Indeed handling of plants and produce at big barn stores is so poor that Thompson and Morgan, a leading quality seed company actually goes so far as to ban the sale of its seeds at big barns.
Polite and cheery though they might be, big barn staff know almost nothing about the plants they sell - sometimes to the extent that they've already killed those on display, as trays of withered strands will show.
We need someone to sort it out.
|He might be dangerous!|
And while I've got five years with an allotment under my belt, I'm certainly no Alan Titchmarsh. So I thought I'd ring Alan Titchmarsh to find out what he’s doing about it.
Well in truth, B&Q rang me because I was invecting forth about the evils of DIY barns. They told me they'd recruited Mr T himself to come on board and help them solve their own staff knowledge issues. Would I like to talk to Alan about it? Yes Please.
Mr T says: "Yes, I have been visiting their centres, meeting staff and I've made some training videos which are going to be shown to the staff in all B&Q outlets in the months ahead. It’s important that plants are in the best health they can be for the customers and that staff know what’s what," said Alan on the phone.
What’s more, Alan’s “top tips” will be posted up for the benefit of customers at B&Q as well (me doing my bit to get the B&Q message out).
As a Kew college trained plantsman and the face of British gardening television for almost three decades, the Titch can afford to rest on his laurels. He's not just a tv presenter, he genuinely knows his plants. But I've also been warned that he is absolutely notorious for being nice. So not surprisingly I can't get him to say anything bad about Garden Centres. He does agree however that there are knowledge issues with staff.
His recruitment is of course a coup for B&Q because people do love listening to Alan... especially women.
Last year it was reported that Madame Tussauds clean the face of its Alan Titchmarsh waxwork at least once every two weeks because of lipstick smears. They say Alan is their "most groped" waxwork
For one thing, I need to find out where he buys his seeds. In a garden centre or DIY barn?
"Well I buy them all over really, wherever I can get them and I like to save a few of my own. But mostly I'm a catalogue man at heart. I have one sent out each year and I love browsing through it." And he orders from Chiltern. "Aha!"
|Mr T working on a schools gardening campaign|
I'm delighted to learn this because after Irish Seedsavers, I’m planning to order the remainder of my seeds online. I’ve heard Chiltern are the best and this is corroborated by a Which? survey some years ago which also showed poor performances from the seeds produced by many of the household names.
Alan thinks he knows what the problem is: "The thing is this - most seeds from the better known companies are perfect when they go into the packet. Seeds want to grow, and will often grow despite our efforts.
"Usually people are the reason when they don't. The problem is that they're often not stored at the right conditions at the shops. Seed displays need to be kept cool, dry and out of direct sunlight. Nothing does for a packet of seeds like being left in the sun. So when you buy seeds from a shop or a garden centre, always look at where the display is located and then ask yourself whether you think they're being kept in the right place."
|But still the Mr T we all know and trust|
"I know how you feel because in fact we used to have the same problem in Yorkshire. My Mam always used to say "add a month" to the sowing schedule for Yorkshire. So it's not just a problem in Ireland. Climates and conditions are different all over. You've got to get a feel for what's right in your area and go with it. You’ll get it right eventually by trial and error."
And what about the price of seeds these days Alan? Big barns like your mates at B&Q have been banging up the price of them like nobody's business - especially since the GIY zeitgeist took off. Where I paid two quid for a packet of Nantes carrot seed when I started this allotment mullarkey, now I'm paying closer to four.
But there’s just no way of cranking a good old moan out of the ever chipper Mr T who calls on me to quit my jibber jabber.
"Aw come on Mark, seeds are still the best value you can get. Compare a packet of seeds to a litre of petrol and ask yourself what's good value? You get a whole season of interest and so much good food at the end of the year for your couple of quid. You won't find better value for money than a packet of seeds."
What I also knew about the big Al, was that during his years on Gardener's World, he did all his presenting from his own garden, not the Beeb's garden. And because I'm no Alan Titchmarsh, I'm not about to compare his patch to mine.
But I can't resist trying to find out if he's got anything growing at this slow time of year. "What's going on in your food garden at the moment then Alan?
"Well do you know that in all my years gardening I never once grew asparagus. And a few years ago I decided to give it a go. So last year for the very first time I've been harvesting my own spears. It's absolutely magic stuff and I'm really glad I tried it. I've got leeks on the go as well. I've got three small key patches which I like to work on.
As well as his own asparagus, late last year also saw him launch Titchmarsh launch a sort of autobiography about his youth in the 1950's. Called "When I Was A Nipper." This follows similarly themed books relating life in 1950's Britain, namely "Nobbut a Lad" and his full biography "Trowel and Error." In recent years he’s also become a novelist and hosted his own chatshow.
He had a ball of a childhood in Ilkley and reckons that people were both positive and resourceful in the fifties despite the tight belts.
|The lads - Big Al and Little Al.|
"You never want to go backwards, but sometimes I think people who are new to gardening these days expect to get everything right all at once and are disappointed when they don't. Of course you've got to work at it and keep trying. And with food growing so popular at the moment it's great to see so many people getting out and giving it a go. These days you can grow far more varieties than ever. So it's all good. It’s all good."
I was told I had fifteen minutes with Mr T, I had a half hour's worth of questions, he's answered them all and I have nothing left to ask. Em, thanks Alan.
What a professional.
He’s even got me feeling all positive already...What can you say? Whatever he does he wins. Even the cynic gives way. Top plantsman Mr T always.