The community of Bedford is preparing for another weekend of buzz and activity when the second offering of the Bedford Country Gardens, sponsored by SPAR Eastern Cape, takes place from Friday to Sunday.
Such has been the popularity of the annual flower show – previously known as the Bedford Garden Festival – that it has expanded to two weekends after the pandemic.
The first this year was from October 21 to 23, which is the optimum time for spring blooms, while the November date suits the gardens in the Baviaans as their roses bloom a little later.
Bedford Country Gardens committee chairman Bryan Knox said the growth of the festival had necessitated a review of the entire operation.
“Historically, Bedford Country Gardens became so popular that our small village found it hard to cater for the tremendous influx of visitors,” he explained.
“Gardens were receiving up to 2 000 visitors in a weekend, which can be quite taxing on them, and the restaurants were crowded and the roads busy.”
Knox said it led to an amazing buzz in Bedford but that many people were left disappointed as they had been unable to find accommodation – even a year in advance.
“After Covid-19, we decided to try offering garden lovers two weekends in an attempt to boost our local economy and to satisfy the growing need to get out into the countryside.”
This solution worked like a charm, he said.
“Visitors have a more personal experience as the gardeners are able to spend quality time with them, which is a key differentiator between our open gardens and many others around the country.
“It’s a very personal experience.”
SPAR Eastern Cape sponsorships and events manager Alan Stapleton, who attended the first weekend, said they were thrilled to be able to support local communities.
“From our perspective, it is wonderful to be part of events in the rural and farming communities and to spread our sponsorship footprint into the Karoo.”
These include the Kirkwood Wildsfees, Cradock Karoo Foodfest and Graaff-Reinet Proudfoot Weekend.
“Through these sponsorships we are able to spread awareness of sustainability, which is so closely linked to the message of the Bedford Country Gardens.”
Stapleton said it also drew people to the communities, which helped them sustain themselves.
“To anyone, lover of gardens or not, if you have not experienced the Bedford Country Gardens, it should be on your ‘to-do’ list.”
The festival has been running since 2004 and Knox said they were beginning to see a younger crowd.
“We have noticed a change in our age demographic. Previously visitors were mainly 55 and over but that has dropped dramatically over the past two years to between 35 and 45.”
He said that they were amazed to see how many first timers – many of whom were from Gqeberha and East London – had visited their gardens from all over the country.
“We are not sure what to expect this weekend as so much is determined by the weather. But we are targeting day-trippers now as all the accommodation is fully booked.
“So the message is out there – book now for next year!”
Besides new visitors, Knox said the central location of Bedford – in the interior roughly between Gqeberha and East London and within reach of Cradock, Somerset East, Cradock, Graaff-Reinet and Komani – saw many people become regulars.
“A lot of visitors return every year, revisiting gardens to see what has changed and what is new.
“Our location makes for a relatively easy trip from anywhere in the province and every year we invite a celebrity speaker. This year horticulturalist Keith Kirsten has delighted visitors with his knowledgeable talks.”
He added that the Bedford Country Gardens played a significant role in the local economy.
“It is one of the reasons that Bedford has such a thriving community today. Many people visited the festival years ago and made the decision to make Bedford their home.”
The drive from anywhere in the region was “quite spectacular” and the town a peaceful retreat, according to Knox.
“The village has gradually grown into the small town you see today. It has a private school, hotel and, of course, SPAR and Build It!
“The staff who work in the gardens are among the main beneficiaries. They sell plants they have grown themselves and share in the takings at each gate.”
Preparation for the festival created many jobs as residents and businesses prepare for the busy time, he noted. SPAR has also sponsored a development golf event aimed at local golfers and those in surrounding areas.
There was enthusiastic buy-in from residents with gardens open in town and on farms, said Knox.
“Some are new and some generations old. There is something for everyone – waterwise, traditional, small, vast farm gardens as well as a heritage rosarium.”
He explained that residents had to apply for their gardens to be open as they had to meet certain criteria.
“Bedford Country Gardens provides a wonderful incentive to get our town spruced up. Everyone works towards presenting Bedford at its best, including the municipality.”