/ Home & Energy

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!

pickle says:
4 November 2010

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!

Bill says:
8 November 2010

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!

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.

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.

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.

Have spent hundreds of pounds from garden centres to find one by one the plants have died. I’m not a gardener and have asked advice from staff but no one at these centres seem to know nothing. Not spending any more money.

Garden centre worker says:
3 September 2012

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

Garden centres are changing to meet the popular demands.A cup of coffee and a friendly meal,somewhere to meet up with friends and easy car parking.Play barns for young families,father Xmas and decorations,all alight and so welcoming.A garden centre is now becoming a leisure centre for young and old.Wander thru the planteria on a nice day and be reminded of spring/summer.What a lovely way to spend part of your day.

From the sublime to the down right horrible
I ordered things from two garden centers this week one called koremans ,
was absolutely fantastic , great plants , bulbs and corms , amazingly good prices,
and first rate quality ,all round , quick delivery and well packed ,marvelous !!!!
My second order was very different in fact quite disgusting ,
the web site was , in my opinion , difficult ,and kept timing me out before id
finished my order,
the advice given for the uk weather tolerance for a lot of thier rare plants
was poor ,then ,when I emailed them for help to find a way to buy the things,
I recieved a long winded , rather insulting, unhelpfull email , from a member
of this family business , telling me she had decided to cancel my order , which
insidentally ,according to thier web site had been timed out , before i finished
anyway , however , they had taken my money , confused ??…uhu , me too …I then tried
again to politely ask for help and an explanation , …the reply came back even more insulting than the first , as to my integrity and ability , and saying they had refunded my money ….which insidentaly after a week im still waiting for , but when i mentioned this i recieved yet another very rude email from same young lady !!!! .aparently , it would seem I am incompetant , know nothing about web sites or buying plants .

Oh how i would have dearly loved to mention the name of one of the the biggest and probably most famous , many times chelsea winning , nursery my family used to own 😂😂😂 ……but decided it was time to move on ….back to one of the good ones 🤗

I have wasted such a lot of time and energy in weeding, digging and planting when the plants that I bought proved to be totally unsuitable for the climate in the area in which I both bought and planted them. Garden centres are selling certain plants as perennials but so many either rot in the ground during the winter months or are not frost hardy for the level of frost that they encounter. The cost of them is huge if you have to constantly replace them as you would with annuals. For example, Marguerites rarely survive a winter here and if they do, their condition means that they are rarely worth keeping. Coreopsis rots in the ground as does Monardia. I follow any instructions for soil, care and position. I used to be able to buy these plants in a local plant nursery at about £1 per plant and bought 8 coreopsis and 12 marguerites each year. They grew to full healthy size in my garden in time for their natural flowering season. Now they are sold early as large potted flowering plants at £8 to £9. They suffer from any late cold weather, and end up looking dreadful in comparison to their garden centre appearance. I can not justify their expenditure, so I now buy plug plants and pot them on to grow on my kitchen window ledge. I do not want to garden like this. I am disabled and need an easy life.
In America plants are sold with the appropriate frost level that it can cope with.
Years ago, I used to buy plants from a local nursery that propagated the plants and grew them on before sale. The Garden centres that replaced those nurseries very rarely act as plant nurseries now. They source their plants from remote suppliers and the plants are quite often ‘forced’ and supplied in containers to provide ‘instant’ gardens. Also quite often, large and medium potted plants are pot bound and their roots are often never able to adapt and spread in open ground.
All that being said, a garden centre with all that it offers as a small shopping centre and cafeteria does provide my days out with an easy source of recreation and one stop shopping in a congenial clean atmosphere. I particularly like garden centres with outdoor green areas or lakes with seating for temporary rests from the long walks around the site.

Judi hemsworth says:
23 June 2020

Thank you for your help today ,the nursery looked lovely ,I found every thing I needed in my allotted time .really well run.