Sunday, March 20, 2016

Don't grow your own; get your credit card out instead!

When I had a nursery business, back in the 1980s-1990s, one of my gripes was the problem of plants being sold at too low a price. Pricing anything is always difficult, and prices rarely reflect the actual cost of production; often its a case of 'what the market will pay'. Well, over the years, the price some people will pay for plants has certainly gone up, and although there is still underpricing and bargains to be had, there seems to be much more readiness to pay silly money. “A fool and his/her money are easily parted” says the old English saying, and it's as true in gardening as anywhere else.

Since my nursery days, there has been a huge increase in the sale of plants which in the past would have been available only as seed. I don't mean the bedding plants or veg plants which need a couple of months under glass before they can be risked in the big chilly world outside, I'm talking about easy stuff, like lettuce, and sweet peas, and cosmos. Partly I suppose this might be a reflection of many people living in places where starting seed might be difficult, but I can't help the feeling that this has been an opportunity for the nursery industry to make money through a process of de-skilling the amateur gardener. There are so many plants which are so easy from seed, and as many have found, there is a great deal of satisfaction in growing your own plants this way, right from the beginning. Today's gardeners seem to be increasingly tempted into buying ready-grown plants rather than seed. On a recent visit to our local garden centre (one of the Wyevale group) I was horrified by how hugely reduced the seed racks were. The message seemed to be, if you want it from seed, go online.

Going online in fact is where a lot of folk seem to be going anyway, for plants as well as seed. So I thought I'd take a look around and see what the gardener-customer is being offered for their money.

Crocus, the biggest online plant retailer in the UK are charging £7.99 for a 9cm pot of Angelica gigas, a biennial, so it'll be dead within a year and a bit, BUT it will leave you with lots of seed which if you can sow right away (and this will be the September of the year after spending your £7.99) and you can discover for yourself that the very plentiful seed comes up like the proverbial mustard and cress and you can try potting them all up and flogging them all at next year's church fete for £7.99 each. Good luck! (BTW, leave the seed til spring and none of it will come up!).

The Guardian Garden Centre (i.e. the newspaper's online retail wing) is offering 72 perennials for £19.99, as plug plants. A very good deal if you know what 'plug plants' are and can look after them appropriately. No definition of a what a 'plug plant' is though. “Up to 1 metre. Spread 45cms.” The list includes Armeria, which I think is a little bit, just a weeny little bit, less than this, along with some not-perennials, and I don't just mean the short-lived perennials I am always banging on about (although it is one of these, an Echinacea) which is the main image, but biennials like Digitalis or 'stagger into year two if you are lucky' annuals like Verbena bonariensis. Its an insane mix: including delphiniums, lavender, geum. I dread to think what this lot will look like when planted out together, probably with no reference to size, conditions etc.

Mind you twenty quid for 72 is not so bad, unlike the £11.99 they are asking for a “powerliner jumbo plant” (whatever that is!) of Lavatera 'Barnsley Baby'. I have looked for this variety online and cannot find any information about its size, the name of course suggesting that this is a mini variety of the plant that Rosemary Verey found in someone's garden in her home village in Gloucestershire, sometime in the 1980s. Well, mini and mallow family don't tend to go together and since 'Barnsley' grows at a rate of knots to 2m plus, I would be sceptical and cautious. Possibly not something for the pot on the patio which is what the advertising suggests.

I have found over the years that it is customary in many quarters to be rude about Sarah Raven's retail empire. Some of her prices are astonishing, four basil plants for £4.50! when you can go down to any supermarket, even the ones the proles shop at who don't buy their plants from posh Sarah Raven, and buy pots of live basil for much less. I just checked the Tesco website - £1.25 for a pot with a lot more than four seedlings in it; many a gardener pots these on to a bigger container and keeps their £1.25 plus a bit more compost and a second hand pot investment going all summer. A lot of this is to do with social cachet, as there is a certain type of customer who, so maintain street cred with their friends, would never buy anything from anybody other than SR. You can almost see them rub the Tesco label off the pot of basil on the kitchen windowsill as one of their friends arrives for lunch in a BMW crunching its way over the Cotswold gravel in the drive. “Got it from Sarah, isn't she a darling!”.

Actually, to give Sarah her due, what you paying for (some of the time, although not the basil) is her knowledge. There are zillions of dahlias, tomatoes etc etc and she does trial things thoroughly and her recommendations are the result. These are good plants, no doubt about that, and the website is very informative.

The sending of seedlings (SR's Cosmos 'Purity' are £8.50 for 10) is a big part of what people seem to be prepared to pay for when ordering plants online. With some plants this is entirely understandable. Every year I grow plants for Jo, and some of them, Antirrhinum and Ageratum for example are very small and fiddly, and die off at the drop of a hat – quite honestly only the experienced gardener would bother with them, but Cosmos! Big chunky things that come up in days, and can be pricked out practically blindfolded. I find it sad that so many people are passing up on the incredible satisfaction of growing easy annuals from seed.

Turning to vegetable plants, getting someone else to grow your pepper or tomato plants makes sense, as many people simply don't have the facilities to grow them, but carrots (four for $4.35 from the gardenharvestsupply (dot com) or, from the same company three “German Giant Heirloom radish plants” for $4.35! Of all veg., growing radishes from seed has to be the easiest. Apart from anything else, like the sheer stupidity of paying over a dollar a root, is the unsustainability of all this: the compost, the pots, all the packaging, the fuel for the UPS truck; all those resources that goes into sending this nonsense.

Many vegetables and salad crops bolt very quickly as a reaction to stress, so sending them through the post to grow at home or even buying them from the local garden centre can be pretty counterproductive. So imagine my horror last year, when down at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Rosemoor in Devon, I find pots of mizuna seedlings for sale, can't remember how much; but - separate those seedlings and they are going to instantly bolt, and your little seedling mizuna might garnish a sandwich and no more. Selling plants that are bound to fail is bound to discourage the novice gardener.

It gets worse. The Tasteful Garden dot com sell arugula/rocket seedlings, “at least two plants in each pot” for, $5.95. Yes, nearly $3 each for the crop which after the radish, has to be the easiest seed to germinate, and which with a bit of summer heat (and they have quite a lot in the land of the dollar) gives up growing leaves and bolts, fast.

Breathtaking daylight robbery some of this. And sad, when so much growing from seed is so easy, and so life-affirming and empowering.


Jack Wallington said...

Nice blog Noel. I'm always amazed to see Nasturtiums sold as plugs! Literally the easiest plants to grow.

I enjoy growing from seed, and if I could, I would propagate every plant we have. Which I can do most of the time, but due to lack of space sometimes I just go for the grown plant.

It certainly feels like growing plants is one of the life skills that has gradually been lost. I think it is coming back though, I hope so.

Jack Wallington said...

Nice blog Noel. I'm always amazed to see Nasturtiums sold as plugs! Literally the easiest plants to grow.

I enjoy growing from seed, and if I could, I would propagate every plant we have. Which I can do most of the time, but due to lack of space sometimes I just go for the grown plant.

It certainly feels like growing plants is one of the life skills that has gradually been lost. I think it is coming back though, I hope so.

Garden Fancy said...

I agree with your concerns, Noel. But in their defense, beginning gardeners might not know which seeds are easy to sow directly, and which plants are easier to purchase already started. And let's be honest: seeds are mysterious and intimidating -- who understands by what magical process they germinate -- or don't germinate? Sowing seeds often seems like a vast leap of faith, paying money for something you toss into the winds and then walk away from. I'm forcing myself to try growing more things from seeds this year (like petunias, which I have my doubts about -- only about a third have germinated, and who knows what will happen between now and May...?). But as far as I'm concerned, the more options beginning gardeners have, the better. I do share your concern that gardening knowledge is becoming so specialized that home gardeners will soon be afraid to start anything from seed -- but the specialization started long before now, and is likely part of the societal change from rural to urban life that none of us can do much about. -Beth

RuthBC said...

I completely agree, I am always amazed when I see seedlings for sale such as Sweetpeas, Cosmos, Marigolds etc that will grow as soon as they see a bag of compost!

Christina said...

I grow almost everything from seed, but that's because I live in Italy and very few perennial or annual plants are available for sale where I live. However in defence of those who buy plants rather than seeds; how many times have you purchased seed, even from reputable sellers, and not one seed has germinated? It happens far to often; I read that for vegetable seed there is a regulation about what percentage of germination you should expect but for flower seed there is no guarantee at all. Sometimes buying a plant and allowing it to self seed or collecting to grow other years can be the safer option.

Casa Mariposa said...

I grow all my pollinator attracting annuals from seed since the ones at the nurseries are pumped full of pesticides but many people don't want to bother with grow lights, etc to start their own. I quite like having a mini-greenhouse in my basement. When I ordered one set of lights they came with a propane lighter. Apparently, the company assumed I was growing marijuana instead of zinnias.