Garden centres need to maintain a plant offering in winter and early spring or lose out to online retailers.

I am sure that I will upset some garden centre operators but here goes! I was helping a friend establish her garden and one plant I suggested was the cheerful and dependable Lonicera fragrantissima. Now is the time that it is in flower and so picking one up from a garden centre or local nursery should be a doddle. Not so, it was easier to find bird food, cookware, specialist preserves and of courses masses of ‘giftware’, whatever that is.


Chimonanthus praecox – a fragrant and useful winter flowering plant

My quest for this easily produced hardy shrub was unsuccessful despite visiting several branches of two large garden centre groups and about half a dozen retail nurseries. When I asked the staff I received several blank expressions and several suggestions to go and have a look in the climbers. Nobody realised that I was looking for a shrub and not a climber.

The plant sales areas in many centres were almost completely stripped of plants with no suggestion when re-stocking will resume. As a former manager and director of a successful independent garden centre, I am aware of the folly of carrying too much stock in winter and most overwintered stock is unsaleable at the full price in spring. However the process of de-stocking in winter can go too far resulting in lost sales of winter and early spring flowering shrubs and even some perennials. I was unable to see many Sarcoccocca choice plants such as Daphne, Garrya, Chimonanthus and Abeliophyllum. With reduced footfall in winter, sales opportunities will be reduced but surely it is worth having some offering to complement displays of Primula and potted bulbs?

A few years back, I visited Cooling’s excellent retail nursery in Chislehurst, Kent, in early spring. In the coffee shop there were some excellent displays of Helleborus flowers floating in bowls of water and the effect was quite stunning. If the customers won’t go to the plants, try bringing plants to the customers in the coffee shop. Table displays of cut flowering stems of winter flowering plants, especially the fragrant ones such as Chimonanthus, will stimulate sales providing you have the stock.

This is not a cheap shot aimed at garden centres, they operate in a tough market but online retailers are exploiting weaknesses. Having a minimal plant offering in the quieter trading months is handing internet traders an opportunity on a plate.