Walkden went on to recommend that a member of staff be specifically appointed to give advice to beginners at every centre. She also suggested centres offer a section of plants promoted specifically for virgin gardeners. As if to underline the point, a senior member of the GCA told us that he had recently been lumped with the care of an allotment and had found information on growing vegetables difficult to access.
While browsing vegetable plants on sale at centres, I take these points - we do want hardy lettuce 'Little Gem', quick-maturing cabbage 'Hispi', calabrese 'Sakura' and cauliflower 'All the Year Round' in February and March, but do not want winter cabbage, spring-maturing sprouting broccoli or cauliflowers until late spring.
Runner and French beans need to wait until the chance of frost has pretty well gone, while round-seeded peas and broad beans are needed from now on in most areas. It is difficult, I know, when at time of writing we have "February dust" and temperatures close to 10 degsC in the south, while Perth in Scotland is under snow. Even if temperatures plummet, those early hardy vegetables will cope. Offering the right things at the right time does help all gardeners, not just beginners.
At the GCA conference, the attendance of 20 first-time delegates had been sponsored by Westland. The qualification, as I understand it, was that any garden centre employee who was not a family member of a family firm could apply. What a great idea and an excellent thing to do - it opened up the "old boy" club at a stroke and brought in a breath of fresh air. Without beginners and first-timers, gardening and the garden trade has no future.
- Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster.