Tending to an overwatered begonia during lockdown may have helped prevent many from quietly going spare in their overcrowded flatshares. A flowering of interest in houseplants has created a new generation of home jungle enthusiasts, with the #plantsofinstagram hashtag notching up posts in the millions. Now, as we emerge from lockdown, things are really blooming outdoors, too.
Gardening is officially so cool among Millennials and Gen Z-ers, it can’t be long before John Innes signs up Alexa Chung or Cara Delevingne as brand ambassador (or whoever is this month’s influencer of choice). Britain reportedly acquired three million new gardeners during the pandemic.
Between May 2020 and last month, the number of Google searches asking for help – from “where’s my nearest garden centre?” and “how do I get an allotment”, to “why have the leaves on my begonia turned yellow?” – reportedly doubled.
So where do hipsters buy their compost? That’s not a joke. And the answer is Selfridges. To cater for all those young trowel-slingers, the department store’s Oxford Street HQ has just opened its first garden centre. But put aside thoughts of silver-haired boomers struggling to manoeuvre unwieldy trolleys between the pallets of bedding plants and grow-bags on a Sunday morning. This is a garden centre that’s had a ‘hipster-over’.
The green-fingered fun announces itself before you enter, outside the store’s Duke Street entrance, where botanical artist Carly Rogers has created an eye-catching explosion in a potting shed; an Instagrammable hillock of wildflowers literally tumbling onto the street.
Adding to the effect are several giant planters, of the kind now used by local councils to close off residential streets to motorised traffic, stuffed full of strange bedding-fellows: tomatoes, begonias, lupins, eucalyptus, mashed together with bee-friendly meadow flowers.
The exuberance does the same as an LTN - stopping you in your tracks. Welcome to the urban jungle at the heart of the urban jungle. As if to remind the Selfridges shopper that this isn’t any common-or-garden centre, its ground floor entrance hall is filled with a hand-curated collection of greenery to fill your plot in the most utterly stylish way imaginable: with the right kind of raspberry cane, a perfectly potted citrus trees already laden with fruit, a flamboyantly giant fern that’s just so.
The plants are wheeled out on enormous trolleys at the start of the day’s trading. Inside, the garden centre is divided into vibrant, loosely grouped displays of foliage that has hitchhiked in on the houseplant craze; visual impact is all. For any first-timers still out there, there are a few “unkillable” starter plants, as well as more challenging tropical specimens for more experienced hands.
To fill an empty corner or create interest in a room you’re sick of the sight of, there’s a display dedicated to canopy plants, big exotic beasts that are all unusual, showstopping and non-hardy; I had my eye on a pineapple lily for a spare-room bookshelf. All come in dazzling, one-off pots - some made by 3D printing - created by the likes of Moro Dabron, Serax and Hay.
Prices start around the £30 mark, and shoot up depending on size and provenance. Gardener-in-residence at this cut-above garden centre is Botany’s Angela Maynard, whose Chatsworth Road plant studio in Clapton keeps east London’s finest in filigreed ferns and cheese plants. She explains how millennial customers love a “hero plant”, one with a “backstory and ‘Insta-potential’” – the ability to attract likes from one’s followers on social media.
In the thicket, Maynard points to an unassuming oxalis – a “classic Pinterest plant”, she says. “It’s got butterflied leaves in deep purple which open and close over the day time.”
The potential for social media action is clear: arrange it on a bookshelf, then take snaps at regular intervals from dawn to dusk, which can then be run together into a video clip. If you haven’t the energy, sneak the odd peek instead at the scroll-leaved calathea, which curls up its velvety leaves at night, unfurling them first thing to catch the morning light.
Another tropical stunner is Alocasia zebrina, with its striking tiger-striped stem and glossy, arrow-like leaves shaped not unlike elephant ears; gardeners, be sure to hashtag both creatures in your post to maximise social media reach.
Maynard is perhaps fondest of the Chinese money plant (Pilea peperomioides); a few of her home-grown specimens are on sale today. Its thick, leathery, round leaves earned it its nicknames – the ‘pancake’ or ‘UFO plant’ – but easy propagation made it wildly popular during the houseplant boom, as cuttings could be passed on so easily.
“For a long time, you couldn’t buy one of these in the UK,” Maynard explains. “When they started getting shared around, they suddenly went viral - and every plant shop sold out overnight. Those on sale here have been several years in the growing. I started them off from cuttings in a friend’s loft apartment, it was so light and airy.”
To make a statement with something no-maintenance that can thrive in low-lit spaces, Maynard suggests an aspidistra – or the cast-iron plant, with its gorgeous tall, dark green, paddle-shaped leaves.
The hope is that the department store’s average shopper, who popped in for something fashiony from another floor, or for a spot of supper in the food hall, might take home an exotic plant and then get bitten by the green bug. After all, we all have to start somewhere.
“I found my first plant, a Swedish ivy, in an antique market in Brighton,” says Maynard, who over the next few Sundays, will be manning Selfridges’s virtual “dial-a-gardener” service – Sage Advice – giving planting tips in bookable online sessions. For those who want them, there’s a rosta of online talks and films, too.
The other showpiece of the Selfridges garden centre is the cluster of plexiglass greenhouses, built from previous window displays, inside which garden-related ‘giftables’ are showcased. It’s a good place to head for a present for the green-fingered person in your life – but there are some genuine must-haves the home gardener will want for themselves, too.
My eye is caught by a funky, chunky Time Concept watering can with an extra spray nozzle (£24, Selfridges), making it a genuinely useful 2-in-1 sprinkler for tending plants indoors and out. There’s a useful edit, too, of the Niwaki range of hand tools made to industrial standards by a Japanese father and son team, including hand trowel, rake and shears, plus a handsome gold-toned carbon-steel Elephant spade (£34, Selfridges).
This being a trend-focused department store, there are also rails of curated luxury items aimed at fashionistas who don’t mind dirt under their fingernails; or ‘horti-couture’, as Selfridges puts it.
Among the high-end T-shirts and garden-inspired home fragrances by Jo Malone and Loewe - including a marijuana-scented one - there’s an embroidered canvas bucket hat by Ho Ho Coco (£45, Selfridges), which will come in handy for keeping the sun off thinning pates down the allotment.
But perhaps boldest of all is Gary the Gnome: a foot-high sprite in Selfridges’ signature hot yellow, dressed in a Bottega Veneta shirt and cool Gentle Monster shades. Even cooler is the £150 asking price, but Gary has been cast in English porcelain by Eustace Palladino, rising east London potter, in a process that takes two days.
If you normally can’t stand the twee cottagecore variety, this garden gnome will make the dullest herbaceous border pop. And what of the hipster who really is in need of a bag of compost? This garden centre sells 10-litre hessian sacks of Selfridges-branded organic matter for £8. It’s actually SylvaGrow Organic Peat-Free, which my local garden centre does at £5.50 for a 15l bag. But sometimes you have to let yourself grow crazy, don’t you?
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