Give me a piccolo full of parsley any day
People don't want boring things like flowerbeds or lawns; they want decking, paving and focal planting
Saturday 01 May 1999
Yes, of course they sell cappuccinos in garden centres - why wouldn't they? Garden centres are part of the leisure industry and where there's leisure there are refreshments and play areas and toilets and enormous, Tarmac-covered car parks. In the old days on bank holiday weekends your average urban family piled into the Ford Cortina and drove out to Box Hill or the Ribble valley for a picnic. Now they shove Granny, kids, bicycles and dogs into the back of the Range Rover and spend a day at superstores with names like Plants`R'Us or Greenfingers because they have everything that the countryside has (albeit in pots), except that they're easier to manage, with flies and no mud - and, above all, you can buy things.
The most impressive garden centre I ever went to was somewhere in the Midlands. It was called Grow Man Grow. It consisted of four vast greenhouses not much smaller than Heathrow terminals, only one of which in fact contained plants. The first was full of furniture and barbecue equipment, the second had ornamental statuary, ceramic pots and trellises and a third was the cafe and gift shop. There weren't many people in the last, nor, now I come to think of it, many plants. They were mainly busy Lizzies and roses named after Blue Peter presenters.
This, I am reliably informed by a friend who landscapes gardens, is increasingly the way things are going. People don't want boring things like lawns that have to be mown or flowerbeds that have to be weeded. They want decking and paving and lots of furniture and something called focal planting, which means judiciously placed tubs and troughs of flowers that only need watering.
We're lucky. Living in a rented eyrie in London encouraged us 20 years ago to buy a ramshackle cottage near Petworth for what you'd fork out nowadays for a sit-on lawnmower.
Over the years I have tried half-heartedly to plant lavender and rhubarb, but it hasn't worked. Wrong sort of soil, my neighbour said. The grass grew waist-high, the children's favourite game was jungles. All this changed when we built a granny annexe and my green-fingered mother came to stay.
She cast a disapproving eye at the jungle, shrivelled lavender and dead rhubarb. All she needed, she told us, was a chunkle. A what? A chunkle is an agricultural implement used for centuries by rural communities in upper Burma, whence my mother hails. It's a cross between a pickaxe and a spade; needless to say not a single garden centre within 50 miles of genteel Petworth had heard of it.
"Wouldn't you rather have a nice long-handled hoe?" they said. No, it had to be a chunkle. I forget where we eventually tracked one down but within a week of its arrival our cottage garden had been comprehensively chunkled and was ready to throw open to the paying public. Watching my mother in a straw hat stabbing viciously at brambles and nettles, a Petworth neighbour whispered with awe that it reminded her of a scene from The Killing Fields.
This year I'm determined to plant a herb garden. I've seen them in the shape of wheels or laid out like mosaic but the best, the most ingenious, was my friend's over in Battersea; she grew her herbs inside my old piano. It's a long story. Someone had offered me a rather better piano than my existing one. My Battersea friend said she'd take the old one and put it in the basement for her children. Unfortunately it wouldn't go down the basement steps. Undaunted, my friend, who isn't musical, persuaded the removal men to carry it into the garden and rip out all its moving parts. She then filled the empty frame with soil and planted it with herbs - tall chives, rosemary and oregano at the back, small creeping ones like sage, thyme and flat-leafed parsley at the front.
It was a huge success. Design-conscious people came from as far away as Colliers Wood and Ealing to see the sprouting piano. It was photographed endlessly and featured in design magazines. Once it was even filmed for a television series about style. The producer wanted my friend to plant out an entire orchestra - canna lillies in trumpets, forget-me-nots in clarinets, and what about ferns in a double bass? It certainly opens a whole new horticultural world for the garden centres to fill. Give me a piccolo full of parsley rather than one of your reconstituted concrete Venus-de-Milo lookalikes any day.
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