Our local supermarket sells plants. As you walk in there are two racks with about eight shelves of annuals, plus a heap of bags of potting compost. Go to the vegetables section and you'll find fresh herbs. Walk on a bit further and you'll find houseplants together with the insecticides and fertilisers. And occasionally, still further in, there'll be a seasonal offer - today it was Bougainvillea, in October it will be Chrysanthemums.
And they all have one thing in common - they're liable to be half dead.
It always amazes me how people will pick up plants in a supermarket which are clearly screaming in agony. They haven't been watered for days, they've been kept in the dark in a storeroom, they've been sitting in the centrally heated atmosphere when they're actually plants which should be outdoors - all of these factors can turn a healthy plant into a dead one in a matter of days. The signs are there - bone dry compost, dead lower leaves, upper leaves or flowers which have just given up and flopped. Just look at it for heaven's sake - you don't have to be a garden expert. And yet they get picked up and shoved into the shopping trolley.
Why? Well, the price of course. When a pelargonium costs €8 at the garden centre and €1.20 at the supermarket, is it surprising that people choose the supermarket? Not to mention the convenience. You have to go to the supermarket anyway, but you'd have to make a special trip to the garden centre. And if you're not a gardener but just want something to pop on the balcony, can you be bothered to do more?
But if you're careful, can you buy decent plants from the supermarket? Well, despite all the above I think you can, and I do - frequently. But it's not like buying a packet of biscuits. They won't all be the same quality and you need to know what you're looking for. Dry soil, brown leaves at the bottom (turn the plant upside down to check) or floppy leaves anywhere are all no-no's. But avoid the clear tell tale signs, dig around at the back of the rack to find the healthiest looking specimens and you can often find bargains. Oh - but avoid the ones in full bloom. They may look great now, but may also be at the end of their flowering period. Go for the ones with the maximum number of buds.
OK, there may still be plants which are stressed but not yet showing it and you may not get super results immediately. Or, even more likely, the plants may be younger than those you'd get at the garden centre, and not quite ready to come into full bloom. Here, at least, the garden centres only stock plants already in flower. It's the buyit - enjoyit - andthrowitaway mentality which I've complained about so often. The idea that you might actually want to watch a plant grow and care for it from one season to the next is still fairly alien to the average plant buyer here. And consequently, in the city at least, the distinction between a garden centre and a nursery doesn't exist. The plants in the photo above are only a third of the size of those in the garden centre. But they're healthy and will grow. Soon they'll be blooming just as well as those in the garden centre are now. And I can wait.
Add to that the fact that the attacks of the geranium bronze butterfly have been increasing in severity so much over the last few years that it's now difficult to keep plants like pelargoniums for longer than one or two years, and you have a good reason for not wanting to invest more than you have to. I lost all mine last year - it was the worst year I've ever had. Replacing them all at garden centre prices would have meant taking out a mortgage - and knowing I'd probably have to do the same next year. Unless of course this year I give in and spray with something more lethal than my usual garlic and cayenne pepper mix. I'm still undecided. Looking back over the blog I noticed that, by chance, two years ago today I was already complaining not only about GBB but also the other bane of my gardening life, red spider mite. This year, probably because it's been fairly cool and wet, there's no sign yet of either. But they're there, I know. Lurking in wait ... Will she, won't she. Watch this space.
Back to the plot. So, ironically, the supermarket is often the only place you can find plants to have fun with and at a price which makes it worthwhile. If you arrive relatively soon after the plants do, so that they're still looking healthy, then it's worth taking a chance. This is a Campanula which I got eighteen months ago in a 4" pot. One of the disadvantages of supermarket plant shopping is that they're not desperately precise about plant names, but I think it's Campanula Birch Hybrid, a cross between C. portenschlagiana and C. poscharskyana.
But whatever it is, it's thrived. It couldn't care less about heat or cold and has gone from being one of the plants in the container to needing the whole space. The photo was taken several weeks ago, since when it's grown even more. It flowers from April onwards, and has without doubt now established itself as one of my favourites. It's been full of blooms.
All the other plants in the photos originally came from the supermarket too. And I have many more which have grown from cuttings taken from a supermarket plant. If you buy one pelargonium at €1.20 and get six cuttings from it, that's 20 cents a plant. (You see - I've talked before about my mean streak and you didn't believe me, did you?)
My local garden centre won't go out of business - I still spend far more there than I should on out-of-the-ordinary stuff. But if they refuse to give me the smaller, cheaper plants which I want for my staples - well, I shall look elsewhere.
And that means the supermarket. So, next time you're doing your shopping in Milan and you see a lunatic redhead accosting complete strangers and saying - I wouldn't take that one if I were you. This one's much healthier - you know who you're looking at.