Silas Clifford-SmithThe hardware garden

Sometime back, I received a call from a Scottish woman asking for my professional help. The lady – let’s call her Morag – asked whether I trimmed hedges as she needed urgent help cutting one in her back garden. I was asked to do the trim as her husband – let’s call him Don – was suffering from severe back pain and was unwilling to climb their wobbly wooden ladder.

My first impression of Morag and Don’s garden was that it was immaculately maintained, and it came as no surprise when they told me that their garden was a regular entry in the ‘medium-sized’ category of their local council’s annual spring gardening competition. Don commented that they had entered the contest for several years but was mystified why they had never won.

What struck me was that while the garden was well designed and maintained none of their plant selections were distinctive or unusual and the garden was, quite simply, dull. The only concessions to Art in the back garden were a couple of painted concrete sculptures of kneeling ‘naked ladies’ near the swimming pool and a composite stone head of Buddha. It was no wonder that in the garden judges’ collective mind this uninspired block was soon forgotten in deference for gardens with a touch of the inspired.

Hardware store sculptureReflecting on this couple’s lack of success made me think whether it was possible to create a distinctive garden from plants and pots totally sourced from supermarkets and hardware shops. Many people are increasingly buying their plants this way rather than from the traditional specialist plant nurseries. To answer this question I decided to view the offerings available in several local stores.

Coles and Woolworth’s are long established in Australia and have sold seeds, fertiliser and garden fittings for many decades and along with Kmart branched out into selling garden plants as a way to attract new customers into their stores. While most of their plants are not expensive their stock has gained a reputation as being in poor condition due to light deprivation and sparse watering regimes. Perhaps in reaction to negative feedback most supermarkets have begun to abandon selling live plants over the last few years.

Customers traditionally lured by one-off purchases and cheap plants found in supermarkets have increasingly moved to the nursery sections of the large hardware barns such as Bunnings and Masters. These large concrete box retailers have only been in Australia for a short time and based on experience in the North American market have set up nursery sections as a way to lure customers away from the traditional nursery retailers.

Hardware store plantsEarly on the big barn nursery sections in Australia were poorly managed and the plants were in as dire a condition as the stock of their supermarket rivals. But, over the last few years some barns have got their act together and have learnt that plants have different display and maintenance needs to nails and PVC piping.

Most of the plants found in the barn nurseries are well grown and generally in good condition but offer little to the serious gardener looking for something unusual. Despite the quality of the stock the variety is limited and like the hardware items found inside, the prices are not always cheap. Sadly, the trend towards large monopoly retailers has seen the demise of many small individual nurseries who offered expert advice as well as a comprehensive range of stock.

While many plants can be found in hardware barn nursery sections, visits to specialist garden centres and plant fairs will certainly give your garden the magic touch. Making distinctive gardens doesn’t necessarily mean having a bottomless budget, but it requires a genuine love of plants and the interest in finding a place for the unexpected, be it plant or sculpture. If only Don and Morag had explored the unusual in the plant and sculpture world they may have won greater accolades for their hard work.

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Silas Clifford-Smith

About Silas Clifford-Smith

Silas Clifford-Smith is a Sydney-based gardener, artist and writer. He specialises in the restoration and care of heritage landscapes and has worked in some of the best-known gardens of the Sydney region including Admiralty House, Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Farm. As well as his hands-on work he writes about gardening, art and heritage matters for a broad range of publications. He trained in horticulture at Ryde TAFE in the early 1990s and later graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in Art History. For more information about his work please refer to his website: www.silasclifford-smith.com and blogs at The Reflective Gardener

2 thoughts on “The hardware garden

  1. Mel on said:

    Very interesting read. As an avid gardener who has spent my fair share of money at bunnings and the like, I’m now at the planning stages of starting a garden from scratch at my newly built home. I’m resisting all urges at the moment to walk in and fill up a trolley full of plants. I’m planning a predominatley native garden and am located south of Port Macquarie, NSW. Could you recommend any quality native plant sellers that will deliver to my area, in particular grevilleas?

  2. Hi Mel, Thanks so much for your feedback on this piece. As I don’t live near Port Macquarie I have consulted my friend Gary Weatland (a respected horticulturist who used to be the Head Gardener at Everglades in the Blue Mountains and now works for Bunnings up your way). The following is the response from Gary: ” can I suggest that Mel explores the following options – there is a very good retail nursery near Port called Abundance – that has its own wholesale nursery next door that grows Grevilleas and Kangaroo paws. They could also look at tube stock for value for money , Bunnings does stock a good range of native tubestock check at Port Mac ( I order it at Coffs) but Grevillea, Callistemon, Lomandra, Prostanthera and Westringia are currently available. Another great resource would be the local society for growing Australian plants – the nearest group is Coffs Harbour but I’m sure they would know the specialist native suppliers in this area. Also there is usually a Landcare council revegetation nursery would could supply some local species, always a great resource as well. I don’t recommend mail order unless they really know what would do well in their area and by getting some specialist advice they will get a much better result! As you would also recommend.

    Hope that is helpful? Best wishes Silas (and Gary)

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