Our British garden centres are the envy of the world’s gardening retailers. We have exciting plant & product ranges, fantastic cafés & restaurants, plus the jewel in the crown—knowledgeable garden centre staff. Garden centres have plant advice teams of qualified horticulturalists waiting to give free quality advice to any amateur gardener who crosses their threshold. Yet, many people have no idea just how much the staff at their local garden centre can do to help them.
For the last few years, the best garden centres in the UK have been joining forces with my Cultivation Street campaign by designating an expert staff member as one of the Cultivation Street ‘ambassadors.’ This ambassador serves as a dedicated point of contact to support local community groups and schools with a garden. To find your local ambassador, simply visit www.cultivationstreet.com, put in your post code and hey presto! you’ll have the name and location of your nearest one.
So what can your local garden centre staff and ambassadors do for you?
Plant care and advice
First up, don’t be shy. Whether you’re looking to fill a bare spot in your garden or are re-designing an entire area, ask garden centre staff for advice.
Well-trained staff will be able to tell you where and how to plant a variety that you’re interested in, what its final spread and height will be like, and how to look after it for best effect.
They can also recommend appropriate plants if you’re not sure of what would work in your space. If don’t know the make-up and pH of your garden soil, the staff can even test a sample for you.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that everything you need to know will be on the plant label—while this is a good place to start, it’s no replacement for practical advice from a garden centre plant expert.
Blueberries, for example, may say on the label that they prefer acidic soil, but does this tell you that they need specialist ericaceous compost and to be fed with sequestered iron?
No. Indoor Cyclamen plant labels will often tell you to keep soil moist during the growing season, but do they tell you only to water from the bottom to avoid root rot? Of course not.
For this sort of information, garden centre staff are irreplaceable. Providing this sort of advice is one of the many things that Cultivation Street ambassadors do for their local school and community groups.
Second, the eyes of a trained garden centre expert are second to none when it comes to identifying pests, diseases and problem plants correctly. This helps you to take appropriate control measures straightaway without wasting time or money and sacrificing the health of your plants in the process.
This was one of my absolute favourite parts of working in the plant advice centre before my television career took off.
People would bring in strange leaves and pictures of unruly pests and I would have to identify them and provide relevant advice.
It was a marvellous daily experience, solving the public’s problems and talking passionately about plants and one that I missed when I left the advice centre.
So rather than searching blindly online and throwing good money after bad to try and resolve an issue, visit your local store and ask for help. They will be more than happy to oblige! And if you’re a member of a school or community garden, ask your Cultivation Street ambassador (www.cultivationstreet.com).
Interesting talks, walks and events
Did you know that some garden centres offer free talks? Common themes include growing your own fruit and vegetables, getting home composting off the ground and making your own alpine bowl.
Attending talks is a great way to get free expert advice as well as fresh ideas and inspiration for gardening projects at home. Cultivation Street ambassadors often run talks like this for local school and community groups, so it is worth contacting them to find out more.
In addition, most garden centres also run ticketed seasonal events, such as Halloween pumpkin carving, Santa’s grottos and festive afternoon tea parties. Visit your local centre to ask about their upcoming events.
Some garden centres even offer nature trails, picnic areas and wildlife zones in their surroundings so that visitors can really make a day of it. For this reason, garden centres have become a fascinating place to take the kids.
They can get close to nature, visit the animals and fish on sale, and go in for a bit of rough and tumble in the play area, often without you having to pay a penny piece.
And, of course, if you’re lucky you can buy yourself a few plants while you’re there!
Ambassadors of the year
Every year, the dedicated team of Cultivation Street ambassadors roll up their sleeves and get stuck in helping their local schools and communities. And every year, I recognise and reward the ambassadors who have gone above and beyond with a total of £3,000 in cash prizes to give away.
This year, I’m delighted to announce that Steve Purton of Dobbies Garden Centre in Milton Keynes has been crowned Ambassador of the Year by our esteemed panel of judges, and has won himself 1st prize of £1,000.
JUDGES’ VERDICT: This year, Steve has supported over 1,000 children at his free gardening sessions at Dobbies. He regularly shares his expertise with a local charity, 4 schools, a college and a hospital to improve their communal spaces. Steve even uses his own car to transport supplies to groups that can’t get to him. Great work, Steve!
2nd prize of £500 goes to ambassador Zoe Stanmore of Dobbies Garden Centre in Southport.
JUDGES’ VERDICT: We loved the fact that Zoe runs her own community garden in her spare time and has even gone so far as to donate plants grown there for the benefit of other community groups. She has up to 60 children attend her garden each week and has forged links with local schools and nursing homes. Well done Zoe!
3rd prize of £300 goes to ambassador Annie Yates of Garden Store.
JUDGES’ VERDICT: With her focus on creating a free online bank of gardening activities and instruction videos, Annie has done something truly unique. Due to her online focus, her reach has the potential to expand far beyond the communities in her local vicinity. Plus, her activities are great!
Ambassador runners up
Cultivation Street is overflowing with incredible ambassadors who go the extra mile for their local communities. As such, we are also awarding 12 special commendation prizes of £100 each to the following ambassadors, well done everyone!
Jackie Barker of Notcutts, Solihull, Gary Bissett of Inver Garden Centre, Inver, Louise Canfield of Aylett Nurseries, St Alban’s, Angela Fletcher of Notcutts, Rivendell, Steve Fry of Gardens Group, Dorset, Graham Heath of Garden Store, Littleheath, Georgina Isherwood of Dobbies, Kings Lynn, Matthew Lewis of Old Railway Line, Brecon, Sophie Lyall of Haskins Garden Centre, Southampton, Laura Stevens of Dobbies, Livingstone, Carol Watson of Notcutts, Tunbridge Wells and Andrew Wright of Gardens Group, Yeovil.