Why the garden centre is a particularly British institution

The reopening of the country's garden centres was a highly anticipated aspect of easing lockdown, but when did our with love affair with gardening begin?

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Throughout the morning of 13 May, vehicles filled up the car parks of the nation’s 2,000 nurseries. Purple geraniums and pink honeysuckle decorated outdoor stock. The in-house cafés prepped their takeaway offers. The garden centre was back.

In the 30 days of April, the phrase “are garden centres reopening soon?” was Googled more times than questions surrounding school closures. Tabloids demanded clarity on the growing urgency of the garden centre question: “Get Britain Blooming Again”, read one Daily Mail headline. BBC2's Gardeners' World saw a surge in viewers, with 2.7 million people watching Monty Don present from his own garden on 24 April. During these long months of lockdown, it may seem that those who are lucky enough to have outside space have become garden obsessives. 

But according to the Horticultural Trade Association (HTA), this is the logical extension of a long-standing national love affair. In 2017, families spent £6bn on garden products: £1 in every £100 of household spending. One in every 62 jobs is reliant on garden centres. The horticulture industry is, at £24bn, bigger than aerospace.

“It's not often understood but the UK grower industry is something that supports a multi-billion pound industry,” says James Barnes, chairman of the HTA. “We're a nation of shopkeepers but I think definitively we were a nation of gardeners.”

So, where did our love of the unassuming garden centre grow from?

In the 18th century, a new artistic philosophy was developing, taking British garden design with it. As Enlightenment thinking began to reshape society, writers such as Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison celebrated the beauty in nature's chaos. The jardin anglais aimed to replicate this chaos in a garden space, in stark contrast to regimented and formal French gardens, such as the manicured acres of the Palace of Versaille. 

English landscape designers preferred their gardens to appear wild and unkempt, and the new fashion became famous across Europe. According to the historian Ehrenfried Kluckert, the English style's popularity was one of the most striking examples of cultural transfer in this period. Marie Antoinette even had a English garden installed at the Trianon. As landscape gardening became an artistic passion, gardening and British identity were slowly winding together. 

The national trauma of the First World War further tied the UK’s self-image to the garden. At the end of the war, the huge death toll left the British government with a pressing question: how should the dead be buried? In 1921, the government sent over 1,362 British gardeners to carry out the task of creating cemeteries that would echo an “English garden” in France. The mass cemeteries were promoted as a “little bit of England over there”, designed to forever mimic the quaint cottage gardens of the UK countryside. 

But it was the container revolution of the 1960s that would truly introduce gardening to the masses and sow the seed for the garden centre in its current form. “Plants weren't really available for a mass market until somebody thought of sticking them in a pot,” says Barnes.

Up until the mid 20th century, gardeners would shop at small nurseries, which would sell plants in a sack or as a bare root. Because of this, sales were generally limited to the early spring or the autumn. As the number of people with garden space began to rise alongside the housing boom of the 1950s and 60s, the sale of plants in pots began to take off. Nurseries would sell plants in jam jars and makeshift containers. The modern garden centre was born.

Today, the UK has over 2000 centres, with the biggest chain, Dobbies, owning 69. “There are lots of competing claims about who the first person to set up a garden centre was,” says Barnes. “It's a highly fragmented industry.”

The UK is certainly not alone in its love of gardening. In Europe, Norway spends the most per capita, while the Dutch enjoy the largest horticultural industry in the world. But what could be considered unique to the UK is the glorification of the shop itself.

“In the US especially, garden centres don’t really exist in the same way. They have nurseries that simply sell plants. In this country it is more about entertainment,” says Barnes. “In fact, the centre I used to work in, our biggest selling product was the scone. We sold more of those than any type of bedding plant.”

Across the country, 20 per cent of garden centre sales come from the inhouse cafes. “Garden centres are a day out. You can take your family, the buildings are spacious, it's safe. A lot of them are in rural locations. So there's a nice ambiance to garden centres that I think people like.”

And the public agrees: the reopening of the garden centres last week were supported by customers. Early figures from the HTA Garden Retail Monitor show a dramatic surge in sales, with transaction values up by around 75 per cent compared with 2019.

But still, the fight to save the garden centre continues. The HTA predict that almost a third of garden centres will be insolvent by the end of the year, thanks to losing the majority of their springtime sales: a crucial time for garden centre stock. Lobbying is underway to secure a rescue package for the industry. 

“We need garden centres,” says Barnes. “When you are at home and isolated, having something to do that helps all of that is a very beneficial thing indeed.” 

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor. 

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