Buying some controversy

Isn’t it wonderful that the Fringe Festival was apparently so successful? Thousands of people turning out to see the gardens, all priced at $2 or less. I am not kidding. Anything that promotes gardening and gets people out enjoying gardens is great. And there is clearly a market for often low key gardens with added attractions such as the The Liquorice Lady and the Rawleighs salesperson, knitting and pickles for sale. A yearning, perhaps, for the nostalgia of the church fete or the early days of the Rhododendron Festival two decades ago.

But now that the Fringe organisers have proven they can do it, perhaps they should no longer be fringe and they should find their own time of the year. How much better to have two separate garden festivals at two different times of the year and have two bites at the cherry? There really is no reason why they should be run at the same time, the very same dates in fact.

The Rhododendron and Garden Festival has fixed dates historically because its focus has always been on rhododendrons and they flower in spring. The Fringe Garden Festival has no such ties and in fact has fifty one other weeks of the year to chose from. If they want the springtime, with the attendant risks of spring weather, Labour Weekend is available, as is Ellerslie weekend. Localised garden festivals in Waitara and Egmont Village have proven that there is a summer market for garden visiting and the weather is often a great deal kinder from January to March. Or with the growing focus in the Fringe on organics, late summer leading in to autumn opens up the possibility of a Harvest Festival.

If the Fringe choose their own time, then they could lose the tag of “fringe” with its connotations of (sshh) underdog or didn’t-quite-make-the-main-event (“the horticultural equivalent of the $2 Shop”, an unkind visitor quipped). In their own time with their own branding, who knows, some Festival gardens may chose to open for the Fringe Festival as well and vice versa. It would all be good for Taranaki and gardening and a great deal more constructive than the unseemly wrangle we are seeing develop. I can’t think that having a District Councillor going on local television last week saying “Bugger the Rhododendron Festival. I’m supporting the Fringe.” adds anything to promoting either gardening or tourism in Taranaki. Some might feel that the Fringe are welcome to Councillor George.

The established Rhododendron Festival started from humble beginnings twenty years ago. A down home community venture to encourage garden visiting and put Taranaki on the gardening map. A hundred gardens opened (not that we ever had a hundred top shelf gardens). It took the first few years for numbers to build and in the years since, it has inevitably lost its novelty value for locals. But it has evolved and developed in to one of the major tourist events on the Taranaki calendar. In twenty years, the expectations of visitors have grown ever higher and the Festival has responded. The standard of open gardens has risen correspondingly, along with the reputation of Taranaki as a gardening destination. There is real prestige in having one’s garden selected as being of a high enough quality to showcase to tourists and out of town visitors.

The Fringe have come in like a fresh breath and recaptured the local imagination. But it should not be either/or. We can have it all and rather than competing, we could have two festivals at two different times catering to two different markets.

At least that is our hope. But Mark and I have been preparing a contingency plan in case we have a repeat next year of what happened last week. We have been contemplating the “one size can fit all” approach to meeting the desires of the garden visitor.

For those who have not been out and about visiting gardens in the last week (shame on you), with the move to ticketing the Rhododendron and Garden Festival, tickets were in $4 multiples and the individual gardens therefore set their entry at one, two, three or even four tickets. We gulped, looked at our garden, analysed our garden visitor and set ourselves as a three ticket garden.

It was fine being a three ticket garden. People came prepared to pay and to take their time and really enjoy themselves. We had a wonderful ten days basking in their pleasure and praise. But next year we thought we could be a great deal more versatile.

The Fringe Garden Festival proved that there is a good market for people who only want to spend $2 visiting a garden. So we thought that next year, should the Fringe be determined to continue on the same dates, we could cater for their garden visitors by allowing them entry to our carpark. The carpark looks particularly pretty at this time of the year with a splendid semicircle of rhododendrons in flower. We could name all the rhododendrons if required and strategically place a bevy of ornamental touches.

Visitors who are only prepared to pay for one ticket garden entry (the $4 visitors) could have access to our carpark, our front lawn and our rockery.

Two ticket entry people could therefore visit the carpark, the front lawn, the rockery and the subtropical gardens under the rimus.

Three tickets would give the run of the place (all of the above, plus the sunken garden, rose garden, avenue gardens and the park), along with free tea and coffee, advice and unlimited time.

Electronic tagging would be necessary so if that anybody strayed beyond the area they had paid for, an electronic voice would boom out: “Number 42. You have exceeded your area. Your time is now up. Please return to base immediately.”

In fact, we figure we are on to such a winner here that we are thinking of starting our own Festival (but naturally timed for the same time as the other two festivals – the very same dates in fact). That way, we can challenge the existing festivals, utilise their advertising and promotion, tap into the same sponsors but under our own brand of the “Tikorangi Garden Trust”.