WHAT does a person buying a small cactus in the far north of Scotland have in common with a person buying a palm tree in Norwich?
Or, for that matter, people buying begonias in Wolverhampton, heather in Dublin, ornamental conifers in Truro or any one of about 2,000 different plants in several hundred locations?
The answer is that if the transaction takes place in a Homebase, it wouldn’t happen without the say-so of a team based on the outskirts of Swindon.
Oh, and if it takes place just about anywhere between the south coast and a point roughly half way up England, whatever is bought will have been stored, sorted and tended here too.
“I started out gardening from quite an early age,” said Jane Templar, who joined the company 25 years ago and is now the buying manager for garden plants.
“I had my own little patch of garden in my parents’ garden and I was allowed to grow things like radishes and candytuft.”
Jane lives just outside Swindon in a house with a 120ft plot. Originally from Bristol, her earliest childhood memories include making rose petal perfume and pretending campion flowers, with their skirts of petals, were tiny ballerinas.
“My father was a biology teacher all his life at the same school. We used to spend a lot of time as a family out walking, so I was very used to the fresh air.”
Those walks included plenty of plant identification, a skill which helped her during her degree studies in horticulture at Bath.
These days she’s a major figure in an operation that sees about 350,000 units pass through the huge Lydiard Fields distribution centre every week. A ‘unit’ can be anything from a tree fern to a tray of sweet peas.
The site could comfortably swallow several football pitches. It handles everything from door handles to vinyl flooring, but the garden sections are the most spectacular to the visitor’s eye.
About 70 per cent of the stock comes from Britain, with the rest coming in from as far away as Sicily. Computer-toting staff assign items to numbered bays representing branches of the store.
When the Adver visited, there were golden leyland cypresses waiting for trucking to Sittingbourne, rhododendrons heading for Hanworth and rosemary en route to Tunbridge Wells.
In Dartford’s bay, number 666, the only plant was something called Devil’s Ivy.
The biggest sellers are lavenders, geraniums and fuchsias – 100,000 fuchsias were sold last year alone. Lydiard Fields received a little over 110,000 trolley-loads of plants last year, sent more than 42,000 Christmas trees on their way and processed more than half a million geraniums.
It uses an average of 336 miles of shrink wrap every year to secure plants for transit.
There’s another distribution centre in Northamptonshire, but the key decisions are taken in Swindon.
The year’s big trends, according to Jane, include spiral topiary trees. Public taste tends to go through cycles. Strongly-coloured flowers were in vogue a couple of years ago, only to be supplanted by pastel colours. Now bi-coloured blooms are all the rage.
Jane evangelises gardening and bulldozes any conceivable reason for not growing things.
Soil not the right type for your favourite plants? Follow the care card and use pots of suitable compost: “Just because you haven’t got acidic soil doesn’t mean you can’t grow azaleas and rhododendrons.
“Nobody’s excluded. There’s no excuse for not gardening.”
No space? No garden, even?
“Hanging baskets, window boxes, holders that attach to drainpipes. You can even grow climbers in a pot and put a piece of trellis up the side of the house.”
Tarmac or paving where a garden used to be?
“That doesn’t mean you can’t grow plants. You could always have a raised bed at the side of your block paving or put some pots out.”
Not as young as you used to be?
“Raised beds are great as you get older because they’re the right height. Bring the plants to you.”
A complete lack of skill and a shameful record as a serial killer of all things green?
“I’d start you with pansies and violas. There are lots of different face shapes, lots of different colours and they’re pretty tough.
“Gardening has a very calming effect in today’s frenetic lifestyles.
“It never goes wrong – it might be challenging, but it never goes wrong.
“It’s the wonder of nature, watching her grow, watching her deal with the vagaries of our English weather.
“Nature seems to combat them far more easily than we do as people.
“And there’s always something going on. It doesn’t matter what the season is, there’s always colour out there, there’s always wildlife out there and it’s always evolving.”