Seabrook On... Garden centre inspectors

No apology for writing in praise once again of the Monday programme at the Garden Centre Association (GCA) conference, even if the return taxi fare from Edinburgh Airport to St Andrews did cost me £250.

Where else can you sit comfortably and hear reports from four experienced, well-qualified inspectors and see their photographs of 170 garden centres from across Britain carefully assessed?

Roger Crookes made his selection from 2,000 photos taken during his spring and autumn inspections for the best plants/Ruxley rose awards. Our best centres do now stock plants of unbelievably high quality and they are very professionally presented, compared with 40 years ago.

Three of the inspectors have now retired, with Ian Boardman being the longest-serving and having 17 years in the role. What a wealth of knowledge they have and it is to be hoped their experience continues to serve our industry.

I speak from personal knowledge as the first field officer back in 1970, when four centres a day from Lelant in Cornwall to Aberdeen in the North East were inspected - 80 in four weeks. That productivity was in no small measure due to my then boss at Bord na Mona, Michael Oliver, who did the journey plan and made all the appointments.

Three newly appointed GCA inspectors come with considerable retail track records - Gordon Emslie, ex-Sainsbury's; Michal Cole, ex-Notcutts; and Hedley Triggs, 25 years with Trelawney. It looks to me, however, as if the selectors missed a couple of tricks by not including the female touch and a relatively new entrant to our industry.

There are more women customers than men, ladies generally have a good eye for colour and design, and when it comes to selling things their input is invaluable.

The presentations by the five Rising Star finalists at St Andrews were really impressive, not least when everyone clearly demonstrated how focusing attention on either one product or product range brought increased sales and profitability.

They are excellent examples of the bright, hard-working and enthusiastic young people we have in the garden centre industry. Thanks are due to Edward Conroy and Westland for sponsoring and backing this initiative.

A young person of such calibre, doing inspections alongside older people, would be great training for them and bring in social media and other modern attributes. After a day at the GCA and the next at IPM Essen, it was of note to see how plant producers are becoming much more attuned to retailers' needs.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster

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