Gardeners cool their spending in the big spring chill

Tammy Woodhouse Tammy Woodhouse says that garden centres have been throwing stock away

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The UK shivered its way through the second coldest March on record. So there has been little motivation for gardeners to fetch the tools out of the shed and start digging and planting in their beds and borders.

As a result, staff at some garden centres have given gloomy reports of custom so far this year.

Tammy Woodhouse, of the Millbrook Garden Centre in Gravesend, Kent, says that typically half their sales for the year come in March, April and May. This year, takings are 35% down on the norm.

"It has been tough," says Mrs Woodhouse, a spokeswoman for the Garden Centre Association.

Bargains

Alys Fowler's top tips

Alys Fowler
  • Visit car boot sales for bargains on tools and plants
  • Ask other gardeners for cuttings
  • Don't buy all the equipment you can find. Stick to a spade, fork, hoe, rake and trowel to start
  • Spend you money on good-quality compost, as plants will then keep growing back
  • Recycle. Use lollypop sticks for labels, and make use of discarded bricks, wood and plastic

For many garden centres and growers, the bad weather has led them to throw stock away.

In the short term, that could mean bargains for gardeners, with items heavily discounted before being dumped.

Primroses are being sold for 99p and pansies are being offered at knockdown prices.

"Some plants have had to be thrown away. They've been affected by the cold and by the frost, and they have been damaged too much," says Mrs Woodhouse.

"Some prices are coming down. There are discounts to be had. We'll always discount before we throw away, and some of the suppliers are offering us discounted products just to make space."

But in the long term, Mrs Woodhouse warns that prices could go up because choice will fall as some garden centres and growers could be pushed out of business.

Her parents started in the business 35 years ago, and now have three centres, but the family say this is the worst start to the season that they can remember.

Like many other centres, they have been relying on alternative sales, such as gifts and refreshments, and are hoping for a good summer.

Gardens network
Chris Blythe Chris Blythe is one of a number of volunteers at community gardens

Gardeners may face the threat of rocketing prices in the long term, but they are already used to seeing costs rise steadily.

Official figures show that the cost of gardens, plants and flowers rose by 0.6% in March, compared with a year ago, typical of much of the past year.

The good news for gardeners is that this remains lower than the overall inflation rate - the rising cost of all good and services - which stood at 2.8% in March.

And the Office for National Statistics data shows that the cost of tools and equipment for the home and garden has actually fallen, down 1.9% in March compared with a year earlier.

Community spirit

Many groups of enthusiasts who get green-fingered on a strict budget can be found in the network of community gardens across the UK.

Often funded with the help of local authority grants and run by volunteers, they are designed to improve the wellbeing of residents in low-income areas.

Gardening and travel tips as well as pension pots

And those involved hope the low costs mean that things look healthy for their finances too.

The Coplow Street Community Garden in Ladywood, Birmingham, has 26 plots where members of the 500-household community can grow fruit and vegetables.

The site was transformed from old garages on the estate in 2009, and began with some soil-filled builders' bags.

For a membership fee of £10 a year, residents now get a small custom-built bed to grow their produce, and access to seeds and plants at cost price.

Co-ordinator Chris Blythe, part of the North Summerfield Residents Association, says it is terrific way to build community spirit as well as encouraging the grow-your-own culture.

It also gives a chance to people living in flats, or with only small yards, to get outside with their families and involved in affordable gardening.

"It is an inner-city area. This is a great way for people to just have a small space to grow vegetables and fruit to benefit their health and their family," he says.

There are also social events and educational days organised by the group.

"It is a great way of getting involved in gardening. It is not just about growing, but getting people together as a community and supporting each other," he says.

Plant tips

For others with access to a little space, but without much money to spend, what are the top tips for gardening on a budget?

Alys Fowler has written a number of books on gardening and has presented Gardeners' World on BBC Television.

She says it is vital not to start too quickly.

"Go to lots of car boot sales. You can get fantastically good old tools. They will be really well made and you can pick them up for about a fiver," she says.

"You just need a spade, a fork, a hand trowel, a hoe and a rake. That will be all that you need. You don't have to get everything out there."

Other gardeners are often generous with cuttings and some vital equipment, ranging from plastic to bricks for the garden, are simply discarded by other people, she says.

But one item that is worth investing some funds in, she says, is good soil.

"If I was going to spend money anywhere, I would spend it on the best-quality compost that I can buy. For everything else, just use the cheapest seed trays, recycle all the labels. I make my own out of lollypop sticks," she says.

So those inspired to get out in the garden, to an allotment, or to their local community plot, may find it is easier than they think to control the budget.

It is just a shame that the same cannot be done with the weather.

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