And the new rock'n'roll is - gardening

Garden centres are seeing an astonishing rush of customers, many of them new and young, writes Michael Leapman
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The Independent Online
Looking for hot and spicy action as the days lengthen towards summer? Forget all-night clubbing and the pop charts. Instead, head for the garden centre. A combination of global warming and a dramatic shift in the public view of gardening has resulted in centres seeing an unprecedented rush of customers.

Gardening has shed its dowdy image and become the height of fashion. Why else would two of our trendiest magazines, Tatler and Vogue, have devoted long articles to celebrating the joys of bed, border and bucket? "Whether you do it yourself or sit back and watch," declared Tatler racily, "gardening is the new sex."

The primmer Vogue characterised today's typical gardener as "a thirty- something high-flier with a steadfastly urban sensibility and a plant- buying habit that all but equals her seasonal outlay on Gucci accessories".

On television, gardening programmes get bigger and bigger audiences - up to six million for BBC2's Gardeners' World. Even the new Channel 5 has felt obliged to put a garden game-show into its prime-time line-up.

This year the urge to burst forth and propagate has gripped us ahead of schedule. Andrew Campbell, head of horticulture and garden centre trading for Homebase, one of the largest national chains, says: "The very mild weather means that everything is coming up much earlier. Customers are already flocking to our garden sections, including a lot of younger people."

Tatler's earthy metaphor is confirmed by what the lustful hordes of flower children snap up. "There's a big move towards hot and vibrant colours," says Mr Campbell. "We noticed it first with home furnishings a couple of years ago and now it's spread into the garden."

In the Eighties, eyeball-searing colours were scorned. Yellow was permitted in early spring, when daffodils have the field almost to themselves, but after that discreet whites, pale blues, lavenders and pinks took over. Today, discretion is out; razzle-dazzle is in.

"We don't sell nearly as many of those border plants in soft mixed colours as we used to," Mr Campbell notes. "Customers are more sophisticated about colours, they co-ordinate them and concentrate on one or two distinctive shades for a big splash."

As the warmer, drier weather reminds people of their Mediterranean holidays, so the assertive tones of southern Europe have come into vogue, especially the warm and spicy browns and oranges. Sunflowers, without which no middle-class sideboard vase is today complete, now come in a variety of burnished shades.

The cover of the latest Gardens Illustrated, the bible of the upwardly mobile trowel-wielder, shows a flower in perfect keeping with the times. The primula auricula "Barnhaven" is a strong purply-bronze with a yellow centre. Rosie Atkins, the magazine's editor, predicts that it could be a contender for hottest flower or the year, along with cerinthe major, or honeywort, which comes in a similar colour scheme or a rich dark blue.

Cerinthe major was introduced from Greece a few seasons ago. Thompson and Morgan, one of the few seed merchants to list it, report that the seed is already sold out. Its East Anglian rival Unwins has had a similar run on its new clematis, "Sun Star", a deep yellow flower that excites the same memories of warm, lazy holidays.

Another trend is towards the cottage garden, conjuring up the image of the cosy wartime Britain recalled in The English Patient. The revival may have originated with Geoff Hamilton's BBC television series on cottage gardens, the last he completed before his death last year. Garden centres and seed firms report a run on such cottagey flowers as delphiniums, foxgloves, hollyhocks, poppies and pinks.

Shrubs - including roses - continue to lose ground to hardy perennials in herbaceous borders, harking back to Victorian times and the revered designer Gertrude Jekyll, a leading exponent of sensual colour schemes.

Today's sod-turner is increasingly finding space for vegetables as well as flowers. Janie Pirie, public relations manager for Thompson and Morgan, reports that, unprecedentedly, five of the firm's top 10 best sellers this year are vegetables. "We think it's to do with all the food scares," she says. "People are frightened of pesticides and other things that might be on the vegetables they buy."

Gardeners grow mini-vegetables in containers and increasingly create potagers (decorative vegetable gardens) or put vegetables into their flower borders - another of Geoff Hamilton's enthusiasms. For some years Homebase almost stopped selling vegetable seedlings, except tomatoes and herbs, but in a few weeks' time, says Mr Campbell, a wider range will be on their shelves.

"We found that lettuce and other salad plants did very well last year," he says, "and the more exotic vegetables such as aubergines and peppers."

Hot tastes, hot colours, sunshine and spice. The British garden has come in from the cold.