I paid my first visit last week, the place having acquired mythical status in my eyes. You do not get further than five minutes into a conversation with any London gardener before Columbia Road is mentioned. I wanted to see what it was like.
It is not difficult to find. In fact the process is rather like a paperchase. The first clue came at Old Street Tube station. A crop-haired man in black leathers was trying to manhandle a large kentia palm and a couple of trays of petunias through the ticket machines. Further along Old Street, I passed two girls almost entirely disguised by monster rubber plants. Then there was a pushchair with a load of marigolds balanced on the hood, the baby underneath peering anxiously through large fronds of maidenhair fern.
The fourth clue was a brilliant red rhododendron parked by a bus stop, in full strident bloom among the empty drink cartons and sheets of yesterday's newspapers. By the time I got to the road itself, I felt as though I had been swept into the final scenes of Macbeth. Forests of Dunsinane greenery passed me by: climbing ficus, cordylines, passion flowers, fuchsias.
There isn't much carrying room in Columbia Road. People clutch potted plants to their chests, using them as gentle battering rams to forge a way through the crowd. The flowers and leaves wave around above head height, in constantly changing combinations. This is a novel way to view plant associations. Cordyline with red geraniums? Or perhaps better with the yellow marigolds coming in from the left. Then the cordyline disappears down a side street and sheaves of lilies come wobbling into the picture.
As far as value is concerned, Columbia Road is astounding. Big trays of bedding plants, busy lizzies, lobelia, verbena are pounds 4. Herbs are mostly pounds 1 a pot. Fine osteospermums are pounds 2.75, well grown climbing hydrangeas pounds 3.95. By one o'clock, the prices are even keener. That is when the market is supposed to close down. The trading becomes more frenetic: two big trays of bedding plants for a fiver, seven geraniums for a fiver, a pair of azaleas for a fiver.
I was hoping in the general fiver frenzy to get hold of a couple of superb standard bays, but they remained firmly stuck at their starting price, pounds 30 each. Compared with what you would pay elsewhere, this was still cheap, but in the end the vision of the man on the Tube with his kentia palm put me off. I could not see myself handling the escalator very well with a brace of 6ft bay trees as luggage.
The flower market in Columbia Road has been established for about 100 years, and has fortunately survived a recent threat to its future on this site. There was a faction ('vested interest' they say darkly in the market) which thought it would be a good idea to move it to the new Spitalfields development. Residents and traders called in the Electoral Reform Society to conduct a proper vote on the matter. The result was a resounding victory for the market. More than 90 per cent wanted it to stay where it is.
How it got there in the first place, nobody could tell me. This is a narrowish, ordinary sort of street, old shops lining it along one side, many turned into flowerpot shops and craft shops. One of the best is Sean Flynn's Garden Studio at No 146. He sells some extraordinary one-off garden ornaments, excellent dark green watering cans with brass roses for only pounds 17, square clay seed trays, which make good containers for sempervivums and alpines for pounds 18.95, clay Long Tom pots for pounds 4.50. He also has a big selection of old clay flowerpots, with enough patina to satisfy the fussiest interior designer, and solid stainless steel handforks and trowels for pounds 9.95.
Much of his stuff is made to order. The ironwork is particularly good. There was a handsome rose arch there, about 8ft high and 5ft wide for pounds 190 and things that Sean Flynn called twisters, tall iron supports for climbing roses, honeysuckle or clematis for pounds 140 a pair.
As for plants, anything that had a bloom buried somewhere in its genes was blooming in Columbia Road. I rather expected blooms on the rubber plants. The fuchsias were bulging with flower, shipped in directly from Holland it seemed from the boxes, stamped with the logo of Bloemen Veiling.
All the bedding plants were flowering fit to bust. 'Do you have any petunias that aren't in flower?' I asked a stallholder with a ginger hat and a profile like a Roman emperor. He looked at me as if I was mad. 'You having me on?' he asked suspiciously and returned to the chanting roar of his sales pitch. So much for the endlessly repeated warning that bedding plants already in flower will not bulk up so well or flower so long as plants that are set out before they come into flower.
Generally, the plants were in good condition, though I would not buy bedding plants anywhere without looking underneath the trays to see how many roots were trailing out of the bottom of the container, and poking a finger into the compost to see how dry it was. French marigolds shoot up to flower very quickly if they are stressed by lack of water. Unfortunately, they then think their job in life is done and make no further growth or flowers.
The fuchsias were staggeringly good value, with standard fuchsias selling for a fiver a pair. At this time of year, I would not be worried about setting these outside immediately. Earlier in the season, you would have to spend some time hardening them off gradually, for until they emerge blinking in Columbia Road, they will have spent their entire lives in humidity-controlled, temperature-controlled, everything-controlled Dutch greenhouses.
There were a cheering amount of twentysomethings shopping for plants in the market. I am an unashamed eavesdropper on these occasions. I like listening in to other people's debates about whether they should have a broom or a hydrangea on the left as they go in at the front gate. 'That's the thing that died in the frost,' said one half of a couple pointing accusingly at a plant. 'But it's very pretty,' said the other. 'I know what it is now. It's an osteospermum'. And you think, 'There's another gardener hooked.'
Although I had to leave the bays behind, I could not resist the Paris daisies. A fiver of course. Produced in Italy. How can they grow plants 2ft across, beautifully trained and pinched out, covered in bud and send them from Italy all for a fiver? 'Don't ask,' said the trader. 'Just buy.'
Columbia Rd market, London E2 (underground: Old Street or Bethnal Green), is held every Sunday from about 8am-1pm. Sean Flynn's shop at 146 Columbia Road is open Tues-Sat (10am-6pm) and Sun (9.30am-2pm).
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