Hand on heart, I can honestly say I love garden centres – there’s something very satisfying about the anticipation, the circling round, the inspecting, the choosing, and ultimately the struggle to get your new selection into the car without bending or chopping off twiggy bits with the closing door. My parents were avid gardeners, and as a child I tagged along behind them on visits, and they were the last places I wanted to go - enormous places full of ‘green stuff’ and they were just somewhere I had to go, because ‘they’ wanted to go, and I had probably sullenly dragged myself round behind them. Now, I really have an interest in ‘green stuff’, and I happily visit garden centres voluntarily.
Gardens centres are plentiful here in Portugal too, with some being specialists in certain plants, others even offering landscaping services as well. They sell so much, from actual plants and trees to pots and ornaments, lights and equipment, and stuff you would never have dreamed of that would have a connection to gardens.
The plants are diverse and magnificent, some are ones you would expect to find, others more exotic, from giant olive trees to palm trees, right down to tiny prickly cacti - all kept in perfect condition. Try to buy one, and it’s difficult to know which one to buy from a table full of similar ones, all looking the same, all maybe in bloom, all the same height, some with expectant buds waiting to burst into life. And if you buy fully grown trees they will probably be able to arrange not only for someone to deliver but to plant them as well.
If you have an empty space, there may be magnificent Buddhas in a variety of sizes to pick from, or an elegant statue of a Grecian lady, begging for a new home. Lighting for your terrace? Solar or mains? Colour or clear? Spotlight or string? Something twinkly to catch the sun? The choices are endless.
And pots – most have a vast range of sizes and colours - from pots of a size that would hold Ali Baba and his 40 Thieves, traditional terracotta or beautifully glazed, to eco-friendly packs for tiny seedlings to start their delicate lives in. Enchanting classic statues can be purchased to nestle in your bushes, or perhaps ones designed to produce the comforting sound of water into your pond, and talking of ponds - there may be plants for those too.
Patio heaters for nights when you want to sit out, but it’s really too cold…from things powered by gas with space-age shapes giving a lazy mesmerizing flame, to chimineas fueled by wood or charcoal, some of which you can even cook on.
The equipment in some of these garden centres is for everyone, from spades and rakes in every shape or size for every job. Hand-tools, buckets, wheelbarrows, hoses, gloves, seeds - an endless list of ‘must-haves’ for all types of gardeners, from seasoned professionals to those just starting on their gardening journey. And tucked away somewhere there will be bags and bags of different soils or fertilizers to suit every plant.
Many centres sell ‘non-gardening’ gifts too, they are a super one-stop-shop for presents, from fragrant candles and soaps, to beautiful glass vases or trinket dishes – even wood carvings and lovely tinkling hanging wood chimes.
A few things that are important in a good garden centre – obviously great plants in the best possible condition, and informative signage telling everything you need to know about where to plant, what to expect, etc. Helpful displays would be a bonus too, to give an indication of what plants not only look good together, but will grow well together, and finally, helpful informative staff. Oh, and clever merchandising – I know they are trying to sell their products, but it's nice to see if that huge ceramic ball you had your eye on, for instance, really looks well with plants, or that wooden wheelbarrow you are lusting over is the right container for the plants you are planning to get!