Curious Questions: Which came first — the plastic flower pot or the garden centre?

Martin Fone takes a look at the curiously intriguing tale of the evolution of nurseries in Britain.

Traditionalists at heart, gardening is still one of our favourite ways to spend our leisure time. Indeed, for the 75% of British adults who have access to them, the value of a garden has increased immeasurably since the start of the Covid restrictions, offering a welcome opportunity to indulge in some healthy exercise outdoors and escape the troubles of the world. Reflecting that, in 2021 UK households spent around £7.6 billion on plants, flowers, and other garden goods, estimate Statista, up from £6.2 billion the previous year.

The grateful recipients of the gardeners’ largesse are the 1,800 or so nurseries and garden centres, which, the Horticultural Trades Association claim, are visited by over two-thirds of British adults at least once a year. A nursery will usually specialise in the propagation and sale of plants, often to the exclusion of all else, whereas a garden centre sells anything associated with the garden in the loosest possible sense of the word. Garden centres are also very much the new kids on the block.

Gardening blossomed in eighteenth-century Britain with the development of the English garden, a conscious revolt against the rectilinear patterns, sculpture, and unnatural tree shapes that characterised the previously more formalised, architectural gardens. A more naturalistic style developed, blurring the boundaries between the cultivated garden and the surrounding landscape, an approach which meant that if the landscape did not meet the aesthetic requirements of the planter’s vision, it was simply altered, no matter the cost.

This boom in large-scale planting would not have been possible without a ready source of plants, which the nascent nursery trade supplied. Specialist nurseries were operating in the late 17th century and by the middle of the following century large nurseries, particularly in the London area, carried huge stocks of specialist fauna, such as North American trees and shrubs, which they marketed by publishing and issuing catalogues.

John Abercrombie, in The Gardener’s Pocket Dictionary (1786), listed fifty-eight nurseries within eight to ten miles of London, while, according to John Middleton’s View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (1798), around 1,500 acres in the county were devoted to nursery grounds, generating £100,000 a year in revenue (around £123 million in today’s values), evidenced by the forty-five nursery grounds shaded in a dark yellow watercolour wash in Thomas Milne’s contemporaneous maps of the area. By 1841 the Post Office London Directory was listing at least 122 nurseries in the metropolis.

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“The green-fingered Charles Fairfield, who had been caught red-handed, was allowed to walk free”

Ten nurseries jostled for trade in 1818 in a 275-yard stretch of King’s Road, near Sloane Square. Chelsea nurseries were sometimes splendid affairs. John Claudius Loudon visited Joseph Knight’s horticultural showroom on the King’s Road in 1831 where ‘the effect on entering is excellent; the termination of the telescopic vista being the bronze vase with its jet d’eau backed by two splendid plants of striped camellia covered with bloom, through which appears enough of light to give the idea of continuation. The bronze vase which is six feet in diameter and weighs several tons, is painted blue on the inside, and has a very cheerful and elegant appearance’.

Many of London’s nurseries were to be found in Hammersmith and Fulham, where the rich soil from the Thames flood plain and their proximity to the fruit growers around Chiswick and Isleworth, and the main thoroughfares out of London to the burgeoning suburbs of West London and to the west of England proved advantageous. To the east of London an arc of nurseries ran from Mile End through to Hackney, Clapton, and the Lea Valley.

In his 1839 guide to London nurseries, James Mangles mentions eight in the south and west of England that specialised in varieties of exotic plant and were ‘celebrated for particular classes of plant’. Other noted dealers of exotic flora at the time included Backhouse of York, Dickson of Edinburgh, and Messrs Veitch of Exeter. As well as supplying their own customers they would act as wholesalers to smaller local nurseries who would use the plants to propagate their own stock.

The most expensive items in a sizeable nursery were its glasshouses, hothouses, and stoves, which George Loddiges, whose Hackney nursery was considered one of the biggest in the country, insured for £1,000 (£1.06m) in 1803, making it the fourth largest risk on Sun Fire’s books. The premiums charged reflected the high levels of excise duty charged on glass, the rate being twenty times that for an ordinary building. The rewards, though, for a successful nurseryman were great, Joseph Knight amassing a fortune that enabled him to donate a plot of land in Cadogan Street, Chelsea to the Catholic parish and build Bitham Hall in Warwickshire as his retirement home in 1853.

Nurseries also proved to be an irresistible temptation for the light-fingered. In 1795 Charles Fairfield was tried at the Old Bailey, charged with stealing exotic plants, including a rare geranium, from Daniel Grimwood’s nursery in Kensington. Witnesses testified that they had seen Fairfield going into the hothouses before the plants were discovered to be missing and the plants had been found in his greenhouse. The jury was not convinced by the arguments that a nurseryman could categorically identify his own plants and allowed the green-fingered Fairfield, who had been caught red-handed, to walk free.

Several factors combined in the 1950s to disrupt the hold of nurseries on the British plant market. Interest in gardening for pleasure rather than for food grew, fed by radio programmes like the evergreen Gardeners’ Question Time, which, coupled with a housing boom giving many people their first gardens, and the rise in car ownership, fuelled an increasing demand for plants. With customers increasingly seeking instant gratification, the business model of traditional nurseries — based on selling plants which were bare-rooted, dug up from the soil when dormant, and only available seasonally, usually between October and March, and often only by mail-order — proved woefully inadequate.

In hindsight the solution was obvious. It had been practised in America for several decades, and studied by at least one British nurseryman, Harry Williamson, in the 1930s prompting him to try growing roses in tin cans. Yet it took another visit to the States in 1953 by Edward Stewart for the idea of growing and selling plants in container pots to take root (pun fully intended), allowing them to be sold all the year round. Stewart opened what was considered the first British garden centre in 1955 at Ferndown in Dorset, in converted potting sheds at the family nursery.

A second, purpose-built out-of-town garden centre was opened by Stewart in Christchurch in 1961, complete with on-site parking and a coffee shop, the forerunner of the cafes from which British garden centres make around 20% of their revenue these days. Improvements in pot technology, using plastic polythene making them lighter and easier to transport, and the acceptance of container-grown plants led to a wave of garden centres, often converted nurseries, opening their doors in the 1960s, even receiving royal imprimatur when the late Queen Mother opened the Syon Park Garden Centre in 1968.

Verily, out of a plastic container pot did the British garden centre grow.

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