Garden Centres have come about in my lifetime. Until I was well into my teenage years they did not exist. What we did have were nurseries, where plants were grown for sale to the public. They would have some greenhouses where pansies and geraniums were grown for planting out in the spring. This was the time of year when nurseries were extremely busy. At the nursery that I remember best, Daniels of Norwich (now Notcutt’s), they also sold seeds and flower pots from a small counter. This establishment was so well known that it even had a road named after it, Daniels Road. For garden tools you would go to the ironmongers or hardware shop; greenhouses were built by the local carpenter. Apart from the occasional garden bench garden furniture did not exist. Even tubs were old beer casks curt in half.
Daniel’s nursery used be on both sides of the Ring Road. Notcutts garden centre is now on just one ice of the road, and the other side, where I remember buying wallflowers from a greenhouse, has become a housing estate. Garden statues, summer houses and swimming pools now take up much of the space that was once reserved for growing plants. Unlike the old nursery, the plants are no longer grown by the retailer, but are supplied by specialist growers. One of the first such wholesalers of garden plants was Alan Bloom of Bressingham.
Almost the first step towards selling things other than plants and seeds was to stock trowels and forks; these garden tools did not represent a great leap forward, but it was a start. Various fertilisers and weedkillers were dispensed from wooden containers behind the counter and measured out into paper bags. Fisons is a long-vanished trade name that began to appear on boxes and bottles of garden chemicals in the 1950s. The insecticides we used in those days were particularly toxic, and most of the early flykillers such as DDT have long since been banned. Garden equipment now includes power tools, hedge-cutters, edge trimmers and lawnmowers. Until the 1960s everybody used a hand mower that cut as you pushed it along. It was hard work. Even my father’s motorised mowing machine, which he was one of the first to use (he had to make it himself) had started life as a hand mower. In mowing the grass by hand the exercise may have been rather tiring, but it can have done nothing but good to the gardener!
There is large Garden Centre less than half a mile from where I live, and another at Bawdeswell is not many miles away. I can remember when the Highway Garden Centre at Framingham Pigot was no more than a table of annuals outside a cottage; it is now a multi-million pound business. Garden Centres have sprung up all round the country and may be found anywhere that customers may be found. This is true not only in this country but around the world; I was walking round a Garden Centre in Calgary in Canada a few months ago. Whether they have spread to China, India or the bleak northern wastes of Russia I rather doubt, but anyone who can trace their ancestry back to the garden-loving Europeans will probably have a garden centre somewhere near.
Nowadays garden shears are seldom used for hedge cutting, whichhas gone the same way a lawn mowing, and electric cutters have taken over. I would also like to say that Rotovators have superseded the garden spade, but most gardens now are dig-free zones, where shingle or paving slabs have taken the place of vegetable plots. The use of artificial turf for lawns is now very common, where lawns are still used at all. Many smaller front gardens are now put down entirely to car parking.
The Garden Centre caters for all these aspects of gardening, but it has also spread to selling items that have no connection with the outdoors – or indoor plants either. Bottles of liqueurs, books of recipes, pet food, rugs, indoor furniture and wooden animals cover much of the selling space near the entrance, leaving the plants to take second place. It is all a long way from the simple nursery I knew when I was young.