Friday, 24 May 2013

Retail Therapy

This is Dorney Court Kitchen Garden in Berkshire: a design-led independent nursery with equally good plants and cake

There is a bunch of new kids in town. Pretenders to the horticultural sales throne lining up for a slice of the plant-purchase pie; supermarkets and high street retailers are jostling into the base of a pyramid of gardening expertise which is topped by artisan nurseries and with garden centres, DIY sheds and their ilk piled up variously beneath.

So how are they doing? Donning a large hat and fake moustache dark glasses, I embarked on a little espionage.  First stop was a new budget supermarket that has opened in town I have been told great things about their simple, desirable range of stock nothing too complex...‘flying off the shelves’ was the message I got. I tend to champion specialists and the little guys, but I was open minded.

Until I got there. Exhibit A was a Dutch trolley of wilted petunias. The box cones at about a tenner...were just a bit too sad looking. Twine, wire and chemicals were well priced but the roses and fruit were desperate. A tragedy of etiolated shoots and withered foliage. Then I was tempted: Malus sargentii ‘Red Sentinel’ for £4.99. But it was illustrated with a picture of M. ‘John Downey’ and, given the time of year really should have been showing a little more life. No.

Warming to my mission, I proceeded up the high street to another budget retailer of (the sort of place, where you can buy everything from taps to cushions to dog food). In my capacity as regional horticultural busybody, have told them about their plants before, so the potatoes sprouting out of the packet were no real surprise. Unsubtly checking the cardboard tubes of perennials and fruit, one hit the floor. A nice assistant came to help pick it up. “Thank you” I said “By the way, I think you should know that most of your plants are dead”; “No, no they are not” he assured me “they are supposed to be like that. We don’t water them because they are...” “Dead” I finished for him. Not dormant. Really not. The olive was a withered stick, the cranberry was just a circle of miserable mould in the compost. Even the raspberries were dead and it is hard to kill those even if you want to.

 His expression combined ‘nonplussed and disbelieving’ perfectly as he thanked me for the feedback. I doubt the shelf will be cleared.*

My final stop was at the other end of town, both socially and geographically.** Here, the plants were looking much better. They were outside for a start and although the range was pretty limited, they had at least been watered.*** But the price for a similar (healthier) box cone was getting on for 2.5 times the budget supermarket competition, on a par with the average garden centre, which perhaps better reflects true costs - or maybe approach to profit, who knows.

Which brings me to my conclusion: £1.79 for a large tray of small plants or a fiver for a tree is a bargain, but It Is Only A Good Deal If They Are Alive.

I took this picture at Edulis Nursery in Berkshire which has fascinating edible plants and plentiful expertise.
And now, if you will forgive me, I am going to have a rant.

What concerns me is that the people who are buying these high street convenience plants are unlikely to be the experts, they are not likely to be the people who can coax a shrivelled specimen back from the brink. And let’s face it, after last year who wants to be bringing plants back from the brink? For my own part I want absolutely everything I plant this year to thrive, grow vast and lush, untroubled by slugs and laden with glorious fruit and flowers. As an experienced gardener I know that is ambitious at the best of times, but I can’t quite be doing with Lazarus plants right now.

Tempted by fashion for grow your own, a desire for a lovely garden or faux-bargainous-ness people will buy this stuff. They may not realise the plant is dead, particularly if they are assured to the contrary by ill-informed shop staff. It is an exercise in disappointment and de-motivation. The retailer risks turning off a sector of the gardening public who may believe that the fault is theirs, may never know that Saint Titchmarsh himself could never have made that particular stick burst into life. It is another small tragedy of crushed hope when gardening should be the very opposite. Nobody gains.

Like food and fashion, the buyer does not get a decent, wholesome or healthy product if prices are held artificially low and staff not even minimally skilled. Like food, you get a better plant if you buy it at a decent price from the person who grew it and can tell you how to care for it/cook it – or at least someone who met him once. To quote Captain Vimes’**** boots theory, if you spend good money on a decent pair of boots it will last you ten years. If you spend half as much on your boots you will need to replace them every year or so and end up spending much more. Captain Vimes would have had a few things to say about the false economy of spending money on boots that were not fit to wear.

I will hold my hands up, I have rescued (alive) plants from inexpert retail hands before, but until they sort it out I vow to harden my heart*****. I may, in passing, pick up some inanimate object such as twine or organic plant food on the high street, but in the same way as life is too short to drink bad wine, eat bad chocolate or wear wellies with holes in, life is too short to buy doomed plants. Fact.


*I went back ten days later. The plants were all still there.

**The first time I turned up at 9.30am it was shut though. Not yet up to speed with gardening o’clock.

***And to be fair, given the scale of their celebrity hook-up, woe betide them if they muck it up.

****Thank you Terry Pratchett

***** I’m sticking with traditional nurseries, garden centres and the mail order suppliers. If you tell them that a bulb, plant or tuber is dead on arrival they will pop another in the post rather than tell you that it is supposed to be soft and slightly fluffy at this time of year.