Ways Of Obtaining Plants.

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  1. Without Paying For Them - (Legally!).

  2. Buying Plants From A Nursery Or Small Family Garden Centre.

  3. Buying Bare Root Mail Order Plants. 

1)        Without Paying For Them - (Legally!).

When my mother first became interested in plants and gardening in general back in the late fifties, there were no garden centres in the UK where people could go every weekend to buy their plants. Any plants that were sold could only be bought from a few gardening shops which was not the best of environments for keeping live plants.

Most plants were obtained by people being given plants or cuttings by friends and neighbours from their gardens. This idea seems to be regaining a foothold with a change in attitude from people as regard to doing things the “Green Way,” (That is environmentally green!) For some people it may simply be due to the economic climate and the tightening of purse strings, but whatever the reason there seems to be a resurgence in swapping plants or at least getting them from other sources other than garden centres that have had it too good for too long. Unfortunately people all to often go round various “open gardens,” be they for the local village or stately home and pinch cuttings. This is STEALING, but a cheeky ask from the appropriate person may well result in a free cutting or even small plant!

Of course you could support your local village fete, all of which these days have a plant stall, as do many other charity events. Your local village gardening guild may also be a source of free plants if you become a member and most will hold a fundraising day at least once a year where anybody can buy plants that members have grown. You will of course have to pay something for the plants at most events, but it will be less than from a big garden centre and from the “Green” point of view it is a great thing to do and is also very good from the social aspect. Having said that a few large events, such as the BBC Gardeners World annual event at the N.E.C. Birmingham, arrange plant swap stalls where you take a plant in and simply swap it at no cost for one already on the stall!

Joining an allotment society may also be a source of cheap, or even free plants, as members will get together to chat over their successes and failures.

It seems that we are becoming a nation of gardeners once again with plants available everywhere you look. There are still some traditional hardware and gardening shops that survive in odd parts of the country, but along with florists that have always sold a few plants, many other shops are “having a go” with many general corner shops and even village paper shops. Obviously all the D.I.Y. places and supermarkets are trying to get in on the act as they do with everything else. That reminds me of a classic supermarket howler. One day I was looking at the plants in our local supermarket and believe it or not I saw a sell by, or best before date, on a plant. It was on a Rubber Tree plant, which I am pretty sure will live more than 100 years and the date was only a few weeks thenceforth!

Perhaps because every Tom, Dick and Harry has started selling plants the garden centres have diversified.  

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2)         Buying Plants From A Nursery Or Small Family Garden Centre.

Big Garden Centres are fun places for a great day out with their fancy restaurants, large gift shops and often a whole host of other franchises and concessions selling everything from garden buildings to jewellery, outdoor model railways and antiques. However, most of the staff are simply shop assistants and don’t know the first thing about plants when asked. Sometimes there will be a “Plants Assistant” on hand to give some impersonal advice, but nothing can beat a real plant nursery for friendly, helpful, informed staff. The smaller, family run garden centres, can usually be relied on to give good advice as well because most of their staff will be plants people that have to turn their hand to all aspects of the running of the garden centre unlike the big concerns where each department is staffed and run almost independently of each other like a large high street department superstore.

Another big problem with the national garden centres is that all of their plants will have travelled from growing sites elsewhere, often overseas. This is fine from the mass supply aspect, but is not the best way of growing plants for the environment with the massive fuel costs for transporting such heavy and bulky items. Plants will usually have been grown in warm, artificial, sterile, growing conditions in closed polythene tunnels that produce perfect, healthy, disease free plants that are delicate at the best of times and very susceptible to the cold and rigours of our climate. If not treated correctly plants that have been freshly imported will often suffer severe shock and will be set back to the point of sometimes, even dying after purchase. Plants grown locally by a nursery or small garden centre will be ready to survive almost anything that the weather can throw at them.

There are not so many, independent, small plant nurseries about now, but there are a few. These businesses rarely sell much beside plants other than a bit of compost, a few pots, some seeds and some fertilisers, but they do grow the plants that they sell on site and they do know how the plants grow. Their range may be limited, but the plants will be tough and suitable for local conditions without having to acclimatise them. The problem with many of these plant based, usual family run, businesses, is that as they become successful they diversify and expand into garden centres. That is fine while they remain family run garden centres, but eventually many lose that personal touch with it’s accompanying good service and are sold out to one of the national chains.

When my mother started her garden centre she grew all the plants that she sold at first and it was truly a “Plant Nursery,” however, as the business grew into a fully fledged garden centre, selling everything from garden tools to books as well as having a fish department, and more of our family joined the business, she started buying in plants from other nurseries. Usually the plants she bought were grown at specialist nurseries in the UK as, either rooted cuttings for potting and growing on before sale, or bare root plants for things like roses and trees. These we bought in the Autumn, potted up and then sold throughout the following year. Many family run garden centres still operate like this and plants sourced and grown like this will not only deserve a “grown locally label” and as such have been grown in a way that was more environmentally friendly, but they will be tougher plants and be backed by knowledgeable staff who were largely responsible for growing them.  

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3)       Buying Bare Root Mail Order Plants.

In the good old day when my parents ran our family garden centre keen gardeners traditionally bought most of their plants in the Autumn and Winter with mainly bedding plants being sold in the Summer months. Nowadays however, everybody wants plants fully grown in pots, in flower and even in fruit! Pot grown plants are all very well and you can certainly see what you are getting when you buy an apple tree with ripe apples already on it, but it is not the best of things to plant for several reasons;-

1.     The plant will have had the growth of it’s roots constricted by the pot and even if you tease out the roots carefully it may well be a year or two before it starts spreading it’s roots as it should.

2.     The taproot and other anchoring roots (Especially with trees) will not be down deep to stabilise the tree to prevent rocking.

3.     Artificial watering when it was still in the pot before you planted it will mean that it will not have enough roots to support all that luscious growth that looked so good in the garden centre.

4.     It is simply wrong to put plants into parched ground in the heat of the Summer as it will break up the “Crumb” structure of the soil amongst other things.

Bare root plants will usually be dispatched through the Autumn and Winter months when most plants are dormant, have no sap running and have no leaves to support. This means that transport is much easier as they do not even need soil round the plants roots, just some packing such as moss to keep them moist. Also of course it means that carriage is far less with no soil or pots to increase the weight. Many people buy a bare root tree at some time in their life and are then disappointed when they get it because it doesn’t look like they expected.

Bare root trees are often field grown and roughly dug up with very little root on them. This really does not matter in the slightest as long as they are treated correctly when you receive them. You must immediately unpack any bare root mail order plants and soak them in a bucket of water for an hour or two as per instructions. Then they MUST be planted correctly and looked after for their first year depending on the plant. You must plant them in a large, well prepared hole that has had a bucket of water tipped into it. The soil used to fill in around the plant must be of a good quality and of the right nature ie; ericaceous (Acidic) for certain plants like Azaleas and Rhododendrons, acidic and peaty with added bark chippings for some like Blueberries to retain extra moisture, well draining with added horticultural sand or grit for others such as Agaves so they don’t rot in the Winter and so the list of soil types goes on. After planting the ground should not be allowed to dry out for some weeks and then as Spring comes watering should be reduced in dry spells until it is stopped altogether. This will help the plant form enough surface roots to get it going, but not make it dependent on surface watering and will make it’s roots go down as they should.

A fully shaped “Fan” or “Espalier” fruit tree may look very nice when bought from a garden centre, but they will cost the earth and choices will be very limited, because most garden Centres can only offer a limited range of plants as they have to try and satisfy the customers where the biggest market is with the most popular plants, whereas mail order nurseries can really specialise and offer the more unusual and even exotic. With mail order and our changing climate you can be amongst the first in the UK to buy many of the more unusual plants/trees featured on this web-site and grow them into what shape you like. Admittedly a mail order tree may look just like a single, straight, two foot, twig when you first get it, but it will be a fraction of the price you would pay in the garden centre and you will have far more pleasure in shaping and growing that to maturity than you ever will get from any pre-grown “Specimen” bought from a big garden centre.

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