The Landscape Event 2017

If memory serves, this is the fourth time in as many years that I’ve paid the Virgin Trains’ ransom for a barely comfortable seat on a rickety track down to that London all in the cause of trudging around what is somewhat grandly known as The Landscape Event . The fact that I keep coming back indicates they must be doing something right, but, most annoyingly, I can’t quite put my finger on just what that is.

landscape show 2017

The exhibitor list is pretty much about as good as you could hope for without there being one of the BIG manufacturers in attendance. There’s a lot of credibility in that over-sized, under-ventilated tent, that’s for sure, but the ‘je ne sais quoi’ has to be more than that, doesn’t it? The seminar list has grown and grown and grown, but, as I seem to say each year, the number of alleged ‘seminars’ that have a direct relevance to hard-landscaping can still be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that would need to be the hand of someone who had lost at least a couple of digits, and the thumb would not be included. The sort-of catering isn’t too bad: over-priced, but since when has that been a shock at a trade show? And, to be honest, 2.50 quid for a wishy-washy brew isn’t technically extortionate by London standards.

So just what is it that makes it such an appealing and attractive show? Could it be the networking opportunities? That’s a very likely candidate, because, in a little over six hours, I still managed to miss at least a quarter of the relevant exhibitors due to excessive networking!

landscape show
Landscape show catering

The plan was to start at the back, and gradually work my way forward by zig-zagging along the horizontal rows until I reached the front doors once more and could head back to the tube, courtesy of the highly convenient shuttle bus that drops you right at the doors of Sloane Square station. Well, that *was* the plan. As usual, it didn’t quite work out that way….

Grundon , the specialist aggregate supplier best known for its Coxwell self-binding gravel , had bagged themselves a prime spot right outside the seminar kiosks, strategically positioned to attract maximum attention from those fleeing yet another talk sub-titled, “Why I’m a Fab Garden Designer”. And it was working. A steady flow of interest in the sands, gravels and, according to the Grundonians, H-U-G-E interest in a very gritty soil mixture that turns out to be absolutely ideal for wildflowers.

I was more taken with the sample of red self-binding path aggregate. I’ve seen it used all over the country, usually on golf courses (the distinctive red colouring helps cretinous golfers distinguish path from grass and so work out where to head next on the futile pottering around an over-sized lawn), but this was the first time I’d seen ‘virgin’ product, unwetted, uncompacted and loose in a bag. That enabled me to get a better appreciation of its grain size and natural texture. Lovely stuff!

grundon aggregates
Strategic positioning from Grundon Aggregates

I can fully understand why rival trade organisations, BALI and the APL would attend this show, but, for me, I’m not really sure what we have to say to each other. The usual staff never seem to have any idea about or what I do, and seem to go into a programming loop when it dawns on them that I don’t want to be signed up.

BALI at Landscape Show
BALI at Landscape Show

I did spot BALI head honcho Wayne legging it as fast as he could as I approached, and I know his opposite number at the APL, Phil Tremayne, was lurking somewhere, but both managed to keep well away from me for the duration of the show. And who can blame them? Who wants to be pestered with awkward questions and confronted with uncomfortable truths when they’re on an away-day jolly?

Not too dissimilar to last year’s stand, the White Room minimalist styling of London Stone’s display was, according to the ever-affable Craig Potter, a deliberate choice to promote conversation and ensure there was adequate room on the smaller-than-ideal stand to host all those intent on such chat.

But when does minimalism cross into emptiness? Somewhere around here, I reckon. I’ve always believed stone is one of the ultimate tactile materials. People just can’t keep their mitts off, and they love to run their fingers over it, to get a sensory understanding of its texture and character. This was borne out by the number of stand visitors that felt compelled to paw the half-dozen or so plastic (oops! I mean "composite") decking samples nailed up on one wall.

London Stone Sample Box
London Stone Sample Box

Chatting with MD Steve is always a pleasure, and he’s got some very excitiong news to reveal in the very near future. Let's just say the plans for world domination continue apace!

He's also ultra-enthused with their samples case, and how it gives designers and contractors the ability to have 30 or more matchbox-sized slivers of stone and porcelain in a handy carry-case, which, it has to be agreed, is a real pinnacle of professional presentation, but I can’t help feeling that a few more generously-sized off-cuts of the products strewn around the stand would entice even more people to enquire about the aforesaid gorgeous stone, porcelain, and even the plastic….err composite decking.

And as if to emphasise the point, plenty of pawable samples adorned the similarly-sized Global Stone stand staffed by MD Julian Wood and Marketing Marvel, Sara Cullins. Lots of samples, lots of discussion points, and lots of interest in the ever-multiplying range of porcelain which has been a phenomenal seller for the company over the course of 2017.

Global Stone at Landscape Show
Global Stone
porphyry porcelain
Porphyry porcelain - photie does NOT do it justice!

One piece, in particular, really caught my eye: the so-called Petrous Porcelain Florence Heather Porphyry copy which is just stunningly convincing, from the all-too realistic colouring of the best quality Italian stone, to the sensually convincing texture and the amazing hand-finished edge detailing. It’s almost too good. With a porcelain copy this fantastic, and in sizes that are more or less impossible with natural porphyry, it prompts the question of why anyone would use the notoriously fickle "real thing". OK: you can’t get a huge range of different sizes, and it doesn’t come as setts, but for a simple patio or pathway, it’s well worth considering.

Similarly with CED, who also report massive interest in porcelain this year, but that’s not the big story they want to tell.

Cast your mind back a whole 12 months to last year’s Landscape Event and the excitable promise made by the CEDders about a revolutionary new bedding material which was just a matter of weeks away from being launched.

StoneBed permeable bedding mortar
StoneBed permeable bedding mortar

Well, about 50 or so weeks, it turns out, but it’s definitely here now, and I’ve both seen and handled it, so I know it to be true! StoneBed is a pre-batched and conveniently packaged permeable bedding mortar . Based on a 4-6mm grit blended with high quality cements, it’s a lower-cost version of the professional permeable mortars used on all sorts of commercial projects. And the hot news is that it will retail at around the same price as an equivalent bag of grit sand.

StoneBed permeable bedding mortar not only ensures water drains away from the paving, it prevents moisture rising up through the pavement structure to cause problems such as damp patches and reflective staining. It’s not pretty, but then, once it’s laid, no-one will actually see it.

This is definitely a product to keep an eye on. It’s probably the first widely available fully permeable bedding mortar compliant with the current (and the planned) British Standard, but watch how quickly other mortar suppliers jump on the bandwagon. This is, without any doubt, how we will be laying paving in the years to come. Mortars based on a grit sand will, over time, be superseded by this type of product, and the hopeless incompetents still laying on spot bedding will be even further behind the rest of us.

If that were all CED had to show on their double-sized stand, it would be enough, but never ones to do things by halves, they also have a whole new range of native Scottish stone. A Caithness slate; a dark Whinstone; a creamy, fine-grained sandstone; a warm Grampian Granite, and, best of the lot, an intriguing Green Schist that, at the price that was whispered to me, is begging to be included on the very first suitable project.

CED at Landscape Show

Johnsons Wellfield are another familiar face at this event, and it’s reassuring to see at least one quarrier of what is probably this island’s premier paving stone (yorkstone, for those of you trying to guess!) putting their head up above the parapet of imported stone and porcelain.

Johnsons Wellfield at Landscape Show
Johnsons Wellfield textured stone

The famed Crosland Hill stone is a versatile stone, but with all their too-damned-clever-by-half cutting machinery, the company has been playing about with innovative and intriguing, if possibly impractical, textures, such as Honeycomb and Wave. The point here is not so much these provocative surfaces, but what the machinery responsible for them is capable of: essentially, if you can imagine it, they can probably cut it for you.

My guided tour around the quarry on the outskirts of Huddersfield draws ever nearer, and with paving stone like this, it can’t come soon enough!

One final native stone supplier to mention, and a face that’s new to me. Lewis Quarries hail from the quintessentially English village of Langton Matravers in deepest Dorset, and specialise in Purbeck Limestone, a versatile rock much beloved of architects, but not one we often see used for paving. It is, though. Every now and again, a patch of creamy-white limestone is spotted on some neglected side street in a south coast town, and I’m reminded that we have a truly amazing range of paving stone in these islands.

There’s no point pretending that paving is the prime market for Purbeck Limestone: it isn’t, and probably never will be. For them, demand lies in the vertical rather than the horizontal, so it’s walls and buildings and all sorts of other fancy schemes where their true aim lies, but that’s not to say someone looking to include something a little different in a garden design couldn’t turn a few heads by having limestone for the paving.

Lewis Quarries at Landscape Show
Lewis Quarries

There is a steady flow of enquiries to the website about the possible use of coloured bitmacs , and so it was pleasing, if not a little confusing, to see a company such as Natratex exhibiting at a show aimed largely at garden designers. Pleasing, as good quality coloured bitmac deserves a wider audience; confusing because, try as I might, I can’t think of that many garden projects that would use a machine-laid bitmac as part of the design.

Natratex at Landscape Show

However, from their Forest of Dean base, they look to send out their coloured products to most of England and Wales, relying on super-insultaed lorries to keep the 'mac hot. They reckon to lose only 2°C of heat per hour in transit.

Wonderful product but, quite possibly, not the right show. Marketing Manager, Mark Stott, tells me that they plan to be at other shows over the next 12 months, including EcoBuild, where I feel they will attract a much more receptive audience.

Somewhat surprisingly, the usual slew of resin-bound surfacing companies that turn up at more or less any event with even the most tenuous connection to the hard-landscaping trade were largely absent, leaving the stage clear for Blackburn’s Star Uretech , who, behind the scenes, actually manufacture high-quality resins for several of the other suppliers, as well as providing their own, highly regarded TekSet resins.

The brightly coloured floor they’d created for the show was unmissable: it could probably be seen from the International Space Station, and being the only resin supplier meant there was a constant stream of interested visitors eager to learn more about the manifold possibilities of both resin bound and resin bonded surfaces. MD Mark Almond was grinning from ear-to-ear with the very positive feedback and level of interest being shown in the whole TekSet range.

Star Uretech at Landscape Show
Star Uretech

In a similar way, the usually over-represented resin jointing mortar sector had been pared down to just two: Azpects with their ever-expanding range of “Easy” Summat-or-other hard-landscaping accessories, and Ireland’s very own Joint-It who have, for now at least, stuck with their core product, the single-component, polymeric jointing mortar.

joint it

It’s been re-formulated since last we spoke, and it’s now branded as “Joint It Simple”, but, truth be told, it was never that complicated in the first place. Still, Joint It Simple it is, and the sales team of Gary Duffy and John Irvine are as enthused as ever with the surging demand they’ve dealt with over the last couple of years. Indeed, demand is so strong that they’ve opened a new 2,500m² factory in County Galway, and are eagerly looking to expanding the range into jointing products for block paving, as well as sealants and cleaning agents.

Hopefully. I’ll get a look at the new place when I’m back home later in the year, and maybe we can do a bit of a write-up? Regardless, it’s an exciting time for Joint It, not only in Ireland and Britain, but with sales outlets in France and plans afoot for elsewhere in Europe. Being based in Ireland means there’s no Brexit worries about single markets or customs unions for Joint It – they can continue to expand their market to all 27 remaining EU members without hindrance. That, perhaps, could be the key to future success for the company.

At almost every show there are some exhibitors that are either not known to me or right on the periphery of my radar. When I have the time, it’s great to make new acquaintances, but most times, I have to rely on there being something highly eye-catching on their stand that will draw me in and convince me to strike up that initial conversation.

At first, I’d decided to give Core Design a miss, as I was pushed for time and did I really need to look at yet more plastic grass/gravel containment cells? But then I spotted the steel edgings, and knew I had to learn more.

There is a very well-known brand associated with steel edging, a brand that has been fortunate enough to become synonymous with the product, much like we talk of hoovers rather than vacuum cleaners, or google when we mean a search engine, and so Core Design are coming into this market with a severe disadvantage, but when you look at the quality of their edging system, and particularly the facility to reinforce it with additional pins post-installation, then factor in the cost saving they offer over their big name competitor, and then you really do have to start paying attention.

core direct steel edgings
Core Direct steel edgings

Once we started talking, even the cell pavers or whatever we are going to call them, became interesting, primarily due to the comparative shallowness of their residential product. We’re accustomed to seeing these cells at 4-50mm depth, but Core Design have a model that is backed with a geo-textile and only 20mm depth. Surely too shallow?

core direct cell pavers
Core Direct shallow cell pavers

However, when you think about it, a ‘normal’ gravel construction usually relies on just 20mm or so of the finer aggregate as the top layer, with the sub-base beneath providing the load-bearing capability, so why do we think we need, say, 40-50mm depth of gravel when using a plastic containment system? We don’t! I hadn’t really thought about it previously, but it’s a valid point. Why use twice as much relatively expensive aggregate when there is no need? Core Design are very definitely on my radar now!

While some brands might only be on my peripheral radar, others are not even that noticeable, and, shame to say, at a show as busy as this, it is very easy to walk right past a little gem without realising what it is. So it was probably a good move from the iGlo people that one of their number recognised me from afar (God knows how!) and chased me down, otherwise I would, quite likely, have sped right past their smaller booth without properly clocking what it was they were plugging.

And I’m so glad they did chase me down, as this is, without doubt, the most promising new product at the whole show. Apparently, the assembled buyers at the now largely irrelevant Glee a couple of weeks ago thought much the same and gave it an innovation award.

Essentially, it’s a glow-in-the-dark disc or block that can be retro-fitted to existing surfaces. They are also including the luminous blocks within some wet-cast products manufactured by a related company, but, for me, the real appeal is that ability to incorporate the bright spots into existing paving.

iglo blocks
i-Glo blocks
i-Glo discs
i-Glo discs

Timber decking is the simplest application, as a basic circular bit will rebate the wood sufficiently to allow the discs to be seated, flush with the surface and easily glued into place. That might be a bit trickier in concrete or stone, but not impossible. Maybe a core bit that can allow a disc to be chiselled out?

Whenever I look at new products, versatility and the facility to adapt to new applications are the key features that will rouse my interest. With these clever little glowing discs/blocks, there are endless potential applications, and it’s a product that will appeal to both keen DIYers and competent contractors alike. They always say the best ideas are the simple ones, and this is definitely one of those!

To all those I’ve missed, I’m sorry. John and Gary from Joint It can vouch for the fact that I was marched out by a pair of security guards, for lurking behind after the show had officially finished, trying to get a bit more time 'networking'.

I would like nothing better that to visit each and every stand and have the craic, but even in this 6-hour visit, I reckon I only got to see around two-thirds, maybe three-quarters of those I would like to have seen. So sorry Azpects , and Long Rake Spar and Stone Traders and anyone else who’s feeling neglected. It’s not intentional, just poor time management on my part, combined with a tendency to ramble on and on and on when I do stop to talk. The lesson to learn is that, if you want to talk, collar me when you see me!

Missed, but only due to time running out: Azpects

As for the show itself, I’m still no clearer about what it is I like about it. The exhibitors are, almost without exception, highly impressed with the support provided by the organisers, and this is apparent from the number of them sporting Golden Pineapples to indicate they’ve already signed-up for 2018. For me, I think it must be the relaxed yet bustling atmosphere, the sense of not being cramped by having too many stands in too small a space, not being indifferent about what’s on show, and generally feeling it’s just about the right size for a day.

Yes, the seminar/talk agenda needs to be more balanced, and some of the exhibitors need to expand their stands, but is this possible within the big tent? Would bigger stands mean fewer exhibitors? If so, can we have fewer plants and more paving?

Maybe I should have been given a Golden Pineapple because, of all the shows I’ve been to this year, this is the one that I will very definitely be visiting again in 2018.