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I’ve had some frustrating experiences in garden centres recently and I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with them as places to spend my cash. We’re bombarded with the word choice whether it’s where to have an operation, which school you send your children to or the seemingly infinite number of breakfast cereals on offer. And yet you wouldn’t think so if you visited a selection of garden centres.

My attention has been somewhat diverted this spring and summer with all my seed sowing and plant nurturing energies focussed on the plants needed for my book rather than my garden. Once the plants were all happily growing away at the plot I noticed that my garden needed a bit of a lift. Gaps had appeared where bulbs had died down and I didn’t have any plants lurking around to fill these spaces. I didn’t want any perennials, just something that would provide lots of flowers over a long period of time. I didn’t think it would be a problem to find something and paid a few visits to my local garden centres. How wrong could I be.

Meadow style planting on a roundabout courtesy of Newport City Council

Meadow style planting on a roundabout courtesy of Newport City Council

I have never been a fan of bedding plants. It seems like gardening for Lilliputians. So many lovely plants that have been bred to be small, which end up losing any charm, and often in the process any pollen and nectar too. I appreciate that some of them have a place in hanging baskets and possibly certain municipal planting schemes. Although I’d much prefer it if councils used more of the meadow-style planting ideas championed by Sarah Raven and Nigel Dunnett. Garden centres and nurseries across the country though are stuffed with bedding plants from April through to June. If you want anything remotely different, something with a bit of height to sway in the breeze or something which provides food for pollinating insects so that the garden is buzzing with life then there’s very little choice in terms of annuals at all. There’s tray upon tray of begonias which I hate with a passion and insipid looking lobelias and alyssum. These tiny, tight, compact plants make me think of a character from Dickens, their face all wizened and screwed up and unhappy with the world.

Cosmos 'Candy Stripe'

Cosmos ‘Candy Stripe’

Plants like Cosmos ‘Candy Stripe’ on the other hand, now there’s a plant to love. Frothy, feathery foliage, stems at a height that you can see the flower without having to crouch down and put your back out and lots of pollen for passing bees, hoverflies and butterflies. What about cornflowers, ammi, daucus and rudbeckia? These are all great plants. Now I know what you’re thinking, annuals are so easy to grow from seed and cheap you’d be crazy to buy them as plants from the garden centre. The thing is not everyone has the space, knowledge or inclination to grow these plants from seeds. Even if you do slugs often scupper your plans and sometimes it’s too late to resow and start again. There are times when I’m willing to pay for the quick fix, the plant that someone else has grown and has got it to the stage that I just need to plant it in my sunny garden and within weeks it’ll be flowering. And what about biennials? So many people forget to sow them in June and July probably because they are recovering from the frantic April and May seed sowing and pricking out bonanza. But, come September the only biennials for sale seem to be wallflowers and bedding ones at that. It’s a real pity as there are so many great plants that garden centres and nurseries could sell but they don’t.

Disappointed by the lack of imagination on the annual plant front I turned to dahlias thinking there would at least be a good selection of those. There were a few at the first garden centre but none that really appealed so I thought I’d give some other places a try. With each visit to another garden centre I saw exactly the same dahlia varieties on offer. It was the same with other plants too. So much for choice. Availability and choice for the garden centres themselves is clearly driven by what the wholesale nurseries are offering and, unfortunately for us the consumers, this means less choice rather than more. It feels as if the garden centre industry has succumbed to a sort of supermarketification. I have never really liked the diversification into sickly smelling candles, dubious fashion and travel sweets that so many garden centres have followed in recent years, but I accept that a seasonal business needs to look at other avenues for income. My real gripe is when they don’t get the core element of the business, the reason they are there in the first place, right. I see no point in having 5 independent nurseries within a 30 mile radius when they all sell exactly the same stock.

The online nursery Crocus offers a couple of plants that I see as the new wave of ‘bedding’, taller plants, loved by insects such as Ammi majus and Orlaya grandiflora but mail order isn’t always what you’re looking for on a Saturday afternoon when the time allows for a spot of gardening and inspiration takes over. This is when the local garden centre should come into its own but for me it so rarely does.

Specialist nurseries can be great. Knowledgeable owners and well looked after plants and the specialism means a much wider variety of plants to choose from. But I’ve yet to find one that has tackled the traditional bedding plant market and tried to offer something different. If you know of somewhere I’d love to hear about it. Wildlife friendly gardening is one of the biggest trends at the moment and annuals are some of the best plants for attracting insects and yet the garden centres, or certainly the ones around me, have yet to catch on. I wonder whether it’s because trays of small plants such as marigolds and petunias are so much easier to stack in racks and transport. I can appreciate the logistics but if this is what plant selling has become about, a pile it high sell it quick approach, lacking in inspiration and imagination then it’s sad. I leave you with what must be the world’s smallest dahlia. Need I say any more.

A teeny tiny dahlia

A teeny tiny dahlia

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