Ultra-local, infinitely renewable, and people- and planet-friendly, could gardening be the key to regenerating our town centres?
If I owned a clutch of glitzy, can-only-get-there-by-car garden centres, I’d be worried. Not about tremors from our ongoing political crises. Not about the meteorological unknowns that climate breakdown is foisting upon us (bad weather means poor sales, especially for garden retailers). Not about how I’m going to stop passing a mountain of potentially globally polluting plastic on to my customers. And not about whether it’ll be possible to reinvent my café’s latte – for the umpteenth time – to ‘enhance visitor experience’. My worry would come from an unlikely source: high streets up and down the land.
Amidst all the gathering retail doom and gloom seeping through our towns and cities, there’s one potential saviour on the horizon. It won’t bring about a complete fix for these struggling places, but it will be enticing and connecting, and it’ll enhance our forlorn streets for anyone who still likes to shop on foot, rather than by zombified click. This saviour could ride into towns pretty quickly; with spring approaching, it could give fresh impetus to plans to ‘save the high street’. The armour this knight wears will be muddy and green, not shiny, and it won’t thunder in on horseback; it’ll roll into the street on a fleet of wheelbarrows. Yes, that’s how gardening, that great greener-upper, that bringer-together, that beautifying and earth-friendly lifter of spirits – whatever the topsy weather – will arrive, and begin working its magic in the places where most of us not only live, but also garden.
Gardening isn’t for spectators; it’s something you do. Voyeurs can ogle it on their smartphones, tablets and computers, but you can’t smell, feel, taste or do it via a glass screen; your fingernails will stay spotlessly clean. All you can do there is click and buy, though you trigger a chain of events in the process. Think packaging (potential plastic pollution), transport (air and noise pollution), energy and resource use, mounting ‘plant miles’, the use of nature-wrecking peat-based compost… and much more, from just one click. You don’t get to talk to anyone in this silent, convenient world; you might get a grunt from the delivery driver when the fruits of your click arrive (look out for the cloud of diesel fumes). Not much fun, is it?
But what if you could get most, if not all, of your gardening needs met not by clicking, but by walking down your local high street? What if you could order what you wanted here, for collection right there in the high street, later on? Think of the slashed pollution and resource use, if the plants you ordered were grown a couple of miles away, rather than hundreds (or even thousands). You might not be able to get exactly what you saw on a screen, but having less choice is incredibly liberating. Your local nurseryfolk will find it liberating too; being able to plan for, and grow, plants that have been pre-ordered (and paid for) will give their business certainty, allowing them to make a decent, fret-free living. Enterprising souls might even be encouraged to set up new small nurseries, to help green their own high street. Forget anonymous mail-order gardening; placing a personal local order is the way to go.
Why stop at plants? Pre-ordering poles and sticks for your beans and peas will give those tending local coppiced woodlands a cash boost (they’ll have other timber products too: made-to-order fencing, gates, garden furniture…). Need some plant pots? Why not call at the not-for-profit Pot Shop, where there’s an ongoing amnesty on donated plastic containers of all shapes and sizes. The crack team of volunteer ‘potties’ sort and sift through what they get, clean up the pots, and sell them (at way below glitzy garden centre prices). Any brittle and past-it pots are sent for recycling. For any of the bigger pots (they have terracotta, too), you can buy a pre-paid ‘pot luck planter’, where it’ll be planted up for you by the local nursery, for collection later. You can’t be too choosy, but you can pick a colour scheme. Part of the Pot Shop’s profits go toward running Charlie’s chip-fat-fuelled van, which delivers tough canvas bags of professional-quality peat-free compost. Bulk-buying direct from the compost-maker brings the cost down. Charlie delivers plants too, if you can’t get into town.
The Garden Library Café is sandwiched between the Pot Shop and FixiT! The lads there can fix, mend, service, sharpen, or track down spares for anything you’ll ever use in the garden. They’ll fit a new locally-grown wooden handle on a spade, get your wheelbarrow rolling again, or coax any powered garden kit into purring like a kitten. A fiver puts a razor-like edge on any blade you like. They sell scythes, too, for anyone ditching their neighbour-baiting strimmer. They still have to do some internet clicking to track things down for their customers, but they’re chatting to people, too. And they love the organic coffee next door.
Opposite FixiT!, the long-empty unit is being spruced up, ready for the opening of the town’s newest florist, and the clue’s in the name: Flowers From Here. Soo and Jess, whose flower farm start-up is on the site of the town’s long-lost market garden, will bring their seasonal, zero-miles and no-pesticides cut flowers here in their pedal-powered rickshaw. They’ve already got a booking for a wedding in the town. They’ll also be the pick-up point for the local organic veg box scheme, which has inspired them to offer their own ‘Friday flower bunch’; you pay up-front for a mixed weekly surprise – and 100% plastic-free – bouquet of seasonal blooms. Soo’s early-retired dad is said to be eyeing up the empty shop next door. Books Are Here is the name being rumoured.
Another word on the café’s grapevine (the metaphorical one) is that one of the FixiT! lads is branching out. He’s obsessed with greenhouses (he’s already got five of his own). Jace wants to take the café’s greenhouse rehoming noticeboard to another level. Instead of just linking abandoned greenhouses with people who want one, he’s offering a new, all-in ‘pre-loved greenhouse package’. For an agreed price, Jace will identify your greenhouse needs, then find you the perfect one that’s looking for love. He’ll arrange getting it to you, install it, reglaze it, and refurbish it so it’s as good as new. Greenhouse newbies will even get some growing advice for free.
Local, pre-ordered plants, pot-luck planters, low-price pots. Peat-free compost delivered (in returnable plastic-free bags) to your door, powered by cooking oil. Garden tools and kit fixed, and given a new lease of life. Cafés mingling with indie bookshops, and grown-down-the-road cut flowers. No cars, no air pollution; healthy walking, not stressful driving for a rehashed latte. Talk and laughter, not mind-numbing, solitary clicking. Sniffing the coffee – and the blooms in the bee-buzzing planters outside every shop.
Unsettling dreams must surely haunt the bosses of big, out-of-town garden centres, as well as just-a-click-away retailers. Quite right, too. The fearful, endless talk of ‘retail blues’ needs to be tempered by thinking of a different colour, and by sowing some imaginative, creative seeds. How about an uplifting shade of gardening green, in a high street near you?
Text and images © John Walker. Street image: Depositphotos
Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener