Gardening: No need for nursery nostalgia

The garden centre revolution can represent progress, but only if the plants remain the real centre of attention
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The Independent Culture
Just occasionally, even after all these years, I hear someone mourn the demise of the old-fashioned, family-owned general plant nursery that was killed off by the development of garden centres in the Sixties. Those who are nostalgic for these places say that the plants were grown on the spot and were cheaper, the staff were more knowledgeable and friendlier, and customers did not have to trip over extraneous non-horticultural stuff, such as tropical fish and paddling-pools, to get at them.

Maybe so, but in the vast majority of cases it was these general plant nurseries that became garden centres, responding to the demands of a car- owning public who wanted all horticultural equipment and sundries, as well as plants, to be on one site, and who now also like to turn a shopping trip into a bit of an outing. The garden centre revolution was made viable by technological advances, in particular "containerisation" - that is, the rearing of plants in pots. This meant that the plants could be easily transported from wholesale nurseries elsewhere, and also could be sold to customers at any time of year, instead of mainly having to be dug up from a field in the dormant season. Things could not have remained the same.

In fact, the development of garden centres (and DIY "sheds" which, year by year, increase their share of the horticultural market) has prompted the appearance of an enormous number of small retail nurseries that specialise in particular plants, usually to a high standard, and also often offer a mail-order service. These retain the old plant nursery atmosphere but tend to appeal to a knowledgeable clientele. Not all gardeners feel that they are that. For them, the anonymity of the average garden centre or DIY shed can be a reassuring feature.

The ownership of garden centres is still surprisingly fragmented. Although there are a few country-wide or regional chains, and there has been a slow move towards greater conglomeration, the vast majority of garden centres are still single-site operations. This means both that, in theory at least, they are individualist and can respond to local needs, especially of soil and climate, but also that they vary a good deal in quality. So how do you know whether your local garden centre is a good one or not? This is a pertinent question at this time of year, when many gardeners are hard at work stocking - or restocking - their gardens.

With garden centres, size does not always matter, although there are obvious advantages to a large site if it means that there is space for a wide range of plants and other goods.

Far more important is whether there is a knowledgeable and helpful, and visible, workforce prepared to answer questions. What is needed is, to adapt a phrase, information, information, information.

Among any garden-centre clientele will be a substantial minority of novices, and if they feel intimidated or ill-informed or neglected, they may never bother with gardening again. A manned plant information desk, together with a scattering of notices giving specific cultural details, properly informative plant labels, and free leaflets that can be taken home, seem to me to be necessities. If a garden design service is also offered, so much the better.

For me, a good garden centre is one that demonstrably believes that plants are at the centre of the business. Pets, swimming-pools, Christmas decorations, honey, biscuits and barbecues are all very necessary for cash flow, I have no doubt, but if they appear more important than plants, forget it. Nothing puts me off more quickly, at this time of year; than having to weave my way through a forest of artificial Christmas trees before I can get to the plants. Those plants must appear to be well cared for, and that applies also to the planted beds in the car park. If a centre cannot keep its own weeds under control, or trees properly staked, it may not necessarily bode ill for the state of the plants on offer, but it is a psychological blow to the customer. Trees for sale should be tied up properly so that they don't lean over. Gaps should be filled quickly, but only with the right plants; if the layout system is alphabetical, as it usually is, it is infuriating to have to hunt for viburnum amongst the Hs for hamamelis.

The range of plant size on offer should be wide enough for it to be possible for a gardener to keep costs down by buying small, and there should be, in the dormant season, a selection of bare-rooted plants, such as deciduous hedging plants and soft fruit. Those plants kept under cover should not be visibly dry and wilting, while bulbs have to be kept in airy conditions, away from direct sunlight.

I like to see solid evidence of environmental awareness: a reasonable selection of "organic" products among the chemicals and fertiliser sundries; non-peat as well as peat composts and soil enrichers, and barbecue charcoal from British woodlands. In the future, I shall look for hardwood garden furniture that bears the recently introduced Forest Stewardship Council logo; this will become more common with time as manufacturers gradually receive certification.

A good range of books - laid out in a separate area where people can browse undisturbed, rather than in a thoroughfare - is another sign of a good garden centre.

And I certainly do not scorn the cafe, even if its cheery name (The Green- Fingered Gnome, or Percy's Parlour) makes me wince. After all, buying plants successfully is necessarily an exacting and time-consuming business, but it shouldn't be an endurance test as well.