Sunday, May 8, 2016

The siren song of the garden centre

It’s spring and our garden centres are at their busiest: tools are tidily lined up, garden furniture has been moved near the entrance, and bedding plants by the thousands are tiered on shelves like strange horticultural cakes. The gardening industry waits all year for these few months. It doesn’t matter about the weather, it’s time to sell, sell, sell. And I don’t blame them – it’s an industry which is worth around £5bn a year.Like most gardeners, I love a trip to my local nursery or garden centre. I enjoy wandering among the plants and all the associated paraphernalia. I often lose track of time in such places. I’ve been known to get lost on a Homeric odyssey after setting out for something as simple as a bag of compost. Even at the supermarket, I am often guilty of slipping plants in among the yogurt and the crisps. I can’t help it. It’s like a reflex.

Last weekend was no exception. I was at a local garden centre. I have no memory of what I actually went in to buy, but I found myself looking at a new spade. It was a beautiful spade – solid, split ash handle with a sharp steel blade so fine you could slice butter. It looked durable yet elegant, as if it would extend from my hands like a part of my own body. With a tool such as that, I’m convinced I’d be the Gandalf of gardeners. Before me seedlings would rise and dance and flower. Blackspot would retreat from my roses and blight would never settle on my potatoes. I’m sure I could grow tomatoes outdoors. With a spade like that I could probably control the weather; the rain would fall at necessary intervals and the sun would blaze in the sky. As for the foxes, they wouldn’t even dare to enter my garden.

All I need is that spade.

However, the tool I garden with now is ever so slightly different. In my garage, hanging on the wall in all its glory, is a B&Q value spade. You know the one – ugly, green plastic handle with an inexpensive composite blade that is starting to rust. It’s a spade straight from the bottom shelf. It’s an object made cheap and sold cheap; a spade which is easy to forget. If my spade was a plant, it would be an evergreen shrub in a mixed border – necessary but utterly uninteresting.


Yet here’s the thing: my little value spade has taught me a valuable lesson about garden centres and all their glossy marketing. Like most life lessons, it is something quite simple to understand yet hard to accept. My spade has taught me that you really only need the most basic of implements to create a satisfying garden. I didn’t always think this way. Even from the start of my gardening life, I would look at magazines and drool over ridiculously priced terracotta pots and greenhouses which probably cost more than my first flat. Like a boy in a sweet shop, I felt as if I wanted one of everything. I was sure I needed that rustic potting bench. I was certain that those Victorian glass cloches would make my courgettes grow better than any piece of plastic. And wouldn’t that rototiller make short work of my clay soil? I had to have them all.

Luckily for me, my budget, and my wife, didn’t allow for such extravagancies. So when I got my first allotment, off I tromped down to the local DIY chain and bought my value spade. I think it cost about £7. I placed in in my trolley as a child would put broccoli into a grocery basket. The thought “necessary evil” entered my mind. All in good time, I thought, I’d upgrade to tools of a more Titchmarsh standard. I was sure I was just cutting my teeth and that things would change.

That was 10 years, two children, and an entirely new garden ago. And through it all has been my little green value spade. We’ve stay together like a married couple. At times the relationship has been trying, and there were moments when, in silent anger, we both contemplated separation. But, in the end, my spade and I have persevered and forged a good life together. Yes, we’re happy. We’ve made it.

Of course, if you want to recreate one of Capability Brown’s sweeping landscapes, then you are going to need deep pockets. However, for us commoners, there are economically viable solutions to any plot. When it comes to tools, simple is usually best. I get by on most days with a trowel, my value spade, and a garden fork. And really, who needs a dibber when you have a perfectly good finger. As for plants, basic packets of hardy annuals can be planted and will return year after year. Perennials spread easily too. I have found geraniums and leucanthemums growing in my beds which have jumped over from a neighbour’s garden. After a few years and several divisions they are now filling up my garden for free. Many people are happy to share and swap plants or give away old equipment. I’ve found gardeners are some of friendliest and most compassionate people I have ever met; ask for help and they’ll be happy to get you started. In short, while we would all love unlimited resources, the reality is that most of us garden on a budget and we all find ways to creatively cultivate the garden we desire.

Therefore this spring, as usual, I will attempt to control my spending and try to remember that glossy gardening equipment isn’t always necessary. That said, I am planning another trip to the garden centre in the next few weeks. Oh, and don’t tell anyone, but I may go back and look at that spade. It’s just so lovely. Maybe I will buy it. Maybe. It would be nice. I probably won’t, but it’s worth a look. Just don’t let my value spade find out; I wouldn’t want any hurt feelings.


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