MAY IS THE month of bank holidays, and it's the time when many of us will be purchasing plants to make our gardens look fabulous over the summer months.
In the last few days I've been writing notes for a garden centre on what's available and about all the gadgets that we are invited to purchase and use. The latest was a new lawn feed and moss killer that is totally organic and the really nifty part is that the mixture contains bacteria which actually eats up the moss, meaning that the age-old chore of having to rake out the dead moss is no longer necessary. Now that is really a step forward and I can see many more new innovative products such as Mo Bacter coming on the market in the next few years.
While that's a change for the better, I'm not sure that the last forty or fifty years have seen real steps forward in selling plants and products. Years ago, you'd have visited a local nursery, with wooden greenhouses and cold frames bursting at the seams at this time of the year with fish boxes overflowing with traditional bedding plants such as geraniums grown from cuttings, with legendary varieties such as Paul Crample, a brilliant bright red and the King of Denmark – a shorter, very attractive semi double pink.
I used to grow dozens of variegated geraniums, with varieties such as Mr Henry Cox, a brilliant tricoloured foliage variety with single pale pink flower. Sadly, in the last couple of years I've managed to lose it as the stock became worn out and my greenhouse heating failed on a frosty night. I recently scoured the net, but sadly it seems, this variety that had been in existence for more than 100 years has gone to the gardener's grave – or compost heap – forever!
Other traditional summer bedding plants sold from the nursery would have been marigolds, alyssum and lobelia. Plastic seed trays and pots hadn't even been thought of, and I well remember using a pencil to make eight holes down the side of the fish box and five across the top and then working out in lines until I had created 40 holes for my young seedlings, regardless of how big the plants were going to get.
How things have changed with the invention of plastics and polystyrene, and the concept of growing plants in compartmentalised boxes containing four or six plants.
In the intervening years as the wooden fish boxes disappeared, companies such as Wards of Darlaston, who until then had been famous for their clay pots, turned to massive new machinery to churn out literally thousands of pots and trays a day in a new form of plastic which would last, unlike the fish box, virtually forever and were easy to wash and keep hygienic.
However, the established gardener found a huge problem in that the watering regime was very different, especially, as about the same time, we switched from the old loam-based composts based on a formula from the 1930s called John Innes; still used today, but in a minority compared with peat-based and more recently peat-free composts.
As time progressed worries about harvesting peat and it's impact on the environment meant we had to turn to low peat or peat alternative composts. Having tried a good few of them in recent years I've gone back to the old John Innes formulas.
Looking at the path of bedding plants is interesting to see the first real developments in the 1960s with the improvements to old favourites such as petunias. Careful breeding in California meant we got bigger flowered plants which unfortunately in the early days and the early varieties would succumb to the typical English downpours, with the petals literally turning to mush. However, in recent years and in some measure down to David Curly, a Cambridge-based plant breeder, we now have many fine varieties that will tolerate all the ravages of our British weather.
Plug plants are also something that is new. The concept also opened up a huge new market for online selling of plants, coupled with a good postal service to ensure speedy delivery. A huge amount has changed in those fifty years from my days of using fish boxes, when you saw the customer shopping at the local nursery. The 1970s saw the introduction of the first generation of garden centres. Who could have imagined that the humble small family-run nursery would give way to giants of buildings literally the size of aircraft hangars, selling everything from plants and fertilisers to you name it, they'll sell it. I even saw one garden centre in Lincolnshire recently selling holidays!
The internet has also opened up huge markets for the gardener as I mentioned earlier, but also the internet is killing the book trade. There is so much information about gardening online that I find myself rarely buying books today. Publishers well known in gardening circles have disappeared and the market has shrunk immensely. This means books are now written for large geographical areas and a typical new publication will be sold throughout Europe, America and even Canada. Now imagine the differing climates and growing conditions that these books have to cover. It's a shame they are no longer country specific and in my opinion no longer so helpful to the keen gardener.
Looking back to that original nursery, the growers there would have used cherished and well-worn tools which were almost part of the family, whether it be a spade a shovel or knife. My sister, who is also a garden writer, was recently asked to purchase a garden knife from several different sources and then to review them as far as price, quality and usability were concerned. Would you believe that it proved almost impossible to buy more than three different models of knife in today's what I term third-generation garden centre and even going online saw little improvement in what was available?
As a young lad heading off to Edinburgh Botanic Garden, I decided to spend more than a week's salary on a cutting knife made in Germany by a legendary company called Tina. I've still got my knife today and it is like an extension of my hand, it is only used in the garden and only for taking cuttings. I do have a Swiss Victorinox, for the general gardening tasks such as cutting string or opening packets of seed, but the Tina is my pride and joy. Today that knife will cost you more than £70 and is still made by hand in Germany. These are the Rolls-Royces of the trade and make lifetime partners and presents. Below it there is lots of junk.
I recently spent a few hours looking around garden centres and what I term DIY sheds. I simply couldn't believe the appalling cheap designs that look so impractical to use. It looks as though tools have become a throwaway commodity. At the same time, these cheap, often tin-looking spades and forks have actually taken the jobs from workers in the West Midlands abroad. For my 21st birthday, I was given a Wilkinson spade and a Spear and Jackson fork, which was made in Wednesbury. During the 1980s, I was lucky enough to see the huge drop-forging action, making garden forks, using a highly skilled team of men literally throwing hot steel between one another as they each carried out part of the art of turning a flat piece of steel into four tines and a shaft that would form one of the finest tools in the world.
By using cheap labour abroad and inferior steels, retailers are able to offer very cheap spades, forks and other garden tools, but when you handle them they haven't got that extension of the body feeling, they don't glide through your hands and they don't balance perfectly as good garden tools should.
However, progress has been kind in some ways, with the invention of garden fleece which can be used to protect our tender plants from just a few degrees of frost. As a general guide, the more you pay, the better the value of insulation will be and the safer and happier will be your plants.
The tiny polythene greenhouses that so many DIY stores and multiples are stocking can actually be colder inside during frosty weather than outside. You might want to cover your seedlings in these polythene greenhouses with fleece or even put in a small electric heater on a thermostat, again something that wasn't thought of fifty years ago.
In those days I would go down to the greenhouse last thing at night to make sure there was enough paraffin in the heater and that the flame was burning with an even bright blue light, meaning it was producing less pollution and burning efficiently. In those days you had to leave a gap in one of the vents to let air in or the heater would go out. Today electric heaters can be used in an airtight greenhouse maximising their efficiency. Of course, the old paraffin heaters had no thermostat so if the night went cold, you had to hope the heater would cope with it. On the other hand, if it turned warm you would be burning paraffin unnecessarily. Maybe electric heaters are a big step forward.
Do not rush to put out your bedding plants. Fifty years ago, I was taught not to put them out until at least the middle or the third week in May for the hardier varieties such as antirrhinums and petunias. The more tender plants such as begonias and impatiens along with the dahlias would not be planted out until early June!
Garden centres, plastic pots and poor quality tools might have appeared, but one thing that has not changed is our weather. You have been warned. Don't plant too early and be prepared for a frost, even into early June!