Growbag Blog

Garden centre or nursery? A country divided


Have you been buying plants in the last two weeks? Don’t feel guilty. Apparently we’ll spend £1.4bn by the end of the year (the British, not just you and me), but did you get them from a garden centre or an independent nursery?

Look on any gardening forum – it’s contentious. Whether you go to Dobbies or Bill’s Specialist Plants is as defining as being a Brexiteer or a Remainer.

It is bit of an intellectual snobbery thing. I took my sisters to a garden centre when they visited me here in Scotland and they announced snootily, ‘We’ve been here 20 minutes and we haven’t seen a single plant yet!”  although, like secret Lidl shoppers, when it came to the compost deals and the cake counter they soon became very focused.

And while there is something deflating about fighting your way through plastic Christmas decorations only to discover a zillion pots of carnations, unlike most nurseries garden centres do stock the essentials like spades; gloves and wotnot, so let’s not get too snobbish about it. 

Auricla ‘Sirius’ from auricula and primula specialists Abriachan Nurseries

But nurseries – my favourite in Scotland are Binny Plants in West Lothian and Abriachan Nursery in Inverness (which also seems to be called Lochness Garden). They leave you breathless with excitement and give you brilliant advice on how to grow the things you couldn’t resist. I don’t suppose you’d find Louise’s beautiful Great Plant this Month in a garden centre and thanks to the Davidsons at Abriachan I’ve had this beauty – Auricula ‘Sirius’ – flowering on my windowsill for a month now.

A blend of both worlds is a rare find so it was nice to be able to write a short review of Larch Cottage Nurseries in Penrith – I think they pull it off.


Yes well I blame the general ghastliness of the modern Garden Centre on the Sunday trading laws. I am old enough to remember when most ordinary shops were not allowed to open at all on a Sunday, but for some reason nurseries crept under the radar, presumably gardening was considered an appropriately Godly activity on the Sabbath.

So the game became what you could legitimately claim to be a garden related product, and in came the outdoor clothing range and the pet food.

But then they really started to take the mickey. How do end-of-line hard back books, fluffy slippers and tins of cheap candy qualify as necessary garden  equipment? And don’t get me started on the Christmas Grotto.

I do appreciate that making money from selling plants alone is a tall order nowadays, and I could forgive a garden centre its carefully routed pathway through the collateral if, when you do finally reach the plant section there is actually something of integrity on sale. But far too often all they offer are factory-produced plugs snatched from the hothouse of their acre-sized glasshouse, pumped full of nitrates but with no proper hardening off process  – doomed for failure in the vagaries of a British spring.

Everyone loves a repentant sinner – Rosa multiflora has repaid Laura’s mercy mission

The only time it is worth visiting a garden centre is during a sale when they often mark down valuable specimens because they look a bit scruffy, without realising that they just need a few weeks of TLC to revive them.

A good example would be the lovely Rosa multiflora, which I found in the reject bin of a well known garden chain for simply being misunderstood. Its tentacle-like thorny branches has obviously earned it an ASBO in the neatly ordered rose aisle, but once released to the wild in my garden its gloriously scented display has grown into the crowning glory of the late May scene.


Oooh, I think Laura is in a splendidly grumpy mood!  Yes, yes, I know that if you go to a Garden Centre for some winter pansies, you don’t necessarily need to see a hundredweight of small glass animals but I know of several big outlets in this county alone where the plant area doesn’t disappoint – my tree peony ‘Hanadaijinn’ (5 ft of purple voluptuousness right now) – came from just such a store.

There is an answer to the specialist nursery/garden centre conundrum – go to a garden fair.  Barring global pandemics I try to get to the Spring Garden Show at Firle Place  and it’s great!  

Trinity Botanics at Firle

You can detect my concentration from the photo at the top! So many nurseries with a stall of their particular plants, from caramel-coloured heucheras at Lands End Nurseries (all the way from Somerset, apparently) to stunningly happy- looking hydrangeas at Golden Hill Nursery  from every herb under the sun at HerbalHeaven to extraordinary cacti at Trinity Botanics. Many of the best local nurseries go there, such as Rapkyns, with owners eager to talk about their pet favourites and help with questions.  Me? Bum in Jam, as one of my colourful friends says frequently.

There are loads of these fairs across the country through the spring and summer, and now it looks as though they are back on the cards, I urge you to treat yourself to a lovely few hours at one of them soon.

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

8 replies on “Garden centre or nursery? A country divided”

Interesting debate in an era where the art of debate is becoming debased and debarred. So where should I purchase a burnt saffron coloured rhododendron in east Sussex ? I saw one yesterday in my father’s garden and realised my need to have one too is very great.

Haha, there’s a whiff of curmudgeonly Victor Meldrew there Laura but you’ve a got a point (or two, or three …) I shall keep in mind the nitrate over-dosed plug plants though, in future but it may not stop me buying them!
Garden Centres are like marmite; I fall into the ‘love ’em’ category and ESPECIALLY on a Sunday! I have on a few occasions now enjoyed the guilty pleasure of a scenic bus route to Newhaven Garden Centre (Tates) for a wonderfully selfish browse among the retail aisles but I do in fact only ever come back with plants or seed trays or suchlike. Ive never really thought about it but maybe their popularity is that people like me who LOVE their gardens but have no real expertise feel safe in them; they’re often full of equally plant knowledge-less folk who LOVE their gardens and that’s good enough for me.
I love nurseries too but realise that I don’t visit them so often. In fact the only stalls I am ever drawn towards in Farmers Markets, Fetes or suchlike are the plant stalls; just always looking for a bargain really.
As a matter of interest, I shall peruse my garden and make a mental note of the origins of its inhabitants because I know loads of things have been ‘money down the drain’ though I think more to slugs rather than to inferior plants to start with.
Happy gardening to all!

I agree Yve – thinking about where each of your plants came from is one of the chief pleasures of a garden isn’t it – particularly when so many of them came as cuttings from friends present and past.Your description of Laura as Victor Meldrew is spot on – she does need to get out more – and I also buy plugs from time to time as I know she does herself. I shall remind her ‘People who live in glasshouses……..!’

Hi Paddy, Elaine here. Oh, I know that feeling so well when you simply HAVE to have a plant that you have drooled over when you saw it in someone else’s garden. Well, Hillers at Stone Cross and Paradise Park at Newhaven will both have a good selection of rhododendrons, but I think Perryhills Nursery at Hartfield would be your best bet – their list is simply mouth-watering!

Hey ladies, you blog is fairly getting about. This was forwarded to me from Australia. I looked at is an thought it can’t be the same Caroline I know….but it was!
Regarding your question…I think it is academic and has become very blurred over recent times. Traditioanlly I would have considered a garden centre to be where you could go and get lots of fairly common but good plants, often with a tearoom attached. Nurseries were more for ‘serious’ gardeners who seek out more expert knowledge, rarer and/or more challenging species and places where there are specialisms developed.. over recent times the two have combined… Glendoik in Perth for example…a leader in the field of Azaleas and Rhoddies but now sell everythIng, probably even the kitchen sink ????.
Keep the blogs coming ladies.

Marion is that you from The Richmond Hotel ilk? So tantalising just to guess from a first name!Thank you so much for commenting and your encouragement. I completely agree, and especially about Glendoick. Laura keeps ordering esoteric plants from them and about a year ago I went to pick some up for her. I was excited when wending my way up to the mysterious and rather rarified buildings above Glendoick and consequently quite surprised by the contrasting uber commerciality of the centre down by the road. As you say, many are combining the two approaches and good for them.

I am becoming more and more tired of garden centres, you don’t know whether to buy a fish or a t shirt! Give me the good old fashioned nursery, but sadly we have few good nurseries near us. Jane of Arundel

Totally agree Jane, and there is something wonderfully Old School about most nurseries in that they invariably have one of those chrome kettles and a packet of Digestives for customers to ‘help themselves’ to a cuppa!

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