In 2021 UK households spent around £7.6 billion on plants, flowers, and other garden goods, estimate Statista, up from £6.2 billion the previous year. The grateful recipients of the gardeners’ largesse are the 1,800 or so nurseries and garden centres, which, the Horticultural Trades Association claim, are visited by over two-thirds of British adults at least once a year. A nursery will usually specialise in the propagation and sale of plants, often to the exclusion of all else, whereas a garden centre sells anything associated with the garden in the loosest possible sense of the word. Garden centres are also very much the new kids on the block.
Gardening blossomed in eighteenth-century Britain with the development of the English garden, a conscious revolt against the rectilinear patterns, sculpture, and unnatural tree shapes that characterised the previously more formalised, architectural gardens. A more naturalistic style developed, blurring the boundaries between the cultivated garden and the surrounding landscape, an approach which meant that if the landscape did not meet the aesthetic requirements of the planter’s vision, it was simply altered, no matter the cost.
This boom in large-scale planting would not have been possible without a ready source of plants, which the nascent nursery trade supplied. Specialist nurseries were operating in the late 17th century and by the middle of the following century large nurseries, particularly in the London area, carried huge stocks of specialist fauna, such as North American trees and shrubs, which they marketed by publishing and issuing catalogues.
John Abercrombie, in The Gardener’s Pocket Dictionary (1786), listed fifty-eight nurseries within eight to ten miles of London, while, according to John Middleton’s View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (1798), around 1,500 acres in the county were devoted to nursery grounds, generating £100,000 a year in revenue (around £123 million in today’s values), evidenced by the forty-five nursery grounds shaded in a dark yellow watercolour wash in Thomas Milne’s contemporaneous maps of the area. By 1841 the Post Office London Directory was listing at least 122 nurseries in the metropolis.
Ten nurseries jostled for trade in 1818 in a 275-yard stretch of King’s Road, near Sloane Square. Chelsea nurseries were sometimes splendid affairs. John Claudius Loudon visited Joseph Knight’s horticultural showroom on the King’s Road in 1831 where “the effect on entering is excellent; the termination of the telescopic vista being the bronze vase with its jet d’eau backed by two splendid plants of striped camellia covered with bloom, through which appears enough of light to give the idea of continuation. The bronze vase which is six feet in diameter and weighs several tons, is painted blue on the inside, and has a very cheerful and elegant appearance”.
Many of London’s nurseries were to be found in Hammersmith and Fulham, where the rich soil from the Thames flood plain and their proximity to the fruit growers around Chiswick and Isleworth, and the main thoroughfares out of London to the burgeoning suburbs of West London and to the west of England proved advantageous. To the east of London an arc of nurseries ran from Mile End through to Hackney, Clapton, and the Lea Valley.
But, as we shall see next time, nurseries were not confined to the metropolis and will discover how a seemingly obvious switch transformed nurseries into garden centres.