Thursday 12 September 2019

Faults of Garden Centres

Faint praise for garden centres

My garden visitors often book their lunch at Langlands
Over my life there have been three big changes to how we buy plants

1. Plants are sold in containers which can be bought and  - with appropriate caveats - planted all the year round. Not always pot grown, sometimes with such as trees they might be grown in the ground and subsequently containerised . Beware their collapse if newly potted or at the other extreme have strangling woody root girdles if left in too long.

2. Plants  are not usually grown at the point of sale but grown elsewhere by highly skilled specialists. So specialised that some growers, especially Dutch ones grow only one crop - for smaller stuff by the million! 

Mass production

About their crop these growers know everything worth knowing and their quality plants  arrive at the superstore or garden centre in perfect condition. It’s a moot point whether they stay that way for long. If you buy at a supermarket buy their new stock on a Saturday morning. By midweek they are frazzled away.
3. Garden centres have become selling pavilions for hardware and trivia. Not always tacky their stuff on a good day vaguely relates to gardening. We all use their restaurants and sometimes buy plants. Brenda and I stop for coffee on our way to our favourite  plant centre at Reighton. You too might have local places that just sell plants.


Powdery mildew when the systemic fungicide wears off

I frequently cast doubt about the garden success of plants purchased at the garden centre. I recently referred to their plants that ‘curl up and die’. It is my penchant for overstatement I don’t really mean it. I will try to be kinder today. I confess that sometimes I do buy their plants. Indeed some of my very best ones were bought at garden centres.

Batting for garden centres
In the round they provide endless pleasure and convenience for consumers. They are customer orientated and make us feel welcome. In the old days I would go to a nursery and apologise for bothering them.

They bring gardening products together and give you new ideas as to gardening aids and new plants. You can just pop round to replace some gadget, a tool or fertiliser or chemical or a plant to fill up a space.

They can provide a day out where you can get a good meal. Perhaps you have visitors who are gardeners and it is somewhere to go.

Most garden centres have advice desks and on a good day will give you real information. Lets face it most visitors know little about real gardening and they will know more than you. You might find them a little biased to promote their own products.

Prefer my blog if you have myths to dispel. If they sell such as tree paint by definition they will claim it a good thing!
To be fair some of their staff have had horticultural training and are keen gardeners themselves. Some on the quiet will admit that their iron sulphate fertiliser will kill moss and is much cheaper than the official mosskiller. Roger dream on.

Some garden centres involve themselves in community activities and have lively gardening clubs which they sponsor.

Some local garden centres are really excellent well managed places who pride themselves on plant quality and have skilled staff who maintain them. They are likely to be managed by their owner. Beware big chains who buy up successful businesses and whose accountants promptly ruin them.

Although in a moment I question long term survival of some of their plants they are generally free of pest and disease. No longer do you buy in such as red spider mite and greenhouse whitefly and infect your garden for ever. When you buy them they look to be in pristine condition and depending on your skill and serendipity will remain so for days - or even longer?

But it’s not all good

Let’s  leave on one side those garden centres that are not well managed and the difficulties they all have of maintaining stock in prime condition in all kinds of weather such as days of sunny windy drying conditions, gales or driving rain. Plants might suffer all kinds of stresses which carry over to the time you get them home.
Although slow release fertilisers in modern composts last quite a long time it is not easy to provide nutrition to plants on display. If garden centre stock has been on display for months it might be tired and hungry. I say 'tired' because often they are put out in apparent pristine flowering condition and by the time you buy them they might be starting to go over. If they are perennial hopefully just for that season and not for ever.

Indeed their is great skill in determining which old plants on cut price sale are absolute rubbish - or in contrast better and sturdier than when they were bought in! Perhaps give them a liquid feed or a light fertiliser top dressing when you get them home.

From various perspectives garden centre plants are grown ‘soft’. I have posted about this elsewhere and it is an ill defined concept.
At the simplest level it is caused by the accelerated growing techniques to enable the producer to get a quick crop - plenty of fertiliser and a wet growing regime.
Plants in garden centre composts are in either peat or trendily produced from organic waste. They do not usually contain sand or soil.
Fifty years ago my old foreman brought up on John Innes compost swore that the then new fangled peat grown plants were not the same. They would not stand up to a Parks Department’s rough hazards when making their displays and succumbed more readily to pest and disease. I argued with him then but would not do so now.

Another kind of softness is that garden centre plants are not usually hardened off. This is the traditional process where plants are slowly acclimatised to cold, storm and wind when they are moved out from protected conditions. Good gardeners now do it themselves when they get them home. Less experienced gardeners suffer checked plants or even lose them - and return to the garden centre to buy some more.

This is on my part purely speculative but after researching my new realisation about the benefits of silicon I am starting to wonder if certain peat or organic composts are deficient in silicon. (Deficient in something that is not even regarded as a nutrient even though some plants take up far more of it than NPK put together - if it is there to be absorbed). Uptake of silicon is now known to correlate with hardening of plant tissues. Is this another reason why garden centre plants are soft?

One upshot of soft growth is that plants are more susceptible to disease. Pristine garden centre plants still retain the protection of the producers systemic fungicide spray but when this wears of……

Another source of disappointment is that many trendy hardy perennial herbaceous plants are not very perennial  and in some cases rather tender too. Modern varieties are bred to stack on Dutch trays and look well on display benching. To hell if they do well in the garden, they can sell you some more.  Indeed modern consumers expect short term offerings that do not last for ever. They expect to buy something new!

Most garden centres offer generous guarantees of long term survivability but who keeps receipts for such things? - and anyway gardeners always blame themselves for plant mortality. In some cases this is true.

All that tat 

It’s not just garden centres that make you walk through consumer products to get what you want. Think of airports and motorway services. For the latter even the toilet is right at the back.
For some customers consumer products are the main attraction and they do keep none gardening spouses happy. They will spend more on the pretty stuff than you on the plants. Indeed it is where garden centres make most of their profit. It does annoy me when the Christmas display starts in August (or even starts at all).
I can claim some prior knowledge of this now established fashion. My friend and colleague Chris Snook promoted the idea to the garden centre trade when he was their professional advisor many years ago. I remind him every time I see him.
I does not have to be so
There are still plant centres that limit themselves to just selling plants and useful garden sundries. You will have to look hard to find them.
Our own favourite is Reighton Nurseries north of Bridlington and near Filey. When we moved in to an empty acre garden we would take regular rides over the Yorkshire Wolds and return with our hatchback stuffed full of all manor of hardy plants. Dozens and even up to a hundred and we would always spend less that an £100. Indeed ours was a ‘Reighton garden’ albeit fortified with plants from my lifetime collecting and stock from ‘my’ cemetery gardens.
Reighton have an unusual business  plan. They propagate their own or buy in very small starter plants, pot them up and grow them on. The unusual thing is they go out to where they will both grow and you can buy them. You might choose young fresh stock or older and sometimes rather mature plants. For some such as shrubs they may be there a year or two, better or worse for their maturity but perhaps somewhat weedy. It’s a real Aladdin’s cave for plant connoisseurs with thousand upon thousand of cheap plants including some unusual and rare.
Their compost contains some sand and those grown outside are not soft. In their extensive tunnels some plants just might be tender

My recent post about silicon

My piece about soft growth  


  1. We have a garden centre near us that is plant orientated although it does have a small cafe. It's a family business and the son is a chef so they are run as two separate entities. My 'complaint' is that gardening programmes show and recommends plants that you just can never seem to find. Houseplants are also difficult to find if you want something different for which I blame supermarkets. Growing houseplants no longer seems viable when people buy one with the weekly shop.

    1. We are often disappointed at plant centres in great gardens which offer the usual stuff and not what they grow themselves.
      As to house plants sold at the supermarket many of them become as expendable as a bunch of flowers. Not always, many of our own orchids come from Sainsburys!

  2. Great post, Roger. Much of this reflects my own experience but I still can't keep away from them. My own pet hate is wrong labelling of plants. My own examples include a rosa mundi with no stripes, a Sorbus Joseph Rock with red berries, a blue wisteria with white flowers...I can go on and on but I will stop there before I get depressed

    1. My worst experiences of wrong labels are bulbs from Amsterdam flower markets - and the 'happy accidents' always seem to be the cheaper varieties

  3. Much the same everywhere now. We are also fortunate to have a similar small plant only nursery near by and then there is always NGS open gardens and rare plant fairs.

    1. Some of my best plants came from open gardens - often bought in scruffy pots of soil compost
      I did actually get some very fine dahlias sent to me by a reader called Brian Skeys. I thanked him in my recent post about dahlias!

  4. PS Brian I have just tried log into your website and after ten minutes trying gave up
    It kept asking the URL for my website

  5. Recently when visiting RHS Rosemoor they had a fabulous display of Geranium Capricorn in prime place in their long border just opposite the ticket office. Not minding spending more than usual for a plant in support of the gardens I was surprised to hear from the on site garden selling place, that they did not, that they do not get plant lists etc...I think some joined up thinking needs to take place. I mentioned this to strange affair when visiting Beth Smith's garden, and was given a plant, which has yielded three good new plants in less three months, one of which has been passed onto another keen gardener. Some of the best plants I have have been bought through independent growers...and from friends.

  6. I think I buy about half my plants from online nurseries who grow their own plants and half from garden centers. My favorite garden center was a no-frills place that grew their own annuals. Sadly they closed the center that was near me, the remaining one is too far to utilize. In this country a lot of the plant malpractice is committed by "big box" stores like Home Depot, Lowe's, etc. These are stores that sell some of everything at a low price, the staff know nothing about plants.

    1. Interesting to hear experience over the water Jason. Our equivalent is perhaps what we sometimes call 'the sheds' household suppliers for DYS building etc
      I remember a friends glee when he bought his bedding plants at less than half price, reduced just because they were wilting. They stood up like soldiers when he got them home.


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