Santa’s Grotto or elves? A very good way to write off a garden centre or nursery, or so I used to think. On the east coast of England the land is open and sandy and this makes for good growing ground - free draining and easy to work. Consequently there are quite a few nurseries and garden centres and one bitterly cold day last week, an open-eyed trawl round offered a morning’s entertainment.
First, let’s clear up the difference: a nursery grows its own stock, a garden centre makes no pretence of doing so. Nurseries buy in plenty of plants as well - plugs to grow on, shrubs by the pallet load from Holland. At the top end high spec glasshouses water, feed, heat plants. One grower up the road has 11 acres under glass. It is big business, fashions in colours are anticipated and future taste in plants predicted.
And so to four different establishments. Stopping first with the one that has the twinkliest of fairy light grottoes, a plethora of chimenias and seating and eating products. The nursery, or so it used to be, is well known. A family business on a par with Hiilliers down in Hampshire. Something has happened. Franchise operations litter the site: flexiplast conservatories on offer and garden design out of a large hut. The catering side of things is a-hum: punters hunched over steaming cups of coffee and squirly whirly cake. But trickle deep into the site and the place has run out of energy. The bird feeding tree is not being kept up to speed with fat balls, a flapping marquee has the feel of rollocking party aftermath. The garden of remembrance is hardly remembered. One my way out, I’m winked at by Lindt rabbits lining the shelves three deep.
A major rival sits up the hill. A big chain beckoning business on a roundabout. The car park is always full of cars and the building smells of school cooking. Infuriated by an earlier visit where an attempt to buy a waterproof yielded only a Halloween cape, I had written the place off. I park my prejudices for the day. Stands of plants are arranged to appeal with semi clad nymphs embedded in them. How the staff must have chortled as they set out this army of Minvervas and Dianas. The plants look good and I am lingering over raspberry canes in pink pots. Inside it gets even better: the whole grow your own area was handsomely kitted out - sacks of seed potatoes, pots and seed tray in every size. The whole glorious paraphernalia of gloves and hose lock attachments has me drooling. The gift corner seems to have shrunk and the the chef at the cafe changed.
Even the muzak had been dimmed.
Up the A12, after the last breath of man ruling nature exhausts itself with the caravans on the forecourt at Stratford St Andrews. After that we are deep rural. Fashionable weekenders on their way to Southwold can just nip off the main road to visit the Walled Garden. I hope they do as mine is the only car parked there. This is a proper nursery with the most magical of gardens reclaimed from a wilderness of brambles. The selection of shrubs are good and tender bedding are for sale in the greenhouses.
A little bit of tasteful gnomery and bird boxes is set off by the most gorgeous collection of garden pots from Stafford. Strong old glazes and covetable shapes. They grow good plants here and know what they are talking about. No less than two people pop out of the heated gardeners hut to see whether I need any help.
Last stop, Woottens of Wenhaston, pretty much shrouded under plastic. A serious delicatessen nursery. Come here to sample and savour new plants. It’s home territory to me: I have even worked here. The owner has plant discernment and judgement. But today is not the day to visit, the wind tears at the polythene coverings, makes a noise like wretching. Turns me into a crazy horse. Retreating with the latest copy of Woottens Handbook of Plants, I’m off to do armchair gardening.