UK’s garden centres hope sunshine and Chelsea flower show will help them rebound from the rain

The sixth-wettest April on record has not been kind to Britain’s gardens or its 1,600 garden centres.

So far this year, with most of the key selling season over, garden centre sales are up just 2% on last year and down 11% on 2022, after the sodden spring depressed sales of shrubs, trees, bedding plants and seeds.

Strong sales of tea and cake in cafes and of food in farm shops helped keep many garden centres going through the gloomy weather, while houseplant sales continue to rise after an Instagram-led boom in interest during the pandemic. But now the industry is hoping sales will blossom as the Chelsea flower show heralds a belated reboot of the horticultural calendar.

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) says it is “all to play for”, as almost a quarter of sales of plants, seeds and bulbs were rung up in May last year when gardeners made the most of the two bank holidays. Sales of barbecues and garden furniture are only just kicking off and the industry has its fingers crossed that good weather is on the way to help boost sales.

“It’s been a slow start to the year,” says David Denny, director of research at the HTA. “An early Easter is never good for trade, but in the last week or so, with the sunshine coming out, there has been a bit of an uptick. There is pent-up demand and it is by no means too late for people to want to get out in their gardens. We are hoping to see demand piqued by Chelsea.”

Chelsea,, the five-day show organised by the Royal Horticultural Society in the grounds of the royal hospital in London, gets a week of coverage on the BBC and is the Glastonbury festival of the gardening world, drawing visitors from the royal family and gardener royalty such as Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh. This year, DJ Jo Whiley will host late-night dancing after the main showground closes, while the business world will attend the opening night jamboree, a networking hothouse, on Monday.

The Bridgerton garden in collaboration with Netflix at RHS Chelsea. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

High-profile gardens to view will include The Bridgerton garden in collaboration with streaming service Netflix, an indoor garden designed by inmates from HMP East Sutton Park in Kent, and the Octavia Hill urban wildlife garden, in memory of the National Trust founder.

This year promises to be the greenest show yet, with all 16 main show gardens going through a rigorous environmental audit before being accepted and many cutting back on use of cement or turning to recycled steel. Room for nature is worked into many gardens, with bird and bat boxes and rain­water collection ideas. This year a new environmental innovation award will recognise green ingenuity.

Denny says he is expecting the show to prompt lots of interest in plants for pollinators, such as lavender, as well as fruit and vegetable growing, as “more attention is being paid to plants with an environmental benefit”.

Balcony and container gardening will be another highlight, with nine adventurous ideas for small spaces being showcased at Chelsea, including Mike McMahon & Jewlsy Mathews’s Junglette garden for law firm Addleshaw Goddard, which is expected to be visited by the king on Monday as part of his tour.

“Urban gardening is a theme. It builds on 2020 when we had 3 million new gardeners [during the pandemic lockdowns], a lot of whom are in rented spaces in towns and cities,” says Denny. He says younger gardeners like containers and houseplants so they can “take their garden with them if they move”.

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Mike McMahon & Jewlsy Mathews’s Junglette garden for law firm Addleshaw Goddard. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Sarah Squire, chair of the Squires garden centre chain, says it has continued to welcome more gardeners than pre-Covid, with encouraging signs that newer recruits are doing “real gardening”, buying seeds and summer bulbs, and opting for empty pots rather than ready-planted containers. Unsurprisingly, rainwater collection kit, such as water butts, have not been selling well this year.

“It certainly felt like a long winter and April was disappointing,” she says, but adding that Chelsea always leads to a rise in footfall at the group’s outlets as it “brings horticulture into the spotlight” for a week. “It always has an effect and the better the weather the better the effect.”

She says that despite poor plant sales so far the group is “not panicking” because “when the sun comes out people want to grow plants”.

“We often find herbaceous cottage garden plants – such as lupins, verbena and lavender – are really popular as a lot are at their peak and they are so versatile for a modern or traditional setting.”

Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the RHS, says that after all the damp weather, ferns and moss as part of green and woodland gardens are another theme – as shown in Muscular Dystrophy UK’s forest bathing garden, designed by Ula Maria – with the idea of being “notably soothing and conducive to people’s wellbeing”. He says edible plants are also being used for creative effect including beetroot, chard, Asian greens and some less well-known plants such as Arctic berries.


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