I’m writing this on what is my last day, at least for the foreseeable future, as a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. I’m staying in the International Dendrology Society, The Alpine Garden Society and the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group (a group affiliated with the RHS but not governed or managed by them). But I’m no longer with the UK’s leading gardening charity.
Looking back I regret not doing this a couple of years ago. For a long time now the RHS hasn’t been of any interest to me. I don’t go to their shows (which are all a long way away), I don’t use their various services, and the magazine gets handed, unopened, to a friend who flicks through it and then throws it away. For the best part of a decade the only membership benefit I’ve actually used is to visit RHS Rosemoor, my nearest RHS garden, free of charge. If I was able to visit Rosemoor frequently then I might get value for money from the membership; I would have to visit Rosemoor five times in a year to get my money’s worth, or visit with someone else. My friends and I have other commitments so I go maybe three or four times a year… but here’s the thing, I go for specific events organised by organisations I remain a member of.
Apart from saving myself the entry fee to what is in fact a fine and beautiful garden, I get nothing from RHS membership. The RHS as an organisation is certainly the UK’s largest organisation of its type, but it’s focussing increasingly on attracting amateur gardeners and managing its gardens as entertainment destinations. There’s nothing wrong with attracting, or being, amateur gardeners- we must all start somewhere- but surely as an organisation that claims so prominently to be an educational charity there should be the aim to nurture talent and encourage gardeners to build knowledge and expertise. Yet it is plain that this is definitely not the aim of the RHS, an organisation that appears more committed to suppressing horticultural talent and creating dependency among the gardeners of Britain. There’s a lot of money to be made from controlling what people know, and the RHS clearly knows this.
They’re not entirely against developing knowledge; you can always sign up for an RHS qualification or two (or four!)… for a price. The RHS is the main, or at least most popular, source of horticultural qualifications in the UK and its efforts are in many ways excellent in this respect. I’ve had many run-ins with people who waft their RHS qualifications around (come on, dismantling these people is like shooting fish in a barrel) and my gripes are widely known, but while I personally think the RHS’s educational offering is fundamentally organised for the commercial benefits of the RHS itself they are at least trying to promote horticultural education in this respect. There are strong indications of a rival horticultural education package soon to be offered, aiming to attract elite candidates for elite gardens, and maybe this will develop and, in time, inject new talent into commercial and professional horticulture.
But what about those that don’t want to learn formally, possibly to become a horticultural professional? There are very few options for the development of horticultural interest within the realm of the main organisation itself. The magazine isn’t exactly challenging, the courses run at RHS gardens (a surprisingly small number of which are usually ‘horticultural’) are nearly always aimed at ‘beginners’.
If you try to float the idea that maybe, just maybe, there could be a little more ‘personal development’ in how the RHS communicates horticulture to its members you get nothing but fluff in response. Apparently the RHS’s commitment to its members means that they must be protected from anything complicated or challenging in case it causes feelings of inferiority. Or something to that effect. Personally I’m inclined to think that this represents a patronising attitude to members, suggesting that RHS members, and presumably gardeners in general, are intellectually inferior and can’t take new information unless it’s chopped up into easy bite-sized pieces by those ‘in the know’.
My personal opinion is that anyone can learn about gardening and gardens, regardless of their socio-economic background, race, gender or any other factor. What’s needed is enthusiastic and accurate communication, combining expertise and approachability to convey new ideas and challenging information in an engaging way. There are some very talented people in the RHS, is it too much to ask that they share their knowledge more widely?
But, alas, that is too much. The RHS has forged its path and is increasingly only interested in its status as an organisation for amateur gardeners. For those who have built up expertise there is little on offer, and less and less each year. If you ask for more from them you’re guided towards membership of an affiliated society, proffered a subscription to The Plant Review or directed towards a formal qualification. The only conclusion that you can draw from this response is that the RHS believes that if you wish to develop your expertise then you must have deep pockets to do so.
It’s all a bit disappointing. If the RHS was less interested in feathering its own nest and extracting money from gardeners, and anyone else for that matter, and more interested in developing and promoting horticultural knowledge, imagine what could be achieved. The organisation has struggled with its identity for decades, reeling against the idea that it’s elitist (not helped by the leaking of a document many years ago that outlined the typical RHS demographic: white, female, aged 55+, household income in excess of £100,000 per year, three overseas holidays per year… remembering off the top of my head). Yes there is a need to be more inclusive but does treating everyone with equal contempt count as ‘inclusivity’? To me ‘inclusivity’ means having enough respect for your members that you nurture and encourage development of horticultural skills in everyone.
The RHS has an almost Mafioso grip on horticulture in the UK, professing what is ‘good and right’ from ivory towers paid for by a well-meaning membership. The fundamental truth is that the organisation recognises the enormous financial benefits of a monopoly on horticulture and will ostracise anyone who questions the morality of its actions.
It’s much better just to leave.