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Britain's real growth industry

It may be a rainy Bank Holiday weekend but at Wyevale Garden Centre in Pulborough, West Sussex – part of the Garden Centre Group, recently taken over by Terra Firma in a £276m deal – business is blooming.

Shoppers include 29-year-old Caroline Allison, here with her parents June and Robert, who visit the centre at least once a month. “Generally we are here to buy plants or gardening equipment,” says Robert. And recession or not he intends to continue to do so.

His attitude is echoed by millions of keen British gardeners who are ensuring that garden centres continue to defy the recession. Our famous love of pottering about outside – be it raising vegetables from seed, nurturing a prized ornamental border, sharing a barbecue with friends or keeping the lawn trim – is good news for the UK’s horticultural industry which sees its headline event, the 2012 Chelsea Flower Show, open to the public in two weeks’ time.

Sue Biggs, RHS’s director general, says that the sector, worth £9billion annually and employing nearly 200,000 people, is still buoyant even through the recent economic downturn.

The nation’s most popular gardener, Alan Titchmarsh, said: “People need something to lift them out of the gloom and for the cost of a tank of petrol you can make quite an impression in the garden,” says Titchmarsh. “And then there’s that wonderful feeling when a seed you’ve sown makes it to maturity and flowers.”

But it’s not just plants that account for the ongoing success of the horticultural sector. Garden centres have been diversifying for years. At Wyevale in Pulborough the plants are located near a popular tea room and miniature steam railway, as well as the usual equipment and gift stands.

Squires Garden Centre near Horsham, West Sussex, has its own on-site farm shop as well as a popular pottery-painting workshop while at Yorkshire’s Wentworth garden centre, which is situated over 16 acres in the former Italian, Japanese and kitchen gardens of Wentworth Woodhouse, visitors can buy fresh meat from the on-site butcher, wander through the historic gardens, invest in stoneware, visit the family farm and craft units, play in the adventure playground and select plants grown in a three-acre on-site nursery.

“As a business we want to draw people in,” says one regional garden centre manager. “It’s a bonus that during a recession we’ve already got other things to offer, from grannies bringing in their grandchildren to see the pets and ride the tractor to people who have decided not to spend £5,000 going on holiday this year and might therefore be more inclined to fork out for a new barbecue.

“People may be holding off on big purchases...but they are spending more on smaller items to make them feel good, such as investing in colour or titivating their lawn.”

In 2009 sales of vegetable seeds out-performed those of flower seeds for the first time and the trend has shown no signs of abating.

According to B&Q nearly half the population, 45 per cent, were growing their own food in 2011. Even those without gardens are keen to join in, with some parts of the country reporting 40-year waiting lists for allotments to which some garden centres have responded by renting out space to keen amateurs. The Garden Centre Group rents out 90 sq m plots for £5 a week.

Products for the grow-your-own market constitute the fastest expanding sector of the gardening market. Nicholas Marshall, CEO of the Garden Centre Group, has had a kitchen garden for 30 years.

“It is healthier, it is educational and it is cheaper,” he says, pointing out that shoppers can buy a grow bag and some tomato seeds for a fraction of the price they would pay for the products in supermarkets. "You can buy a whole plant for less than you can buy six tomatoes in a supermarket which are grown God knows where.”

Source : Jane Warren – The Express

07 May 2012
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