How Green in your Garden Centre
Are ethical issues blooming or not quite so rosy?
Who’s in this guide
This guide covers the 11 major garden centre chains, from ones who focus on plants and gardening like Wyevale and Dobbies through to the gardening departments of the big chain DIY stores like B&Q, Wickes and Homebase. Wyevale has more stores than all of the other ‘pure’ garden centres put together and four times more than its closest rival Dobbies. It owns a myriad of brands largely because it’s been buying up individual garden centres and chains.
Having said that, none of the garden centres are ‘pure’ garden centres anymore. Most of them are department store-like environments selling everything from clothes to gifts to pets. Cafes are the must-have attraction to make your garden centre “a pleasant leisure destination”.
The supermarkets have been expanding their ranges but we have not covered them in this guide because we did a special report on them last issue.
B&Q and Homebase were still the most popular places to buy garden products last year, followed by small and large garden centres, and then supermarkets.
There are thousands of independent garden centres in the UK, far too many to rate in this report. This does not mean that they are not a better buy than the companies recommended here. In fact, independent ownership avoids many of the criticisms on the table which result from complex parent company groups. Supporting an independent business also keeps money in the local economy and you are more likely to find locally-sourced products.
Remember to look out for neonicotinoids, FSC wood, peat-free compost and other issues that we highlight below. If none of the ethical options are stocked then encourage them to do so – you could even give them a copy of this report to raise awareness of the issues.
The Garden Centre Guide claims to list all the garden centres and nurseries in Britain, whether the be independents or chains. It usually gives contact details and opening hours. You can search by city and county to find the nearest one to you.
Neonicotinoids (neonics) are systemic pesticides based on nicotine mainly used to control aphids. Unlike contact pesticides, which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, systemics are taken up by all of the plant. Products containing neonics can be applied at the root (as seed coating or soil drench) or sprayed onto crop foliage. The insecticide toxin remains active in the plant for many weeks.
Neonicotinoid-based pesticides have been implicated in the alarming deaths of bees and other pollinators that are so crucial to pollination and biodiversity. We wrote more about that in our Guide to Honey.
From 1st December 2013, the three neonicotinoid pesticides which posed the highest risk to honey bees – imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin – were restricted for use in Europe. The restrictions are not blanket. They include all amateur uses and all uses on crops deemed attractive to bees and summer-sown cereals. There are exceptions: amenity uses, use on crops in greenhouses and use on winter-sown cereals. The restrictions expire on 1st December 2015.
Despite overwhelming evidence of risk and harm from use of neonicotinoids, the manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer, and organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU), the Crop Protection Association (CPA) and the Government’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP), continue to argue that insufficient evidence of harm and potential reductions in yield mean the restrictions should be overturned.
The three are only restricted for use with “crops attractive to bees”, so it does not take into account the impacts of neonicotinoids on other insects, aquatic invertebrate species or birds, which are also major areas of concern.
For example, in 2013, a study for the American Bird Conservancy found that “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird”. “Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with imidacloprid can fatally poison a bird.”
The Bee Coalition is calling for the current ban to be extended and for a blanket ban on all neonicotinoid pesticides. The Bee Coalition was formed in 2012 and consists of a core group of eight organisations (Buglife, Client Earth, Environmental Justice Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Natural Beekeeping Trust, Pesticide Action Network, RSPB and Soil Association) who have been working to bring attention to the plight of bees and pollinators and, specifically, to engage policymakers, industry and the public about their respective roles in ensuring their protection.
So, you can’t buy the three banned neonicotinoids in garden centres but there are four others that are not banned. Of these, the two that are available to the amateur gardener are thiacloprid (in Bayer’s Provado Ultimate Bug Killer range, Multirose Bug Killer and Baby Bio House Plant Insecticide) and acetamiprid (in Scott’s Bug Clear and Rose Clear).
None of the 11 garden centres had a policy not to stock these other neonicotinoids which is disappointing.
We found them on sale on the websites of B&Q, Homebase, Wyevale, Wilko, Notcutts and Squires. We could not confirm whether Klondyke, Hilliers, Blue Diamond, Dobbies and Wickes did or didn’t sell them.
Neonicotinoid treatment of plants
Most of the research on neonicotinoids has looked at how they affect bees visiting farmland and gardens, and the bees’ importance in the pollination of growing crops. But what about the plants that you buy for your garden? The seeds/bulbs/plants could have been treated with them.
Greenpeace International undertook their own study last year and published ‘A Toxic Eden: Poisons in your Garden’. They found that an incredible 79% of ornamental plants, sourced from across European garden centres, supermarkets and DIY stores, were contaminated with bee-harming pesticides. The three neonicotinoid pesticides which have been restricted Europe-wide were found in almost half of the samples: 43% of the samples contained Imidacloprid, 8% Thiamethoxam, and Clothianidin was found in 7% of the total, partly in high concentrations.
The use of certain neonics as seed treatments could kill small birds or affect their breeding if a few seeds were eaten. Neonics were also found to be toxic to many birds and most fish.
What can you do?
Seek out trusted organic sources for your seeds and plants. See our guide to Seeds.
Grow your own from your saved organic seeds or organic cuttings.
When visiting your garden centre, ask if they can guarantee that their plants have not been grown from neonicotinoid-dressed seeds, grown from infused cuttings or treated with neonics.
For peat’s sake
Peat bogs store about five times as much carbon per unit area as a tropical rainforest. They are also a valuable ecosystem.
69% of the peat used in the UK is used by amateur gardeners as growing media – mainly compost – so garden centres can help by making it easy for customers to choose peat-free products.
Whilst most of the garden centres sold peat-free compost, none of them professed to be 100% peat free and they sold bags of reduced peat or 100% peat compost too. They therefore all received a mark in the Habitats & Resources and Climate Change columns on the score table. But they’ll all have to be peat free by 2020 because that is the date that the UK government and the horticultural industry have agreed to remove peat from compost sold to consumers.
The Horticultural Trades Association started its own peat-reduction project for bags of compost – the Growing Media Initiative – in 2007. This promotes peat reduction through a variety of methods, including allowing members – companies that have achieved at least 55% “peat free status” – to use its logo.
Member companies, after passing an independent annual audit, are awarded a grade of GMI membership based on the average peat content of the UK retail bagged growing media they manufacture or sell to the end consumer:
Gold GMI membership is awarded to those businesses which have achieved 90% + peat free status: no garden centres.
Full GMI membership is awarded to those businesses which have achieved 55% + peat free status: B&Q, Homebase, Notcutts.
Provisional GMI membership is awarded to those businesses which are committed to achieving 90% + peat free status and are currently operating at a minimum of 20% replacement in retail products: Dobbies.
For further information, contact the HTA on 0118 930 3132 or visit the website.
Whilst that takes care of bags of compost what about the compost in potted plants?
The UK government and the industry have agreed to remove peat from growing media used in commercial horticulture (peat in potted plants) but not until 2030.
Ahead of the 2030 deadline for commercial horticulture, in April 2014, B&Q replaced all polystyrene packaging across 90% of its range of bedding plants with a coir growing media that is 100% recyclable and from 95% to 99% peat-free.
See our Peat-Free Compost guide for more about peat issues and which brands to buy.
Plants not pets
Many of the companies we looked at received a mark in the Animal Rights column for selling animals.
Between 2002 and 2008, campaign group Animal Aid had a relatively successful campaign and stopped Focus and Wyevale garden centres from selling pets.
According to Animal Aid, selling pets in a garden-centre environment encourages impulse purchases. Animals bought on a whim are often neglected or abandoned at already hard-pressed resource centres once the novelty has worn off. Rather than contributing to the cycle of animals being bred, bought and abandoned, garden centres should encourage people to adopt a companion animal from a local rescue centre.
That campaign is no longer ongoing. We did our own survey and found that some garden centres were selling pets themselves at some of their stores whilst others, like Wyevale, had moved to having pet shops as concessions on some of their sites. Whilst most sell pets like rabbits, hamsters, reptiles and fish, Klondyke just sells tropical and cold water fish whilst claiming that it did not sell live animals!
In 2007, gas patio heaters shared the environmental hall of shame with 4X4s. Wyevale led the way by banning the sale of gas patio heaters and they were quickly followed by B&Q and other garden centres.
We took a look to see whether they had snuck back onto the shelves but it seems they are still a pariah product. Many consumers think they have been banned! None of the garden centres directly sold gas patio heaters although Wyevale, Notcutts, Squires, Homebase, Wickes and Wilko all sold electric ones, still a totally unnecessary product.
But looking at in-store concessions, gas heater pioneer Wyevale has backtracked and rents out space to a company called Hire Station which hires gas patio heaters.
Stone sourcing policies
When we last looked at garden centres in 2008, dangerous working conditions at Chinese natural stone companies was a serious problem but none of the garden centres had any policies on the matter.
Whilst that is still an issue, the use of child labour in Indian sandstone has recently come under the spotlight.
Notcutts, B&Q, Homebase and Wickes were all listed as selling stone and paving on their websites. Only Wickes gave any information about its source. It sold Fairstone paving from Marshalls, and Indian sandstone that is “Ethically audited and [with] full assurances that no child labour has been used in the manufacture of this product”.
See the feature for more about this issue and Fairstone paving.
Timber sourcing policies
Forests around the world are being destroyed or damaged by the timber industry to satisfy our demand for timber products, including garden furniture. This destruction has been caused by highly unsustainable logging practices, a problem closely linked to high levels of corruption and illegal logging.
For example, Europe is a key market for tropical timber exports from the Brazilian Amazon, with one-third of all timber exported from the region going to EU countries. In 2013, almost half of the Amazon timber imported to the EU came from the state of Pará. Nearly 80% of the area logged in Pará between August 2011 and July 2012 was harvested illegally.
Companies within the EU are bound by the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which prohibits the placing of illegally harvested timber on the market.
While most of the garden centres did mention timber sourcing, only Dobbies and B&Q replied to our detailed questionnaire about it. Disappointingly, Blue Diamond, which was rated ‘Best’ when we last assessed it in 2011 with 100% of its timber FSC certified, this time provided no information, and none could be found on its website so we had to rate it as ‘Worst’. Wilko and Hilliers did not mention timber sourcing at all whilst the rest that did mention it, only gave details about how much FSC-certified timber they sell.
FSC certification is meant to ensure that timber products are from legal and well-managed sources; although it’s not without its critics, notably one campaign group set up to monitor it, FSC Watch, and also the Rainforest Foundation and Friends of the Earth who said in 2008:
“We are concerned at reports that some FSC certificates are failing to guarantee rigorous environmental and social standards. As a result the mark’s credibility is being undermined.”
By way of example, in 2012, B&Q and Wickes were found to be selling plywood made from illegally harvested wood from Borneo which was, nonetheless, FSC certified. The FSC subsequently de-certified the wood.
To try and resolve the issue, Greenpeace International have recently developed a 4 point action plan to strengthen and restore FSC’s credibility.
A more detailed critique of FSC certification by the Rainforest Foundation was published in the Toilet Paper Guide.
However, in the absence of any detailed information about the companies’ timber sourcing policies we have used FSC certification as a benchmark.
Independent garden centres and nurseries
The following nurseries all sell organic plants grown to Soil Association standards.
Brunswick Organic Nursery, Bishopthorpe, York
A charity that grows plants in organic, peat-free compost and provides work for people with learning disabilities.
Stakeford Nurseries, Choppington, Northumberland
Run by a charity supporting people with mental health issues. Not exclusively organic.
Caves Folly Nursery, Colwall, Worcestershire
Walcot Organic Nursery, Pershore, Worcestershire
Organic fruit trees by mail order
Louvain Organic Nurseries, Peacehaven, E.Sussex
The Organic Gardening Catalogue, Hersham, Surrey
Online sales run as a joint venture with Chase Organics seed company (see Seeds guide). Not exclusively organic but also sell tools and containers.
Valerie’s Veggies & Plants, Stocking Pelham, Herts
Hawkwood Plant Nursery, Chingford
A workers’ co-operative
020 8524 4994
Growers Organics, Yealmpton, Devon
Organic plants for sale at the nursery or online
Bee Happy plants & seeds, South Chard, Somerset
Tamar Organics, Launceston, Cornwall
Online catalogue of plants and seeds plus tools, Fairtrade gardening gloves and biodegradable pots.
01579 371 098
Defland Nurseries, March, Cambridgeshire
Organic plants grown in peat-free compost, by mail order
City farms and community gardens
These are urban-based, community-managed projects working with people, animals and plants. They range from tiny wildlife gardens to fruit and vegetable plots on housing estates, from community polytunnels to large city farms. Some sell plants to the public.
For example, Heeley City Farm is a community-based and led, educational, youth training and employment project, which reaches out to disadvantaged and socially excluded people in inner city Sheffield. One of its facilities is a peat free garden centre.
Search for your nearest one on the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens website.
Hulme Community Garden Centre
Tim Knight explains the ethos behind a local, independent garden centre right next to the Ethical Consumer office in Manchester city centre.
Fifteen years ago, a community garden centre was opened to the public in Hulme, a densely populated, urban sprawl a stone’s throw from the centre of Manchester. Four friends living in Hulme during the 1990s regeneration of the area held an open meeting where the locals were asked what they felt would be of most benefit to the neighbourhood, and from it Hulme Community Garden Centre was born.
Although we are always changing to reflect the community’s current needs, our original concept has always been the same. We provide a maintained, public green space accessible to all, a garden centre open seven days a week, health and education opportunities, and a thriving volunteer hub which is used by many as therapy, rehabilitation, or just for social interaction in a safe and nurturing environment.
Underpinning every decision we have made since our conception has been a commitment to creating minimal environmental impact, and to follow sustainable practices in all we do:
- We only buy locally and from ethical suppliers.
- We carry organic stock wherever possible.
- Our buildings are made from recycled materials.
- We have always been peat free.
- All our fertilizers are vegan.
- Chemicals and growth regulators have never appeared on our shelves or been part of our growing programme.
We cannot compete with the big guys on price for many of our items, and our small size means we cannot stock the range you may find in your local Notcutts. We don’t have a café serving nostalgic cream teas, or have a shop filled with household items you had no idea you couldn’t live without.
But when our customers see our site develop and grow, or when they hear about the constantly improving services we offer, particularly to those people who may find everyday life harder than most, they know that they have helped. Every penny that is spent here goes directly back into the project; its primary concern, of helping our community rather than our own economic growth, has not changed since its germination in 1999.
We do still have to rely on grants and funding to get us through the lean times but as a not-for-profit organisation our focus has always been on people not pounds. People and plants.
B&Q is part of Kingfisher plc, Europe’s leading home improvement retail group and the third largest in the world.
In 2013 the company started to report its corporate responsibility through a report called Net Positive. Through Net Positive, Kingfisher and its brands aim to have a positive impact on people and communities, be restorative to the environment, become carbon positive, waste nothing, and create wealth. It received our best rating for environmental reporting.
However it received a worst rating for supply chain management due to its supply chain policy not restricting working hours or having a commitment to pay a living wage.
Kingfisher plc is a member of the World Economic Forum, an international forum for business leaders which campaigns for greater economic liberalisation and deregulation and presses for policies for competitiveness and growth. The company is also a full member of the Growing Media Initiative which means that it has achieved a 55%+ peat free status.
Homebase is owned by the Home Retail Group which also owns Argos and Habitat. The company is also a full member of the Growing Media Initiative which means that it has achieved 55%+ peat free status. In 2013 Homebase was accused of using unpaid jobseekers as a way of cutting payroll costs. The company received a middle rating for environmental reporting.
In 2005, Wickes was acquired by Travis Perkins, a FTSE100 company with 18 industry-leading brands, 1,900 outlets and more than 24,000 employees in the UK and Ireland. In 2011 Wickes opened its 200th store. It was the only other company to receive a best rating for its environmental reporting. However it received a worst rating for supply chain management.
In 2014, Wilkinson changed its name to the name consumers used affectionately, Wilko. The company, which has been supplying own branded household essentials since 1930, now operates over 370 stores around the UK. While the company prides itself on being a family company it receives a worst rating for environmental reporting and supply chain management.
In 2014 The Garden Centre Group announced it would rebrand itself as Wyevale Garden Centres. It is a full member of the Growing Media Initiative which means that the company is at least 55% peat free.
The company was acquired by private equity group Terra Firma in 2012, whose portfolio consists of controlling stakes in about 10 companies including cinema chain Odeon, Australian beef producer CPC, and AWAS, one of the largest aircraft leasing firms in the world.
Dobbies is one of the UK’s largest garden centres. In 2007 Tesco took a majority stake in the business before buying the remaining shares in 2008. But i9n June 2016 Tesco sold Dobbies to a consortium led by private equity companies Midlothian Capital Partners and Hattington Capital.
When it was owned by Tesco, Dobbies scored 2.5 but its sale meant its score jumped to 7, as of June 2016.
Dobbies operates 35 stores in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Klondyke Garden Centres are a family owned independent group of centres founded in 1980. The company operates 24 centres across Scotland and England. The Scottish centres are branded Klondyke whilst the sites in England and Wales are known as Strikes following a merger with the William Strike Garden Centre Group in 1996.
Notcutts was founded by Roger Crompton Notcutt in 1869 and continues to be a family-owned and independent garden centre. It currently operates 18 centres in England.
Hillier was founded in 1864 by Victorian entrepreneur Edwin Hillier when he purchased a two acre nursery and a florist’s shop in Winchester. He subsequently went on to buy a 130 acre site north of Winchester, which became known as No.1 Nursery and was the location of the first Hillier Garden Centre.
Blue Diamond was founded in Guernsey in 1904 as the Fruit Export Company. Today the company operates 15 garden centres across England, Guernsey and Jersey. In 2009 its new centre, Le Friquet, was opened as a retail destination for home and garden improvements.
Squire’s Garden Centres opened its first centre in 1964 and today operates 15 garden centres based in London and the South East of England. The group is controlled by the Squire family with founder D.J Squire’s son Colin Squire now acting as chairman.
1 Mintel Garden Products Retailing July 2014
2 Birds, Bees, and Aquatic Life Threatened by Gross Underestimate of Toxicity of World’s Most Widely Used Pesticide, American Bird Conservancy, March 2013
3 RHS Pesticides for Home Gardeners February 2014
4 A Toxic Eden: Poisons in your Garden, Greenpeace International, April 2014
5 ‘A review of the direct and indirect effects of neonicotinoids and fipronil on vertebrate wildlife’, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, June 2014
6 B&Q One Planet review 2013/14
7 The Amazon’s Silent Crisis, Greenpeace, September 2014
8 DIY giants Wickes and B&Q ‘selling wood felled illegally from Borneo rainforest’, Daily Mail, 29th Jan 2012
9 Can timber companies prove that they source good wood? Friends of the Earth, 22 January 2008 10 Pesticide Action Network Bees Site – http://bees.pan-uk.org/neonicotinoids (viewed Feb 2015)
11 Syngenta seeks ‘emergency’ exemption to use banned insecticide on UK crops, The Guardian 25 June 2014
12 Homebase criticised over work experience claims, The Guardian, April 2013
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Gardening See what's in the rest of the report.