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Garden centres – ditch the gimmicks and stick to your specialism

Woman in garden centre

Do you mind that half the merchandise in garden centres is made up of gifts, decorations, books and sweets? If you’re after gardening advice you could be in for a nasty shock – and lots of unsuitable plants.

November is the time of year to plant tulips, so this weekend I popped into my local Homebase to buy some. But there weren’t any. Instead, the aisles were chock-full of Christmas decorations.

Now, I know it’s ‘normal’ to see Christmas stuff in shops months before the big day, but recent figures show that around 50% of products on sale at garden centres are non-gardening related. Surely we should be able to buy bulbs when it’s the right time to buy them!

Garden centres need a makeover

It seems that retail guru Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas agrees. At a recent conference organised by the Horticultural Trades Association, she didn’t hold back in criticising garden centres. She said that despite being a keen gardener herself, she has never come away from a garden centre feeling like she’d learnt anything.

Contrary to what the garden retail sector seems to think, Mary believes garden centres should know their specialism and capitalise on it. She queried why resin birds, cuddly toys and sweets were on sale at all.

While I can see that garden centres need to bring the money in, I think they’re missing a trick when it comes to educating (and therefore keeping) their customers. Take my sister, for example. She’s new to gardening and is keen to learn – and like many novice gardeners, pretty impatient – she wants her garden to look good, now!

‘Perennial’, ‘annual’, ‘hardy’ and ‘tender’ are all alien terms to her – and she’s none the wiser having gone to the garden centre. She phones me excitedly as she heads to the till with a trolley load of unsuitable plants – and I tell her to put them all back.

Garden centres should educate us about plants

According to Mary, ‘service is the new selling’ and I agree – if my sister bought the wrong plants at the garden centre, they wouldn’t do well and she’d be in danger of giving up on gardening altogether.

Mary suggested loads of ways in which garden centres could educate their customers, including ‘sets’ that take inspiration from the Chelsea Flower Show, ‘gardeners in residence’ (along the lines of the ‘genius bars’ in Apple stores) to give advice, and garden design services.

What do you expect from a garden centre? For me, the best ones group plants by the conditions that they like to grow in (such as sunny or shady spots). They have display beds to show what the plants actually look like when they’re growing and what they look good with. And they actually sell tulip bulbs when it’s time to plant them!

Comments
Guest

I have two local garden centres and they both dispence good advice – so the writer may have been unlucky. As for Christmas gimmics – they do take up a lot of space, but you don’t have to buy them – just walk past!

Guest

Tulips in November! I thought they should be planted as soon as possible after lifting and that is done when the tulips have died back and the land is dry enough for the farmers to get their machinery into the fields which is usually July/August/September time. Planting them in soggy cold frozen November soil will not do them any good at all. Gardening is not about set dates its about temperature and weather conditions. Christmas is always at the end of December leaving the shop owners with 8 weeks to sell enough stock to keep the business going until the weather and temperature is aligned enough for spring to start and that could be March/April/May time!

Guest

I think you missed the point here. Mary wants tulip bulbs for her garden not a ploughed field. Tulip bulbs should be planted in November when there is less chance of them catching tulip blight. Of the garden centres I have been in recently, the Christmas stuff was out at the beginging of November.

Profile photo of Veronica Peerless
Guest

Hi Bill
Here at Which? Gardening we advise planting tulip bulbs in November to avoid a disease called ‘tulip fire’. While I appreciate that garden centres have to make a living in the winter months, there are loads of plants that you can and should buy in winter – roses and fruit bushes to name but two : ) Veronica

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Guest

My local garden centre is run and staffed by horticulturists, is friendly and helpful to everyone with sound advice, delivers goods conveniently for a low charge, and sells good quality plants and bulbs at the best times. They also have a pets and animal department with feed, bedding and accessories which seems to be a suitable adjunct to the garden centre. They sell a few sweets at the till and have a few garden ornaments and novelties but are not into cakes, calendars, candles, key rings and cuddly toys, But at this time of year a portion of the indoor area is transformed into a grotto where wizened elves and other hideous creatures remind us that the yule tide approacheth. I asked the manager why they felt the need to muck about with such stuff and he said they never did until Tesco, Morrison, etc, started selling seeds, bulbs, compost, spades, wellie boots and all the other garden paraphernalia. So now I don’t mind if the garden centre gets by in the winter months on some tawdry baubles, and they do sell some locally-produced traditional wreaths and garlands, very well-made with real berries, leaves and pinecones. I shall shortly be going there to get some bare-root beech trees for planting out and I might just inspect the festive merchandise on my way round.

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Guest

I am a keen gadener and although by no means an expert over some 40 + yearsI have gained fairly extensive knowledge about some aspects. I find good advice sadly lacking from most staff in garden centgres – at weekends they mostly seem to be staffed by school pupils who have no knowledge about or interest in plants or gardening sundries.

I have noticed that over the last few years more space is given to non-gardening items and restaurants but realise that traders need to diversify in order to survive.
I would like to see staff trained in what they are selling.

Guest
Garden centre worker says:
3 years 5 months ago

You went to home base, what was you expecting?? If you want actual service try an actual garden centre and not a DIY store. Secondly places like mine buy in what we sell which makes total sense, if you don’t buy we don’t supply. We are a garden centre that will happily advise, we have a range of plants planted to show customers what it will look like and nobody takes any notice so that’s a waste of time. This year we have struggled so much as a garden centre as the weathers been bad so gardeners abandoned us managing to stay afloat thanks to the restaurant, shop, aquatics and everything else apart from plants so yes we now have less plants and less waste and less of a loss of money