To Wembley, in search of Eden (to take away)

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'WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . . Thanne longen folk to goon,' as Chaucer so acutely pointed out, 'on pilgrimages.' Spring is the season of unquenchable hope. So a band of modern pilgrims gathered on Thursday morning on the Jubilee Line. Our minds were full of green visions, for we journey now at Eastertide for a renewal of faith not to the great cathedrals, but to the garden centre.

At Wembley Park the Tube carriages emptied. The expectant band trooped up to the conference centre, where an International Spring Gardening Fair is being held through the Easter holiday weekend. Within lies the Garden of Eden, spotless, fresh - only in patches, true, but perfect patches. Delicate flowers nodded in moist, ferny shade where no snail trod. Hundreds of pansies hid their heads without a spent petal in sight. Like all true visions, it is unsullied by reality. Almost entirely. A few stands in, and we came across the lawns.

Green velvet swards stretched across the conference floor, so flat, so uniform, so tedious. Just to the right, in another triangle, grew grass of varied shades, a little moss here, a few daisies there, the effect homely, familiar. Above it hung a stern notice. 'Typical, perhaps, of many gardens. Very simply it is beyond recall. Spray with a systemic weedkiller.' 'Nobody has a lawn like that]' said Georgina Mott.

Last year Mrs Mott bought turf to make a lawn in Ewell, Surrey. Her vision turned out in places to be bald. 'What should I do? No one seems to know. The gentleman said I should buy patching seed, but they don't sell it here.' Not that disappointment of this kind was new. 'If you're a bit ignorant about gardens, like me, you can spend pounds 5 on a plant,' she said sadly, 'and your centre will say it'll grow in any conditions. And it dies.'

A stall nearby was decked with a heady display of books: Glorious Gardens, The Patio Garden, The Town Garden, all with pictures of sunshine and full bloom. But where were the titles that showed the real town garden; the shade, the rubble, the woodlice, the true grimness of a gardener's fight against the odds? Where was 'The Slug Garden' or 'Gardening in Slime'?

Punters crushed around a stall full of spring flowers. A man fingered the delicate stalk of a white-flowered bleeding heart. Was it easy to grow? 'Yes, unless - well, my young nephew fell off a wall on top of it,' said Joyce Hodgson, of Avon Bulbs.

The highlight of the Wembley show is a group of front gardens sponsored by the Sun newspaper. None, sadly, contains topless statuary, but elaborate planking, costing pounds 3,000, and brick paths at pounds 18 per square metre, and a host of impeccable flowers, complete with steps to trip over, and central features for the paper boy to trample.

Janet Colman, from Brighton, looked through narrowed eyes at the design she thought the most practical, by Harvey's, of Stevenage. 'I couldn't have all those petunias,' she said. 'My tortoises would eat them.' The fearsome appetites of Petunia, 25, and Slowcoach, 37, forced her, she said, to grow only tough perennials. 'I've a rock garden they can't climb, and I choose plants they don't like the taste of, like heather.'

Upstairs a small shaft of reality had broken through. A kind of surgery for ill camellias had been set up. There, Marigold Assinder stood with other camellia doctors before a backdrop of pictures of camellias in various stages on the way to death. 'My camellia is very sick,' said Pam Goodchild. 'The buds are just not opening.' There was muttering among the specialists. 'Third one I've had this morning. Don't know why it's happening,' said one. Mrs Goodchild, a Royal Horticultural Society member from Ipswich, had done everything. Now she was going to try taking the buds off. 'If it doesn't work, it's going back to the supplier,' she said. 'We were let down with a medlar once. Everyone was baffled. That went back. You have to be careful; some stock at this show has been grown under glass, and you might not get the same colour, in the fuchsias, for example, once they're outside.'

It was midday. Long queues stretched by the food and drink stalls. Exhausted visitors laid themselves out in the corridors. Those making the pilgrimage this weekend would do well to take sandwiches and a flask. Mr and Mrs Linney from Sleaford sat on the floor. Mrs Linney was examining an exotic stalk that had been pressed upon her. 'Can you imagine growing any of these in Lincolnshire?' she said. 'They come from Hawaii for a start.' But one stall downstairs was drawing visitors like a stream of ants. 'I'll have two pounds' worth,' said a woman. 'No, make that five. I tell you what, make it ten.' Before her lay trays full of small, brown plastic prods. 'It works all right,' said the co-inventor of these, Jo Fadil. 'My neighbour in Walthamstow has 16 cats, and my tabby, Chewy, he couldn't cope. Couldn't fight them off. So we had an idea.'

The idea lay there, its patent applied for. Each small set of plastic prongs is inserted in the earth. Mr Fadil's idea, to put it discreetly, is that when the neighbour's cat lowers its furry rear in the earth of a border, it is too uncomfortable to, er, proceed. 'They've gone to other gardens to do it,' said Mr Fadil, triumphant. 'All 16 of them.' Ethel Jones, from Bushey, was buying in quantity. 'We have digging squirrels,' she said. 'They dig up the bulbs in my pots. Think they've left their nuts in them, I suppose.'

The truth is that despite appearances at garden shows, no garden in the real world is an Eden, but a place full of original evils. The pilgrimage was over. Small bands began to stagger back to the Tube, weighed down by plants and pots. At Wembley Park station we looked through the green fronds of our optimism at one another. And a lady started, to while away the journey, to tell us a tale.

'My friend and I,' she said, 'once visited that garden by that famous gardener Margery Fish. We bought quite a few plants and quite a few didn't live. So my friend went to the library and got out one of Margery Fish's books. And she came round quite excited. Because Mrs Fish said, in this book, that one third of the plants she got died, and the other third were trampled to death by her husband. And that really cheered both of us up.'

(Photograph omitted)