YOU can buy an identical copy of a book either cheaply online,
or from an oak shelf in a historic bookshop. Sources of plants are
equally varied, with the complication that plants are living,
non-uniform, and come in different sizes and phases of growth. With
plants, it definitely helps to see what you are buying - and smell
and touch, come to that.
I have been plant shopping in two different contexts, and I can
recommend both as the focus of a great day out. The first, during
the unseasonably warm spring weather, was at a nursery in the
rolling countryside north of Bath, Special Plants. The owner, Derry
Watkins, was botanising on Crete under, I learnt via Twitter,
leaden skies. She seemed to be beaming all the sunshine home. The
plants, propagated at the nursery, were coming alive and shouting
In this situation, you need advice in order to make sensible
choices for your own plot. This was on hand in the form of good
signage - "plants for shade", and so on; and helpful labelling -
"Matthiola perennis 'Alba', the most fragrant plant in my
garden", "Diascia personata, tall but self-supporting.
Pink flowers all summer. Hardy."
More important than that were the cheerful and knowledgeable
staff, who asked about my garden, then made informed suggestions,
and steered me gently away from impulse buys. During the summer,
Derry and her architect husband's garden is open on certain days.
It is sculpted from the landscape, and a living lecture on the
concept of "right plant, right place".
There were no aids to restraint at the Columbia Road flower
market, in Bethnal Green. I arrived by overground at Hoxton, and
walked from there, encountering more and more people clutching
large plants to their chests: a lemon tree here, a startlingly blue
hydrangea there. And trendy young urban types holding large bunches
of flowers. It certainly lifted the spirits.
The market opens at 8 a.m., and that is the time to go if you
don't like crowds. It closes at 3 p.m., and some prices are reduced
in the last hour or so. There is plenty of East End banter: "I'm
not sellin' 'em, I'm givin 'em away," one vendor said, referring to
trays of fuchsias.
It is easy to get carried away in the sea of blooms and bodies.
But it felt fun, and horticulture can be a bit snooty sometimes.
You had to look hard to find a Latin name, and most of the plants
will have been grown indoors, on the Continent, in perfectly
controlled environments; so they might sulk for a bit.
But the signs for cords, rhodoes, osteos, or other
abbreviations, made it very accessible. There were lovely
containers on sale in the street's little shops; so a trip to
Columbia Road could get novice gardeners started, and, if they make
the odd mistake, so what? The plants were cheap, and definitely
Special Plants is open daily, March to October. For
information about garden open days, visit www.specialplants.net.
Columbia Road Flower Market is every Sunday: www.columbiaroad.info.