"A day at the fair"

The annual Collectors' Plant Fair at Bilpin is a wonderful opportunity to find new plants and meet up with gardening friends.
Sunday, 18 April 2010     

Collectors Plant Fair at Bilpin 2010

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.

 Reader Comments

1/6  Carolyn - 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Sunday, 18 April 2010

Hi Deirdre, It sounds as though you had a wonderful time at the fair. Unfortunately I havent been able to get there for the last few years but after reading your terrific article, Ill be making every effort to make sure I dont miss next year!

Hope you can get there next year. Deirdre

2/6  Chris - 2804 (Zone:11B - Arid) Monday, 19 April 2010

Great post, Im in central west NSW and travelled the 2 1/2 hrs with a friend and our 3 YO boys. It was a little more chaotic, but I was able to get some beautiful and rare plants. I went with a wish list and managed to get some of them, but ended up with other surprises too. I would highly recommend it.

Glad you enjoyed it, Chris. I know how tricky it can be with children in tow at these sort of events! There are always surprises at the fair, which adds to the excitement! Deirdre

3/6  Tim - 2041 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2010

Hi Deirdre It was lovely to see you up at the Fair. Wouldnt miss it for anything, and the weather was perfect. The Growing Friends did very well in our great position and people loved our Sydney-centric plants. The Salvias are inspiring lots of gardeners.

Thanks, Tim, glad your stall did well! Deirdre

4/6  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2010

Yes it was a great day, wasnt it. I will really have to make an early start next year. this is the second year Ive missed getting salvia Meigans Magic. Sue T.

Sorry you missed out on that one - I did notice there were only a few there this year but I am sure those of us lucky enough to get it will soon be busy making cuttings to hand on to our gardening friends! Deirdre

5/6  Suzanne - 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2010

Dear Deidre, I couldnt make it to Bilpin this year and really enjoyed reading your blog. In SA last October,during the Cottage Garden Trip, I bought a small pot of Meigans Magic - it wasnt flowering so I chose it from the label. The plant was slow to take off but now is flowering beautifully.

Sorry you were not able to get there this time. Thanks for the feedback on Meigans Magic. I am looking forward to seeing it grow. Deirdre

6/6  Beverley - 2113 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 20 April 2010

I had the loveliest day I have had for ages. Weather perfect, met so many friends, bought lots of plants, sat in the shade with coffee and eats, what could be better?

Thanks, Beverley. Yes, it was a lovely day and great to spend some time with you there! Deirdre

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