Ian Curtis – My Passion for Growing Plants at Horticultural Shows
In 1978, the family moved to a semi-detached house on the other side of my hometown in Bolton, Lancashire, UK. The property had a large vegetable garden at the back and my parents told me they did not have the time to manage the garden and so it became a new hobby of mine at the age of 11. I remember visiting the town’s local horticultural show that summer and looking at the standard of vegetables and flowers on show and thinking ‘I could do better’. I also enjoyed the smell and view on display of all kinds of plants in this giant marquee. Growing up in a terraced house I had no idea what the common vegetables we eat daily looked like in an open field. Hence, during my initial year as a gardener I grew a wide range of vegetables out of curiosity and also for the family. In November 1979, I competed in my first horticultural show at the town hall in Bolton. My parents who always supported me and visited my displays told me that I had won a few certificates. I don’t recall everything that I displayed at that event but I do recall a set of 3 lettuces. I asked my mother about this and she replied that she thought I was exhibiting Brussels sprouts. ‘They all dried up’ she said. It must have been due to the lack of water and the central heating in the hall. At the end of day two of the show, I went to the town hall to pick up my certificates and see the results. To my absolute dismay, I saw this exquisite Victorian building on fire and being roped off to the general public. At the entrances of the building, I saw winter chrysanthemums and certificates pouring out from the building. If I remember correctly from the local newspapers, there was an electrical problem which caused a spark resulting in parts of the building igniting into some kind of inferno. To this day, I don’t recall how well I did in that show.
In 1982, I moved from high school to college to study for my O’ levels and A’ levels to go to university. It was also the year when I first competed at several summer shows across Lancashire. During that year, I received numerous certificates for my displays of vegetables and flowers, generating confidence to win 1st prizes where I competed, especially for pansies and violas. In 1983, I tried my luck at competing at a higher level the Great Southport Flower Show, which was a venue known within the north-west of Britain for horticultural excellence dating back to the 1920s where garden television and radio celebrities turn up. I decided to put my talents to the test by entering for a large display of pansies and violas for a pewter trophy valued nearly 2,000 English pounds. I remember the night before the show my father helping me to pay for a taxi to take me to the show alone and then exhibiting throughout the night non-stop. I also had my eye on the award for the best exhibit by an under 21 year-old at the show. I wanted my large exhibit of pansies and violas to be nominated for this award, but due to show rules the entry was not permitted and so I put up a vase of sweet peas for this competition. I don’t think I slept for 2 days for this show; I was mentally and physically drained. I met my parents at the show the following morning after the judges had made their decisions. I was awarded a 2nd prize for my efforts for the display of pansies and violas, being behind a family of 5 people who worked together on their display. I came very close to beating the under 21 champion who exhibited displays of cacti and had been seen on television with various celebrities. I remember meeting him on that day with members of his family and shaking hands. Although I was disappointed that day, the bright spark was that I was invited to join and compete with the North of England Pansy and Viola Society who saw my display in Southport. This became the stepping stone to bigger heights in horticulture.
In 1984, my time in studying for my O’ and A’ levels took up a lot of my time and so I continued only exhibiting at local venues and continuing winning trophies and shields within Lancashire. I knew 1985 was going to be my last year as an exhibitor prior to leaving home to go to university. I decided to focus on mainly growing pansies and violas at national level.
My first main show was for a trophy for the best exhibit of pansies and violas in Lancashire which was held in Edenfield. This was my first piece of silverware of the year. I then moved on to compete at the Society championships in Bradford, Yorkshire. In April that year, the city of Bradford witnessed one of soccer’s worst catastrophes where 55 people were burnt alive due to a stand igniting during a match with Lincoln City. Prior to the show, event officials decided that all entrance fees and prize money to be forfeit to those families who were affected by the fire. Today, the ‘Bradford City Fire’ remains a very sensitive issue 30 years on and a book was recently published this year by a victim family member about this disaster. At the show, I focused on exhibiting mainly using commercial varieties of pansy and violas and was delighted to win 1st prize at my first event outside the north-west of England. I also tried my hand growing the very old and delicate exhibition strains of pansies and violas with success.
My final show as an exhibitor was my biggest venue to date, the national championships of pansy and violas at Handsworth, Birmingham. I stuck to my strengths of growing my select commercial varieties, which had served me well throughout the few years I had been an exhibitor, against the best in Britain. To my absolute delight I was awarded first prize for my display. Unknowingly, I was approached by a journalist from the ‘Daily Express’ in Scotland informing me that I had beaten the current British champion, an elderly gentleman well in his 60s and maybe early 70s. I think people from the Society and also within Lancashire were hoping I would be continuing my exhibition exploits for years to come. Sadly, I had to leave for the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth that September to embark on my career as a scientist in plant cell culture and biotechnology. I have never returned to the competitive scene of exhibiting flowers and vegetables since 1985.
Since 2011, I have moved onto the organic growing of vegetables in the fertile soils of central Illinois to the basic sandy soils on north Texas. I have passed on my knowledge to fellow gardeners in these areas to help them to grow and improve their ability of growing various plants. Conversations on ‘growing for gold’ at elite shows such as Chelsea Flower Show does interest me as a member of a society. However, at the age of 19 years and 2 months I declared my retirement having won county, society and national awards. Will I return? Who knows? A wise man told me, actually the British champion, that when you start exhibiting it is in your blood to continue. I know my family was very proud of my achievements and they were a great help to me in uncovering a talent I never knew I had.
Submitted by Ian Curtis