Peter Dowdall talks to Jim Buttress, who holds the RHS’s highest gardening gong, the Victoria Medal of Honour.
Country Shows never really caught on in Ireland, did they?
Not in the same way as in the UK, I mean.
People don’t get obsessive about growing the biggest parsnip or the heaviest pumpkin in the same way as they do accross the water.
Yes, fairs do happen here, but normally among very small groups and quite randomly.
I do have a plaque at home myself which proudly that I achieved “First Prize - Under-12 Vegetable”.
I’m not sure now what the competition was, but I won first prize then thanks to my super-sized courgette.
Think then of the UK, and I imagine marquees filled with the best of impeccable blooms and vegetables and fruit presented as if the grower’s life — or even their reputation in the community as a good gardener — depended on the outcome.
There are dozens of these shows throughout Britain and they are judged to the highest of exacting standards.
They are a nation of gardeners over there, and why wouldn’t they be — they have been at it for generations.
Standards should be high — for this is how you constantly raise the bar. Okay isn’t good enough.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) oversees all this activity, and it is the RHS that provides judging criteria and judges.
One of these top hat-wearing judges, in fact the only one to still don the top hat whilst judging, is a man called Jim Buttress VMH.
Those three letters let you know immediately that you are in the presence of gardening royalty.
The RHS Victoria Medal of Honour is bestowed upon very few people, there are only ever 63 VMHs representing each year of Queen Victoria’s reign and he’s one of them.
However, his family didn’t begin life with a silver spoon, rather they started off in the 10th storey of a Glasgow tenement, not a hotbed of horticultural prodigies.
The family soon moved to Sussex and his father, Pop, took the opportunity to create a garden.
As a child, Pop had developed a deep love for gardens and gardening, learning at the foot of Gussie Bowles, vice president of the RHS from 1926-1964, and a holder himself of a VMH since 1906.
Gussie offered Pop the opportunity to train at Wisley, an opening that the young lad could only have dreamed of before that.
But his own father wouldn’t allow it as he felt there would be no money in gardening and instead, he spent his life working for an insurance company.
The love for gardening can’t be just turned off, however, and when his own son, Jim showed an interest in the garden, he was delighted and encouraged and nurtured his interest at every turn.
Jim went on to take the opportunity that was disallowed to his father and trained at RHS Wisley and worked for the GLC before becoming superintendent of the Central Royal Parks, and then superintendent of Greenwich Royal Park.
He has frequently exhibited at the Chelsea Flower show, winning the gold medal numerous times.
He is now head judge at the RHS, and also judged Britain in Bloom for 25 years.
He has appeared in the television series Save Lullingstone Castle and Return to Lullingstone Castle, and more recently in the Big Allotment Challenge.
Along with his VMH, he has been awarded two medals of honour from the RHS and the Associate Medal of Honour.
Having recently read his memoir, The People’s Gardener, I can’t help but feel like I know Jim, even though I have never met him.
He writes as if he is talking to the reader and his memoir draws you in at once to his life and his experiences.
To quote his long term friend and fellow VMH recipient, Alan Titchmarsh: “He is what PG Wodehouse would have called ‘a good egg’, though even ‘Plum’ would have had to use all his powers of invention to create Jim Buttress — a sort of hybrid between the pig keeper, George Cyril Wellbeloved, and Lord Emsworth’s head gardener, Angus McAllister.”
For all his affability, he is a horticultural heavyweight and he is here for serious business.
Jim is judging the inside arena floral displays at Bloom in the Phoenix Park, and every exhibitor will be striving to impress.
All will want Jim’s affirmation and the sought-after Gold Medal. What he’ll be looking for is the quality of the flowers and he’ll check to see they are healthy and pest and disease free.
He will also be looking to see what sort of effort went into the display.
The displays are effectively shop windows for the gardeners in the competition so he’s very keen that enough effort goes in to make them look special.
I asked Jim if there was any any advice that he could give to an aspiring gardener or garden designer and he replied: “Advice is the main thing. Get as much as you can before you start your garden.
"But the most important thing is that you design your garden according to the time you’ll have to work on it.
“Too many people plant a garden but only when they are finished realise that maintaining it will be a full time job!!”
Jim has never done anything else but gardening and really loves the time spent outdoors.
He also loves that for his whole life, he’s been making a living out of his hobby, and this is something that I am lucky enough to be able to wholeheartedly relate to.
In fact, the more I learned about Jim the more similarities I saw between himself and myself.
I can’t imagine doing anything else, I couldn’t picture a life outside of the garden, and do think that if I lived in one of those towns or villages in the UK, I would be rocking up to the local country show with my supersized gourds in a wheelbarrow.
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