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26 May 2008

A Trip To The Garden Centre – Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

gdcI had the enormous misfortune on Saturday to visit a garden centre. You might think that an avid gardener like myself would feel as home in a garden centre as I do in a record shop. However, modern warehouse-like garden centres have as little to do with gardening as Virgin megastores have to do with music. They are crammed with the most pointless unnecessary clutter, very little of it of any use to anyone who actually wants to garden, to grow anything useful. They are temples to a lost generation so removed from the land and from seeing gardens as something essential and as something productive that it beggars belief.

poisonsAs I walked around aisle after aisle of chemical doused ornamentals, an arsenal of chemicals which could, mixed properly, probably exterminate a small Wiltshire town, a whole wall of tools, none of which looked like they would last more than about 6 months, and none of which any skilled grower would touch with a bargepole, and loads of pointless ornamental decorational tat, I was struck by how little you actually need in order to start a garden.

gc2The pinnacle of pointless rubbish I encountered is this charming object on the right. Brace yourself. It is a rabbit armchair. I’m not joking. Apparently what pet rabbits need these days is their own armchair (I don’t think it comes with a remote for the widescreen or somewhere to stash the Pringles).

Made in China. All that oil, pumped out of the ground, carted to China, carbon emissions here there and everywhere, to be turned into a rabbit armchair for a brief period before it heads to landfill (it would emerge from 10 years in my compost heap pretty unscathed). It is enough to make one despair for humanity. What did rabbits do before we made them armchairs? Can anyone still remember?

As I chased my children up and down the endless ailes, it struck me how far we have come. To equip people with what they actually need in order to grow food, we need only about 0.5% of what such garden centres contain. In order to do my garden, I need the following;

  • a shovel (a good Irish one with a point)
  • a straight spade
  • a long handled fork
  • a wheelbarrow
  • a trowel
  • a lawnmower (a bit, but this could be shared between a few people)
  • some seed trays
  • a hoe (I don’t have one yet, but I plan to get a really good one…)
  • a rake (very occasionally)
  • a hosepipe, watering can and rainwater butt.

That’s it. That’s really pretty much all most people will find they need. What I need in a garden centre is somewhere which stocks a small amount of tools and equipment, selected by people who actually understand about tools and are experienced gardeners.

By the time I discovered gardening, most of the garden centres run by people who were gifted nurserymen and gardeners had gone. One of the best I ever went to was Fruit Hill Farm in Ireland, which just stocks things they use themselves and which they feel to be the best, and they always have time to answer your questions. Garden shops like this used to be part of everyday life up and down the country until 20 or 30 years ago. Now mostly they are gone, unable to compete with the huge warehouse garden centres which also feature cafes, bookshops and all sorts. I look forward to the return of the local garden centre, dedicated to the equipping, skilling and enabling of local food culture.

Having been so rude though, I did buy something. Some kale seed.

Categories: Food, Waste/Recycling

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26 May 8:46am

The only thing I buy from garden centres these days is (organic & peat free) potting compost, and because they’re generally such soulless places these days I’m trying to avoid doing that too.

Graham Burnett
26 May 9:11am

Rob, you are just Soooo passe darling, don’t you know that rabbit armchairs are all the rage right now? Right up their with giant ‘Irish shamrock’ Guiness hats that play tunes and inflatable giant ‘England World Cup’ comedy hammers. Oh. Rabbits have been replaced by rottweilers as this year’s must have pet, St Patricks Day has been and gone and the world cup was 2 years ago. Chuck ’em all in the bin then!!

Further to your list, some other handy tools for the garden might include the following, most of which I don’t think you can pick up in your friendly local Wyevale branch however;
Mattock (particularly for dealing with bramble roots)
Grass slasher (again great for keeping bramble under control as well as long grass)
Kirpi (my favorite hand weeding tool along with a small hand fork)
Deck chair (great for a bit of mindful observation and contemplation – or just to nod off in…)
A flat surface for the beer glass (paving slab should do it…)
A copy of Graham Bell’s ‘Permaculture Garden’, Robert Hart’s ‘Forest gardening’, Lawrence D Hill’s ‘Organic gardening’, Joy Larcombe’s ‘Vegetables for Small gardens’, Ken Fern’s ‘Plants For A Future’ and Tom Hodgkinson’s ‘How to Be Free’ (I’d also include the Transition Handbook but I suspect most readers here are already familiar with that one…)

Happy bank holiday, its pelting it down here in sunny Westcliff, hence stuck in front of the laptop instead of enjoying the sun!!

Graham Burnett
26 May 9:17am

Oh I forgot to include Swiss Army Knife, particularly the model with the built in pruning saw blade. I use mine all the time. maybe not as much as the bottle opener bit though…

26 May 10:07am

“Rabbit Armchair”? Hahahahahaha. I saw a pesky wabbit lurking around my garden the other day and I DID buy something for him, a wrist rocket or better known as a slingshot. We intend to have rabbit stew assoon as I get a clear shot at the bugger.

Tim Thomson
26 May 10:18am

The Good Gardeners Association make it clear that you can do without the spade and the fork! And by the way, if you are ever in Cornwall, I can recommend the Sunnyside nursery, in the centre of the village of Chacewater, just outside Truro, and not to be confused with the Chacewater Garden Centre, which is just as you have described. Although they are only a mile apart, the little Nursery does plenty of trade!

Marcus Perrin
26 May 11:30am

There seems to be a rash of TV adverts for handheld chemical weedkillers at the moment.

The bemusing thing for me is that in the time it takes to bend over and release the trigger in the face of the helpless weed, isn’t it as quick to just pull the weed out of the ground??

Karen Goswell
26 May 12:03pm

Funnily enough, I visited my local “gardening” centre yesterday too. I bought two blank artist’s canvases, 2kg of modelling clay and a really nice skirt.

26 May 2:05pm

I’d add grass hook, faster than a slasher but it involves a bit of bending. In 20 minutes you can level a half plot covered in weeds, including the odd bramble bush and young fruit tree (oops). I had the blisters to prove it.

I do find that tool fetishists are common in the permie world. We never mention the top speed of our ride on lawn mowers but are liable to was lyrical about the benefits of a good steel hoe or mattock.

BTW reading gardening books is for people who want to eat, real men learn by their own mistakes ;-p

Tom A
26 May 3:45pm

Great post – still smiling here… I’m very disappointed though – we don’t have any rabbits at our place, only hares – what will they sit on…

Rob – when buying your hoe – get an ‘oscillating’ hoe. Fruithill farm sell them if you want to look it up and there and then find a local supplier. They’re fantastic and you’ll never use another hoe after that. Remember that hoeing is for small weeds. Do it regularly and it’s a pleasure. Don’t trash your hoe and your soil by trying to gouge out big weeds. Keep the hoe sharp. Also, the trick with an oscillating hoe is to let it do the work and shake backwards and forwards – don’t dig it into the soil. If not sure get someone to show you how to use it first.

Hoeing at the right time is a gentle pleasurable task. That’s why it can be done frequently. Kneeling down with a fork and digging out bigger weeds is harder work so you don’t want to be doing that too much.

Happy hoeing!

John Marshall
26 May 4:03pm

Instead of a hoe, a fork and even a spade, I have an azada (similar to a chillington hoe) to save my back. I also find that a carefully chosen wheelbarrow doubles up as a deck chair if tipped on it’s handles, end-on.

26 May 4:43pm

A handful of years ago, when my eyes were opened to the energy/food crisis, I wondered,”How do I grow food from food?” Seed saving is REALLY missing from the big garden centers.

Jennifer Lauruol
26 May 7:15pm

Rob–I share your dismay. But doing my best to earn a living as a permaculture designer in suburbia I am working closely with a small-ish local garden centre. I find that my clients are reassured, and therefore more likely to trust my outlandish design suggestions, when I can deliver familiar-looking consumables, from a firm whose employees wear branded polo shirts, and arrive in a van with a logo on the side. The same garden centre also has been very helpful to me in fronting some of our work together with their company insurance, team of skilled brickies/landscapers/navvies. These guys come out and build the stuff I design with skills I haven’t got the time to develop. (Being female, I do know how to darn socks, bake bread, create a herbal poultice, breastfeed a baby, and sew clothes and do patchwork. I’m a little on the slender side, though, for carrying full loads of bricks and wielding a mattock…) So in our Transition world some of us permaculture activists are even spreading the message through the unlikeliest of channels. I even distribute Permaculture Magazine to the staff!

Cheers, Jennifer

PS Transition Handbook is ace. I’ve just finished it and am already passing it around Lancaster.

Aisling Blackburn
27 May 12:54am

hi everyone, just found this blog. Does anybody have a clue where to buy a chillngton hoe in Ireland these days. I did buy a similar one ,albeit much lighter at the organic center, loved it but it broke after a few days ! sigh

Margie Kepner
27 May 3:06am

2 suggested tools: a grub hoe (or azada, mentioned above) from (in Missouri, lists another website for UK orders) and a scythe from (in Maine).

Margie Kepner

John Powers
27 May 3:54am

I like your list very much. Dode notes that tool “fetishists” are common. The reason is that good quality tools aren’t so common and make a whole lot of difference; especially a good spade. I would add secaterurs–Bahco P1-20 are great, a pruning saw, a boys’ axe, a soil knife, and a little plastic hand seeder–the kind with a cap with different size holes.

Hans Noeldner
27 May 5:00am

Hi Rob

Man, you are spot on about all the garbage at garden centers. I guess the illusion of meaningful choice has infected all retail, not just the cereal aisle (where the consumer is presented with a hundred or more ways to buy five cents worth of food nutrients lurking within a gaudily-colored cardboard box.)

As someone who has been gardening for more than 40 years I will second Tom A. on the oscillating hoe. This is one of the few new-fangled tools that really is a breakthru; it’s incredibly useful, a real labor saver, and it leaves a nice thin layer of “dust mulch” to keep the soil underneath moist.

I also recommend a heavy four-tine digger for tilling seedbeds, breaking up packed dirt, and whacking clumps of dirt after shoveling. Razorback makes a good one.

Oh, and here is the best human-powered lawn mower I’ve ever used:

Basically unchanged in design for fifty years. Learn how to back-lap and you will be in mowing heaven.

27 May 8:22am

If you must have a lawn (I must – rental property) I’m with Hans on the push mower. It’s worth looking in the free papers or the back of a nieghbours shed. The models available in most garden centers and in DIY outlets are pretty poor.

27 May 6:02pm

I went to three garden places this weekend, looking for a compost aerator (a pole on the way in, with propellors that open on the way out) and a compost thermometer (everyone deserves a toy).

One place had an aerator (not as good as my first one, since lost, and bought only in 2003); none of them had compost thermometers.

There were burbling fountains galore, however.
If I had stopped to look, I imagine there were lawn gnomes, too.

John Walker
2 Jun 10:47am

Readers of Rob’s piece on garden centres may find the following of interest – an article I wrote for Organic Gardening magazine in autumn 2007. The article was written in response to Tesco’s bid to take over the Dobbies chain of garden centres, which they successfully did. This now means that people visiting Dobbies garden centres are, in effect, shopping at Tesco…

The battle to consume each other in the gardening industry (and that’s what it is, an industry) continues. There has to be, as I have tried to describe below, another way.

Text copyright John Walker.

Centres for the earth

As supermarkets eye up the ‘green pound’, what we need is not a monoculture of ‘Tescoised’ garden centres but local, diverse and distinctive earth centres, says John Walker

By the time you read this, an unwelcome and alarming development for gardeners everywhere might be in motion. Rumblings in the world of high finance and cut-throat company takeovers this summer have had the horticultural industry on the edge of its garden bench. Garden centre owners across the land have been rubbing their clammy palms. Their delight has not been at bumper sales figures; after a promising start, when summer arrived in April, late July saw garden centres desperately flogging stuff off at half price after weeks of dismal weather and with unprecedented and catastrophic flooding in some areas.
No, the fat garden centre cats were celebrating for an entirely different reason; they were waiting to see if the supermarket Tesco had succeeded in its bid to take over the 21-store garden centre chain Dobbies. At the time of writing, there was something of a stand-off, with Tesco flexing its supranational muscle in order to gets its hands on a slice of the lucrative £5bn UK gardening market.
The man with the clammiest palms is James Barnes, Dobbies’ chief executive officer, who is set to pocket some £10m. A sobering statistic in this unfolding saga is that the value of the proposed deal is equivalent to Tesco’s worldwide takings in a single day. Little wonder, then, that the fat cats spent the summer licking their lips in anticipation of their own call from Tesco. Let’s hope the phone did ring at Dobbies HQ – to say the deal was off. I won’t be the only one to breathe a sigh of relief if the creeping ‘Tescoisation’ of our way of life hasn’t yet reached my garden.
You might be thinking, ‘So what, that’s how the business world works.’ But let’s pause, and ponder just what a takeover by the retailer that already controls a third of the UK grocery sector, and takes £1 out of every £8 spent on the high street, might mean for our gardening industry and for our own plots. That no one has had the gumption to speak out against its impending Tescoisation is testament to the gardening industry’s supine ‘wait and see’ attitude. The lessons from town centres and communities across the land, already dealt a body blow by the relentless spread of out-of-town supermarkets, seem conveniently out of earshot.
Supermarkets share many qualities with Japanese knotweed; they are tough, powerful, pernicious and, despite even valiant efforts, rarely go away. They are rooted deep in our retail culture, their feared shoots are pushing up everywhere, and once they get a stranglehold they threaten diversity. Go into a dense thicket of knotweed and you will find little underneath except a mat of dead leaves.
Modest independent garden centres and nurseries who see which way the wind is blowing must be quaking in their boots – although some still naively seem to believe that the Dobbies takeover will be good for business. Tell that to the many independent shopkeepers who shut up shop after a supermarket opened on the edge of town, to the suppliers who are ground down by supermarket buyers, and to the South African fruit pickers earning the equivalent of 38p for an eleven-hour day.
Two kinds of diversity are under threat if Tesco (or any other supermarket) gets its way – retail diversity, made up of smaller horticultural businesses throughout the UK, and the biodiversity found in our gardens, especially the organic ones. And it isn’t just Tesco sowing the seeds of corporate monoculture. Recently an eighth of the UK’s garden centres have been acquired by a single consortium of investors, including our biggest chain, Wyevale. Its chief executive described garden centres as “the last retail market in the UK yet to be consolidated and professionalised.”
Consolidated and professionalised? My dictionary defines ‘consolidate’ as ‘to combine into a single unit.’ What this means, for supermarket-driven garden centres, is that pretty soon each centre will look just like the next one. They’ll be selling exactly the same plants, the same outdoor furniture, the same range of pesticides. Whether you garden in Aberdeen or Reading (the northernmost and southernmost links in the Dobbies chain), you can have any plants you want – as long as they’re exactly the same plants as you could find in any other Dobbies.
I can’t think of anything worse, while loading up my boot at a ‘Tesco’ garden centre, than glancing around to see everyone else piling exactly the same items into theirs. Those last bastions of individuality, our gardens, are dangerously ripe for Tescoisation. I’ve never cared for the idea of marketing executives knowing the contents of my weekly shop and, curiously, I’m even less inclined for them to know what seeds I’ve chosen and which plants I’ve bought. I’ll decide for myself what my garden needs, not rely on being told by a computer milking information from a loyalty card.
Supermarkets wield so much power because they have, like Japanese knotweed, stifled and overwhelmed their competitors. As awareness of the ethically murky side to the supermarket business grows, it’s little wonder that, should the takeover go ahead, Dobbies will not be changing its name or selling Tesco-branded products. How can we gardeners be sure that what we buy hasn’t been made by someone paid the same pittance as the South African fruit pickers?
The truth is we can’t – but we could if our everyday gardening needs were met locally, not just by independent garden centres and nurseries, but by an interdependent, nationwide network of ‘earth centres’. These antidotes to ‘consolidation’, which fattens the wallets of a few, would disperse knowledge, skills and local diversity to the many.
No two earth centres would be alike. They would be distinctive and rich in local organic horticultural knowledge. They would become regional gardening hubs, offering plant varieties proven to prosper (given the vagaries of climate change) in each area. They would bring gardeners together, not in the anonymous trolley-bumping garden centre way, but as a local community pooling and sharing its experiences. They would be modest in size and be sited where gardeners are, not marooned in bleak out-of-town car-dependent shopping complexes beyond the care of public transport.
They would reverse the rush toward profit-driven retail monoculture, working with local growers, craftsmen and artisans in a symbiosis that nourished local diversity in all its forms. They would be where future gardeners and growers received training in the skills required to bring about the vital re-localisation of our food supply. They would be paragons of sustainability and recycling, their credo to keep as many resources as possible ‘cycling’ locally. Their organic, ethical and moral credentials would be impeccable; the ‘p’ word (peat) would not be uttered.
Earth centres would be economically viable, but not necessarily profit-driven. What would drive them would be a growing backlash against the increasing Tescoisation of every aspect of our lives, a yearning for the friendly and familiar, a rejection of the soulless and impersonal. The only clamminess here would be the honest sweat on the palms of the folk running these centres for the earth.

10 Jun 12:57am

I see on the web that in the UK you can buy special tall pots for growing potatoes on patios and decks. The door opens on the side, you can reach in and grab a potato or three as needed instead of digging up the whole bunch and having to store them all at once.

I wish our US garden centers would stock that contraption. The pound-dollar conversion price after delivery is cost-prohibitive.