You can't buy fuchsias after 4.30

The Garden Centre of the Year is having to turn away custom. Anna Pavord explains
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The Independent Online
David Rayner is not a happy man. Every Sunday morning, he has to post two members of his staff at the entrance to his Scotsdale Garden Centre in Cambridgeshire, to tell his customers that they can't come in until 10.30. In the afternoon, the horticultural bouncers are out there again, stopping cars that turn up after half past four.

Turning away customers is every retailer's nightmare. While supermarkets have increased their trade since the new Sunday trading laws were passed, garden centres have seen Sunday profits slump. Until recently, Sunday has been the busiest day of the week for sales of plants and tools and compost, and garden centres have opened as many hours as they wanted. Now puzzled customers have to come to terms with the fact that under new Sunday trading laws, garden centres are classified with other retail businesses and can only open for six hours on what should be their peak shopping day. "It's really going to hit the garden centres over Easter" said Alan Strickland of the Horticultural Trade Association.

The Scotsdale Garden Centre was recently voted Garden Centre of the Year by readers of the magazine Garden News. "Why?" I asked Mr Rayner. Instead of answering, he took me on a tour: paving slabs, tools, pets, seeds, composts, fertilizers, bedding plants, trees and shrubs, caf, Wellington boots, houseplants.The houseplant section is run by a small dynamo called Liz Gage who has the kind of blue eyes that go through you like laser beams. She has been with Mr Rayner and his daughter Caroline Owen at the garden centre for about nine years and does most of the buying of houseplants and bedding plants.

Every Monday she goes over to Aalsmeer in Holland to buy a lorry-load of stock from the market there. Every Tuesday, Scotsdale regulars turn up to see what is new. Specials are chalked up on a blackboard at the entrance: Acacia cultriformis £13.99, Gelsemium sempervirens £14.99. "All the time we are trying to get different kinds of plants. I use about 25 suppliers, most of them English, but you can't beat the Dutch for houseplants. Except for poinsettias and cyclamen. English growers are very good at those."

The difficulty, she says, is in trying to stay one step ahead of the customers. "Take surfinias, those trailing petunias. Well, I think we've had enough of them now. There are plenty of other plants that look good in hanging baskets. I have a feeling that this year people will be moving on to the Balconette geraniums." What if she is wrong? "If I'm wrong, there are a couple of growers who I will be getting out of bed before dawn to get us emergency supplies."

She still wonders why certain things take off with their customers in such a big way. At the moment, the garden centre is selling vast quantities of BabyPlants - fuchsias and geraniums only a couple of inches high, which gardeners can then grow on for themselves. They cost just 59p each. That is obviously one reason why they are so successful. But the presentation is good, too, each plant in a tiny pot with its own label. The BabyPlants are produced by a Lincolnshire grower who, if they continue to shift at the present rate, is going to have a serious problem hanging on to his bed in the morning.

Trade is still heavily weighted to the three spring months of March, April and May when Scotsdale makes a high proportion of its £5m turnover. They have been trying to build up trade in autumn by dealing more in bulbs and this has been very successful. What they cannot do is persuade gardeners to plant their trees and shrubs then. Until container growing took over, trees and shrubs were always lifted when growth had slowed down in autumn, and delivered to customers to plant before the ground got too cold and wet. I still think this is the best way to do it, as roots continue to grow right up until Christmas and a tree has a chance to settle and find its feet before it has to start worrying about pumping victuals up to the fifth storey. Not that there has been much of a chance to plant anything this season. It is going to be a busy spring.

Nothing, says Liz Gage, will ever stop people preferring to buy plants when they are already in full flower. There were plenty of instances on the day I visited: a man balancing a 12ft cherry tree in full bloom in his trolley, a woman with her arms round a coronilla, gaily swathed in its yellow pea flowers, and a japonica, also blooming, as she hurried back to the car park. So I will shut up about all the reasons why you shouldn't buy plants that are already in flower. The road leading to the Scotsdale garden centre, close to Junction 11 of the M11, was lined with the very cherry trees that the customer had put in his trolley. They were so breathtaking, I wanted one too. I only just resisted. It was Prunus cerasifera `Pissardii', mouthwatering in bloom, but a bit drear with its purple leaves when spring has moved on into summer.

So why did Scotsdale win the Garden Centre of the Year award? For a start, it is well stocked: every product you have ever heard of and then some. The plants they have on sale are mostly well grown and well displayed. The houseplants are exceptionally good. More important though was the way the Scotsdale staff treated their customers. They knew the regulars and took time to talk to them. They answered questions, tracked down plants, entered orders for anything they had not got to hand and generally, as one customer put it, "made you feel it had been worth the journey".

The Scotsdale Garden Centre, 120 Cambridge Rd, Great Shelford, Cambs (01223 842777) is open Mon-Sat 9am-5.30pm, Sun 10.30am-4.30pm.

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