Finding the Garden in the Garden Centre

I spent a couple of hours this week sitting in a secret garden. Under a grapevine, sheltered by a lean-to, made up of coloured glass, draped in lights and rusting horseshoes, I found myself pondering what makes a garden. The question crept among the ferns, grape hyacinths and fuchsias that kept me cool from Spring’s sudden sunshine. Children played between sprinklers and terracotta pots, their parents disappearing among hydrangeas and bamboos, re-emerging only in their calls to leave. Despite appearances I was not, however, in the workings of a lifestyle spread, but Alexandra Nurseries in Penge, where victorian brick-work hides a treasure trove of carefully selected plants, tools, cakes, books and more plants that spill out onto the street if given half the chance. It is a nursery in name and a garden in nature.          

We all have our own reasons for gardening. Maybe for some it’s because the Good Life depicted an aspiration rather than a sitcom, or for others it could be a family tradition and then there are of course those for whom it is intuitive to get grubby and deadhead when all else fails. Whatever the reason, for any amateur or domestic gardener their outdoor space offers life beyond domestic responsibility, a nurturing oasis.

And yet despite the holistic, even therapeutic qualities, 21st century gardening belongs firmly to an industrialized complex and typically our veneer of Mother Earth-grow your own- traditional-homesteading is pulled into relief most sharply when we start paying money.    

However low key or eco-friendly we want our gardens to be, there is a horrible inevitability to the drive to a giant warehouse on an industrial estate, where we buy plants that have been grown in hothouses across the year and around the world, only to take them home and desperately acclimatize them to a weather controlled environment. 

Nurseries and garden centres inspire us with choice, we are left in awe by knowledgeable staff and delighted by a good quality plant. But it’s surprising how few garden centres represent actual gardens. It is perhaps because the space required to grow plants on a commercially viable scale means producing and caring for them with modern agricultural techniques. This often means a lot of land and a lot of organisation of that land. This is then replicated in the places where they are sold on resulting in a garden supermarket with long isles of bedding plants and mono-toned herbs, matching uniforms, christmas stations and a bonus cafe. If like me, all you have are a few pots and no budget to speak of, it can be a rather overwhelming affair.

To be fair my anxiety is mainly because large scale garden centres tend to require private transportation, which for the non-drivers of this world, i.e. me, means having to first convince someone to take pity on my addiction to chamomile plants and need for bags of earth, and then endure their patience and bewilderment, as decisions failed to be made in ‘reasonable’ time. 

At their best large-scale operations are brilliant family run businesses like Morley Nurseries in Wakering, Essex, where the scale allows them to grow a healthy and diverse range, at cost and create a family-friendly destination. At worst though, well...

Head out of the intoxicating charm of Alexandra Nurseries through their inviting wooden gateway, where the smell of Thyme drifts over its cocooning brick wall, walk under the railway arch, where flower bombs have exploded among the White Lightening bottles and broken torches with bluebells and sweet cicely. Turn right at Penge High Street, up the hill, pass the alms houses and the usual parade of South-East London's suburban businesses and you soon find yourself outside the worst: a mid-size DIY warehouse that has enough room for a car park and a double glazing sales outlet, but not enough room to charge you anything but over the odds for plants, pots and pebbles. Ohh HxxxBxxx how do you draw me back so, with your non 'deals' and narrow selection?!    

Professional Gardeners regularly encourage rookie gardeners to visit other gardens for inspiration. Professionals also advise that in a small space repeated planting and layering are essential to give shape and impact to a garden's design. But if money is tight and you don't have much time or energy for trips out. Garden inspiration and design principals are all too often forsaken for a quick trip to a garden centre. This results in either blending seemlessly with your environment and doing very very impressive lists that you stick to while walking up and down the aisles or, if you're more the rambling,  ‘oooh gardening, oooh therapy, ohhhh nature’ sort of person (again, i.e. me.), you exit garden centres in a hot mess of guilt, confusion and disappointment:

Guilt at how much was spent....

Confusion as to how 4 chamomiles and came out as 1 chamomile, a sage and a bush that smells funny and you don’t know the name of and...  

Disappointment for yet again failing to buy enough of anything to create a planting structure.

So much of this could all be avoided if I just went online right? But where would the sensory jeopardy be in that? Yes it can be cheaper, yes it can be far more efficient and relies only on the tyranny of a delivery time, but ideally I want to pick my plants myself. Maybe I want to do as Gardener’s World presenters always tell you to do and check the plants aren’t root bound or covered in moss. Or maybe I just want one with a particular number of buds or I prefer a stocky one over a taller one. Or maybe I just want a little bit of impulsive sensory inspiration. None of which can be explained in a click of a button.   

Small gardening businesses offer inspiring antidotes for the modern gardener: sensory overloads that allow you to explore a nursery as you would a garden and like any good garden, there are real-life gardeners to tell you what can work and what might not.

Situated in the shadow of the Victorian Chatham and Dover railway, Alexandra Nurseries resides in a cottage built for the caretaker of the 181 homes that make up the Alexandra Estate. Developed between 1866 and 1868 by one of the country’s first housing associations: The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (MAIDIC), these were the blueprint for Victorian affordable housing and considered ‘model dwellings’ because of their well-built proportions, large gardens and small scale development.

In many ways Alexandra Nurseries sticks to the original intention of MAIDIC, believing that a small development can have a more positive impact on our environment. As they put it, their approach is about: 

‘promoting talent and thoughtful creativity, selling enough of what we need, not more than we can sustain; quality not mass-produced; beauty and imagination in things that are made to last; good advice going a long way, and being a positive force in the local community.’

Sounds like a garden worth exploring.

Historian by trade. Gardener by passion.