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CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE; NOW YOU KNOW WHAT TYPE OF GARDENER YOU ARE, IT'S TIME TO HIT THE GARDEN CENTRE . . .

There are about 2,000 garden centres in Britain. Some are superb and some are simply dreadful. So here's my advice for obtaining the best service.

FINDING YOUR GARDEN CENTRE

How do you find the best centre when you are new to an area or new to gardening? The Yellow Pages listings give no indication of quality, and the nearest may not be the best. Try looking around your area and don't be afraid to knock on the door of the house with the most attractive garden. Good gardeners are usually happy to share their experiences and save you the trouble of driving several miles only to be disappointed.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Does the garden centre invite you to stop and look around? Does it have an appealing frontage with plenty of plants? I'm always attracted to a centre that is attached to a nursery, for at least it tells me that the owners must know a fair amount about raising plants. Remember that you need very little knowledge of plants in order to set up a shop selling them - I can think of several D.I.Y. stores that prove this perfectly.

Of course, some garden centres are in the middle of large urban areas, but even they may be linked with a nursery out of town.

I am always impressed if there's a car park not too far from the tills, and even more impressed if there are plenty of trolley-width paths and such thoughtful touches as having the really heavy items (bags of compost for example) where they don't require lifting or carrying great distances. Children aren't necessarily the best companions on a garden centre visit, so a safe, well-organised children's play area is welcome. But there I draw the line - once amusements assume a more prominent role, I'm inclined to think that the gardening is taking second place.

Most garden centres now offer some refreshment facilities, I feel we have all outgrown the lone coffee machine - the best garden centre that I know has a delightful thatched restaurant that would be worth a visit for its menu alone.

GETTING HELP

Are the staff easily visible, identifiable by overalls or at the least by badges? And are they visibly helping the customers? I don't mean simply by lending a hand to old ladies with their bags of potting compost, but by giving advice. I rate very highly the presence of staff who can not only give an answer to, "Where are the plant pots?" but provide a thoughtful and convincing response to, "Would my garden soil be suitable for that lovely Pieris on your front display?"

I realise that garden centres, like other retailers, take on part-time staff at busy periods but they should be alert enough to consult a more knowledgable colleague rather than shrug their shoulders or, even worse, pretend that they know the answer.

PLANTS

Plants are the core of any garden centre and so it is reasonable to expect good quality. There are several ways in which plants can be displayed, ranging from a complete jumble (fortunately becoming rarer these days) to a scientific grouping in plant families. I don't think either are of much help. Most people know the alphabet better than the plant kingdom, so I prefer to see an A-Z system, with shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, alpines and other major groups kept apart.

It's also very important to get some guidance on plants for places. The best way is for lists to be posted of "Plants for dry shade", "Evergreen shrubs for winter interest", "Roses for perfume" and so forth.

If such information isn't obviously available, this is an opportunity to test the mettle of the staff.

If you ask for advice and are given help conscientiously, please don't then walk away with a vague promise to "think about it".

Return the garden centre's care and attention by making some purchases.

HARDWARE

Plants may be the core of the business, but it's the hardware - chemicals, tools and countless gardening sundries that make the difference between a garden centre and a nursery.

How can you judge if you are being offered a good and reliable choice?

I like to see the ranges of at least three different manufacturers on show. When I say "on show", I mean in such a way that they can be picked up and handled. Never, ever, buy a garden tool until you really have felt its size, weight and balance in your hands. I expect to see a full range of equipment too - spades and forks in different sizes, wheelbarrows, mowers (again from more than one manufacturer) and all with detailed advice available on care and safety precautions.

Care and safety are naturally important with garden chemicals too, but this is an area where many garden centres fall down. You really are entitled to expect some guidance on the right chemical for a particular problem.

I know that being able to diagnose and treat each and every garden pest, disease and weed problem is a matter for an expert. So perhaps we might expect the garden centre manager to be less of a doctor and more of a pharmacist.

ROOM FOR

IMPROVEMENT

As with every other type of business, there are angels and rogues in the garden centre trade.

I long ago dispensed with the notion that everyone associated with plants must be pleasant.

However, the Garden Centres Association promotes a high level of quality. Annual inspections are performed and the centre must come up to certain standards in terms of facilities (including many of those that I have mentioned), service (an offer to replace plants that fail through no fault of the purchaser, for instance) and overall amenities.

Of course, nothing is perfect and ultimately, it's us, the customers, who can make the greatest impact.

Show your judgement of a poor garden centre with your feet - simply walk out.

WATCH AND GROW

Before you set off for the garden centre, spend some time in your garden working out exactly what it needs.

Don't be embarrassed about asking for help as often as you need it.

Set aside time as soon as you get home for planting.

CHOOSING A MOWER

CYLINDER OR ROTARY?

A cylinder mower cuts grass while a rotary only slashes it. For the very best finish always choose a cylinder, although for the average "working" lawn, a modern rotary will do a very good job. Some rotaries now have rollers to give a version of the stripes that a cylinder mower produces. A hover mower is a rotary mower with no wheels which hovers on an air cushion. It's excellent for rough grass and on sloping banks.

GRASS BOX OR NONE?

Use a collector whenever possible. Unless you mow very frequently and the clippings are chopped up very small, they can clog the surface of your lawn. All cylinder mowers have collectors and some rotaries have them too.

HAND, PETROL ENGINE OR ELECTRIC?

Some gardeners swear that a hand mower offers the best exercise, but the real choice lies between petrol and electric power.

Average gardens need an electric model, and all modern mains machines are fitted with a safety circuit breaker. Only really large gardens need a petrol mower - and bear in mind that annual servicing is essential.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Buczaki, Stefan
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 12, 1998
Words:1215
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