IF it hadn’t been for Alan Titchmarsh I doubt if the garden centre industry would have flourished in the way it did.
He dragged us away from the traditional deck chairs left over from a bygone era and persuaded us to extend our living space into the garden by adding decking while his blonde bombshell presenter Charlie Dimmock thought every garden should have a pond or water feature of some kind.
I always had a problem with these ideas. Cleaning the decking was bound to be a nightmare every spring and the sound of running water irritates me after a while. A pond is no use without fish in it. The buzzards which live in the trees behind me would have a ready lunch each day. I eschewed all three ideas opting instead for simple gardening. I even gave up hanging baskets because I couldn’t be bothered with all that watering. In fact in the early 70s leisure time in my garden was nothing more than two ancient moth eaten sun beds which had to be held up with bricks.
But like most people who watched gardening programmes I was enticed into new up-and-coming garden centres, rarely leaving without a boot load of stuff to plant. It became a type of addiction.
Then our garden centres got bigger. They added coffee shops and soon a visit to one centre became more of a social outing. It was a great to follow up a gossip amidst the roses with a light lunch of carrot and coriander soup or a large slice of pavlova. Is it any wonder women’s waistlines expanded from the 1970s onwards?
Garden centres became our first shopping choice for Christmas presents. Most of them became festive grottos for grown ups. They had everything from the trees to tinsel to toys. Your average garden centre at Christmas was my idea of shopping heaven.
The centres got bigger by the year, many with their own nurseries. They offered paving of all kinds and the latest in garden furniture and then, more lately, home ware. We were in seventh heaven.
But something has happened to garden centres as I found this week. There are about six I would visit from time to time. The first one didn’t appear to have any attendants around and so I did what I’d normally do, took off to the coffee shop to wait. Alas, it was closed with a promise to re-open in the autumn. After another wait I decided to go to the next nearest one. It was displaying clearance signs and looked as though business had contracted somewhat.
So what was to be a social outing with a friend became a recce to see what was happening in other garden centres in the locality. At the third one we got the shock of our lives. Christmas decorations were lying around so I assumed they were clearing out the summer stuff in readiness for a Christmas display. An assistant was quite adamant.
“We are closing down at the end of the month,” she declared. You could have knocked me down with a hollyhock. We decided to digest this news over lunch in their rather nice restaurant. Alas it had been reduced to half size and yes, it was closing down too. It was too sad to wander around the emptying shelves. All my garden furniture had come from here in the past and the evening launch of their Christmas shop over the years was always a social event.
Surely to goodness the fourth one would still be up and running so off we went. Yes it was doing business but not a lot. A place which is normally stuffed at lunchtime had about a dozen diners only. This place might be saved from the ravages of the recession because it has diversified into items for hobbies such as knitting needles and wool. There is also an enormous section for feeding wild birds which we should all be doing in the winter. But there was just a scattering of customers. Clearly the recession has devastated this market because we’ve all been minding the pennies.
I’m sure our garden centres need saving. For over 30 years they have done your average Ulster garden proud. They’ve introduced us to alfresco living – yes I know the wasps are a botheration at this time of year – and plants we’d never otherwise heard of. And just as the latest thing for the home is an organery, or an atrium or even a summer house at the bottom of the garden we’re going to be without their expertise to move our gardens on.
The big ones will probably survive but it’s the little ones we should care about.