Just occasionally, even after all these years, I hear someone mourn the demise of the old-fashioned, family-owned general plant nursery that was killed off by the development of garden centres in the Sixties. Those who are nostalgic for these places say that the plants were grown on the spot and were cheaper, the staff were more knowledgeable and friendlier, and customers did not have to trip over extraneous non-horticultural stuff, such as tropical fish and paddling-pools, to get at them.
Maybe so, but in the vast majority of cases it was these general plant nurseries that became garden centres, responding to the demands of a car- owning public who wanted all horticultural equipment and sundries, as well as plants, to be on one site, and who now also like to turn a shopping trip into a bit of an outing. The garden centre revolution was made viable by technological advances, in particular "containerisation" - that is, the rearing of plants in pots. This meant that the plants could be easily transported from wholesale nurseries elsewhere, and also could be sold to customers at any time of year, instead of mainly having to be dug up from a field in the dormant season. Things could not have remained the same.
In fact, the development of garden centres (and DIY "sheds" which, year by year, increase their share of the horticultural market) has prompted the appearance of an enormous number of small retail nurseries that specialise in particular plants, usually to a high standard, and also often offer a mail-order service. These retain the old plant nursery atmosphere but tend to appeal to a knowledgeable clientele. Not all gardeners feel that they are that. For them, the anonymity of the average garden centre or DIY shed can be a reassuring feature. The ownership of garden centres is still surprisingly fragmented. Although there are a few country-wide or regional chains, and there has been a slow move towards greater conglomeration, the vast majority of garden centres are still single-site operations. This means both that, in theory at least, they are individualist and can respond to local needs, especially of soil and climate, but also that they vary a good deal in quality. So how do you know whether your local garden centre is a good one or not? This is a pertinent question at this time of year, when many gardeners are hard at work stocking - or restocking - their gardens. With garden centres, size does not always matter, although there are obvious advantages to a large site if it means that there is space for a wide range of plants and other goods. Far more important is whether there is a knowledgeable and helpful, and visible, workforce prepared to answer questions. What is needed is, to adapt a phrase, information, information, information. …