is a unique experience for gardeners, and I hope it continues for many years to come.
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