Garden centres are born

In 1961, Gardeners' Chronicle hailed the advent of garden centres in Britain which was set to encourage many more to garden.

New style: artist’s impression of D Stewart & Sons’ garden centre, Christchurch, 1961
New style: artist’s impression of D Stewart & Sons’ garden centre, Christchurch, 1961

It has quite often been said that the horticultural trade is backward-looking and un-enterprising. Like most such generalisations it contains its germ of truth, but will not stand up to investigation and could certainly not be applied to the majority of nurserymen.

It is often forgotten that nurserymen and growers work on a profit margin which most other businessmen would consider inadequate and unacceptable. Many such enterprises, too, are being run on limited resources, which makes development more of a burden than it would in more affluent circumstances.

Bearing this in mind, it can quite fairly be said that the horticultural trade is not unaware of the path it must follow, nor is it sitting back and allowing its markets to dwindle.

None of us need telling how much living patterns have changed in Britain during the past 15 years or so: the evidence is before our eyes on all sides, in town and country, and indeed every time we leave our own doorsteps. As we have noticed on previous occasions, for the nurserymen as for many others who have goods to offer, these changes have meant a major adjustment to meet new challenges, to create fresh outlets.

One of the most promising developments in recent years, for example, has been the opening in various parts of the country of what have come to be known, very aptly, as garden centres. The latest of these to open is at Christchurch, Hampshire, where D. Stewart and Sons Ltd., the well-known nurserymen of Ferndown, Dorset, have pulled out all the stops, as it were, to provide local gardeners with a well-designed centre which will give them a first-class gardening service. A report of the opening appears on the following page, and the fact that some 6,000 people passed through the centre on this first day leads one to suppose that this type of centre is going to encourage many more people to take an active interest in gardening.

Stewarts’ proposal to put their small theatre at the disposal of local horticultural and floral arrangement societies is a generous offer which might well be emulated by other firms, for healthy, vigorous societies can do much in their way to stimulate the interest which is needed to keep the nurserymen busy. The dedicated garden enthusiast may see no need to woo the ‘floating’ or casual gardener, but it is from this source that more and more businesses may come in the future. If this new-style garden centre can encourage these amateur gardeners to widen their interests they will be achieving something for which we will all be grateful.

This may all seem far removed from what other gardeners among us consider to be the true functions of a nurseryman’s business. But we are living in the 1960s, not the 1920s, and the pressure on people to buy all kinds of products for their pleasure or comfort has never been greater. The harsh fact is that those who do not meet the public more than half-way will find that their efforts in other directions are wasted.

Garden centres will undoubtedly do much to enhance horticulture commercially. There is every reason to think that in the social sense the good they do will be even greater.

A container revolution?

Plantsmen will probably always look down on garden centres. For them, picking up a container-grown plant and wheeling it off in an overgrown supermarket trolley bears no comparison to a difficult and dangerous trek through rocky crags for a choice specimen of Campanula piperi. Even the connoisseurs’ garden centre of Sunningdale Nurseries may not be for them.

But garden centres, and particularly the concept of growing plants in containers, are going to become very important indeed, both to amateur gardeners, and to the professional in horticulture. The amateur will shortly be seeing garden centres advertised on television along with dog foods and detergents. A start is being made on Anglia TV by Notcutts of Woodbridge, Daniels of Norwich and By-Pass Nurseries of Colchester. If nurseries running garden centres find TV advertising as commercially rewarding as dog food and detergent manufacturers, they may in time, no longer feel the need to exhibit at shows.

With the opportunities that lie ahead for garden centres, there must be many nurserymen cursing the day their forefathers sited their premises deep in the country away from main roads. And there must be many more praying for a motorway to be built past their gates. Nurseries lucky enough to be sited on main roads have got away to a flying start.

With the expense and occasional slowness of the nationalised transport systems, we may find in the not too distant future that the majority of shrubs and trees are sold from garden centres; that means that most will be container-grown.

As the proponents of container-grown produce are not slow to point out, the amateur can plant practically whenever he wants to.

But it is not merely the amateur who is benefiting from the use of container-grown nursery stock. It is now enabling professional horticulturists – in the shape of parks departments, for example – to continue planting right through the year. As soon as housing schemes are completed and the tenants are ready to move in, trees and shrubs can be planted,  irrespective of the time of year.? New towns and estates can be decently clothed that little bit sooner.

This sort of scheme has been quietly underway for some time, but the GLC’s Thamesmead project for a town of 60,000 has dramatically pushed the idea a step further.

In stage 1 of the Thamesmead development the GLC plans to plant some 14,000 shrubs – all container-grown. And it is planned to continue planting between April and September. Being able to spread the work of planting through the year means that extra labour does not have to be hired during what are usually peak planting periods. In spite of this massive planting, the GLC hopes not to have to take on any additional labour.

It is a pity that more could not be done with container-grown trees. It might be possible to plant larger and more mature stock than would usually be the case with stock lifted from the open ground. By planting more mature stock, damage to trees by would-be young Tarzans would be greatly reduced. The branches they like to swing on would be either out of reach or, if not, strong enough to take the strain.

The obvious disadvantage of garden centres, of course, is that the pressures of commerce may force them to carry only a restricted range of produce for which there is a strong and continuing demand (We promise that we will shall not be publishing a Horticultural Top Ten in Gardeners’ Chronicle).

Another, rather more insidious disadvantage may be that produce is not genuinely ‘container grown’ as John Abrams points out in ‘Viewpoints’. The British Standard ‘Glossary for Landscape Work’ defines ‘pot-grown’ as ‘Having been  individually grown from propagation in a pot or similar container’.

A few catalogues have a phrase such as ‘Our stock conforms with British Standards where applicable’, but it is tucked coyly away to fill up an odd corner of a page. Surely it would be worth making the point in a prominent position near the beginning? And why not display a sign to the same effect in garden centres, where customers buy on impulse and may not have a catalogue?

We need to get the general public used to the idea of buying British Standard nursery stock. The poets may never have envisaged a British Standard rose, but it has well and truly arrived.

And not only the general public. When a large parks department buys product from outside nurseries it will usually demand a quality at least equal to that of the B.S. But is this true of tenders from all parks departments, especially the smaller ones? Does the public – this time in the form of the ratepayer – get value for money?

? Taken from Gardeners’ Chronicle, 28 October 1961

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