The ideal gnome exhibition

There was lighting, loungers, elephant dung, and even some plants. Anna Pavord visits Birmingham's Garden and Leisure show
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A visit to the Garden and Leisure Exhibition in Birmingham last week reassured me that there are an awful lot of things I do not need for the garden. But among the lighting, the loungers with their "vibrant all-weather fabrics" and the "daring and distinctive new styling concepts in action seating", there were some good products.

A large proportion of the show is taken up with garden furniture: cane, cast metal, lacquered aluminium, plastic, rustic and synthetic resin. A huge gulf seems to separate the glitzy, bulbous synthetic-resin family from the rest. These pieces are softly contoured, gleaming-white, upholstered in pale flower prints and, above all, conceived by designers born in the sun. When you buy these, you are buying a dream. The problem comes when you open your eyes. There you are, still sitting under a grey sky, with the washing-up not done and the dog digging a hole in the lawn.

This sort of furniture needs a patio or a swimming pool to accompany it and bright skies above. Putting it into your average back garden is like getting Joan Collins to make a guest appearance at the Rover's Return.

Wooden furniture is altogether easier to live with. It is furniture that will grow old gracefully. IV Swift was showing extremely elegant garden furniture made in Indonesia. Its tall, folding Hampton chair with slatted back costs pounds 110.05. A pair of trays, one made to fit inside the other, cost pounds 156.65. They were beautifully jointed, and had square slatted bases. So did a very neat folding side-table, price pounds 81.84. They will be available from January.

Kettler showed a very sexy, smooth iron folding armchair with clean, sinuous curves. But to live with this kind of furniture you need to be able to walk the walk, talk the talk - and have the other pared-down, hi-tech accessories to match. The chair, available from the beginning of next year, will cost pounds 199.

Relatively few plants come to the GLEE show, and those that do are completely dominated by the surrounding hardware. There are containers to put plants in, chemicals to feed them on, tools to cultivate them with, but the raison d'etre for this massive industry is almost buried under the gizmos. Yet plant sales account for nearly half of the total gardening market, now worth pounds 2.6bn a year in this country. But although there was scarcely a green leaf to be seen at the first GLEE, 20 years ago, nurserymen are infiltrating the place.

Notcutts was there, showing a new type of physocarpus. There is already a good golden-leaved variety of this shrub, "Dart's Gold" which grows about six foot high and wide. The new variety, "Diabolo", has handsome, dark-bronze leaves, three-lobed as in the standard type. The tiny white flowers are carried in dense clusters along the stems in June. It grows in a wide range of soils, though it will not be happy in shallow soil over chalk.

The Castell folding chair and the physocarpus both won prizes in GLEE's annual competition for new products. There are eight different categories, with a prize awarded in each. Some manufacturers have weird ideas of what consumers want. A firm called Wiggly Wigglers is producing a line called Garden Gems. "Imagine that solid pellets were produced by turning the manure of exotic zoo animals into a safe, odourless material," coos the press release. "Imagine that this material is moulded into the shape of the animal that created it..."

What this amounts to is the dung of Jubilee, Chester Zoo's prime bull elephant, dried and pressed into little elephant-shaped tablets that you lay on top of compost in pots to break down as a slow-release fertiliser.

One of the best ideas at the show was also one of the simplest. Turner & Tate/ TCL Supplies won the prize in GLEE's growing-aids and equipment category for its clever tree-ties. This is one of the uses the firm has found for its self-fastening hook-and-loop material. This is like Velcro, but instead of the hook and the loop being in two separate parts, they are bonded together in a single ribbon: the hooks on one side, the loops on the other.

When you wind a strip of the stuff round a tree and its stake, it sticks to itself immediately and firmly. The Easistrap Tree Support System, as it is called, costs pounds 2.99 for a pack containing four ties and spacers. A pack of 10 ties without spacers, to use on shrubs and the like, costs pounds 2.99; a two-metre roll of the magic stuff pounds 2.49. It can be used over and over again.

The winner in the garden-care category of the new-product awards was British Seed Houses, with a lawn-restorer kit, selling for pounds 5.99. After this summer's searing heat, there are many swards that will need repairing. The promise is that with this kit you can thicken and improve the quality of your lawn. This makes you think of those ads for banishing bald patches, but fortunately grass is more easily persuaded than hair to do the necessary thatching.

The idea is that you sow the grass seed directly into your existing lawn. First you have to cut the lawn and rake off dead grass, moss and other debris so the seed can find its way down to the earth. You also need to break up heavily compacted areas.

When the seed is sown, you add the fertiliser in the pack: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in a ratio of 6:9:6. The high level of phosphorus (in the form of a phosphate) will help promote good root growth. Then you have to leave the lawn three or four weeks before cutting it, while the new grass establishes itself.

In a show with more than 800 exhibitors, there are some stands you don't get to see - and some you deliberately avoid, like the barbecues, shown by two dozen manufacturers. Food grilled and eaten outside indisputably tastes better than food cooked indoors, and this has been a wonderful summer for eating outside. But the point of cooking simply on a fire in the open air is that it releases you from the tyranny of the kitchen. Modern barbecues, with vast cooking areas, gas jets and controls as complex as Concorde's simply seek to enslave you again. Down with them.

For information and stockists:

IV Swift, 25 Eden Way, Billington Rd, Leighton Buzzard, Beds LU7 8TZ (01525 852508). Kettler, Kettler House, Merse Rd, North Moons Moat, Redditch, Worcs B98 9HL (01527 591901).

TCL Supplies, 213 Portland Rd, Hove, East Sussex BN3 5LA (01273 736896).