The Cost of a Garden by Tristan Gregory

May 6, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

I have to report, with mixed feelings, that the demands of happy domestic life have taken over one of our best and most prolific contributors. How could I not be happy for Tristan? Or sorry for us?

So this may be one of fewer Tristan Gregory contributions. One thing is for sure: a happy domestic life doesn’t lead to having more money for the garden….

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon





The Cost of a Garden by Tristan Gregory:

This can be quite a solitary occupation; gardening.  Often this is one of its great pleasures but every now and then when left alone with your thoughts fairly dismal narratives develop in the mind. This afternoon my brain played host to one of them. You may be familiar with it, as it’s the one about how expensive gardening is becoming and whether it really has a popular future.

Something I am assuming we all care about is  the expense that people are cutting out.  Let’s be honest: at £7.50 each for half a dozen Echinacea pallida and a dozen Stipa tenuissima, not to mention all of the other sundries and concrete dogs you may walk out of the Garden Centre with, it starts to look like a choice between a planting for your out-door room or some other fairly fundamental things – eating being one.  Furthermore anyone who thinks that people who can’t afford to garden will go and visit them  instead or read books and magazines about them is mistaken.

Oscar the Garden Gnome at Veddw SAM_9724

Garden Centre treat?

The problem, at least as I see it, is not that gardening itself is too expensive, rather that the way we garden has ballooned in price.  We have been convinced that buying everything ready grown and getting experts in for every last thing is the same common sense approach as buying your bread rather than milling your own flour from grain you grew yourself next to your pigsty.  In my opinion this is not economics, it’s marketing.

It is probably worth saying at this point that I am not one of these people that grows everything in yogurt pots filled with mole-hill soil or raids the road sides for my protein. But there is a normal state between that sort of slightly alarming mania and foregoing the mortgage repayment  in order to keep in step with the suggestions of Gardens Illustrated.

Gardens Illustrated with review of Veddw by Noel Kingsbury SAM_9725

(incidentally, yes, Gardens Illustrated once did a real critique of a garden…)

Probably foremost amongst the craft skills we need to make a garden is design.  While you might struggle to translate your ideas into a plan, that struggle will produce something closer to what you want than buying someone else’s vision for the plot and being told that you do actually like Sedums.

Second there is landscaping which might include things for which you need equipment and engineers but at another level there is very little to fear in bricks, cement and gravel and a great deal of satisfaction to be found in building something like a dry-stone wall.

Dry stone wall at Veddw SAM_9728

Then of course you have propagation and general plantsmanship. While it is easy to tell yourself that once you have bought all of the stuff you need it would be cheaper to buy the plant, I will say again – £7.50 for one Echinacea pallida?  Yogurt pots are one thing but were you planning to get your seed trays cast in solid silver?

Seed tray on thinkingardens

The great joy in all of this is that while early attempts may not go brilliantly the more you do a thing the more accomplished you become. The garden will start to feedback an evolving vision of how to develop and improve the space. I would be interested to know which of the great gardens of today were done in one go.

I have even found that with the self-criticism that leads me to re-plant or re-build comes a capacity to accept in good heart the criticism and advice of others. Whereas spending a great deal of money on a thing you don’t understand and can’t explain might lead to quite the opposite response.

Tristan Gregory

Head gardener at Kentchurch

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Fred @ Garden Care May 28, 2015 at 2:19 pm

Hey there, awesome write-up, as always. I can quite agree, that expenses can be a full stop to gardening. I personally started very cheap and moved on to the things I wanted with time. I even sold some seeds in the process and this made things easier. 🙂 I had to wait a bit with decoration, too, since I was on a tight budget, but there is something invaluable I got during that time. Experience. As I had mostly cheaper types of plants, I learned how to maintain a garden the right way.

All in all, I do not regret not having enough money in my early gardening days and if I had to choose – I would probably choose this again. For me, it’s the journey. 🙂

Tristan Gregory May 11, 2015 at 8:23 pm

There are a lot of very interesting responses and perspectives here and it has been worthwhile reading them for I am quite prone to persuading myself that my way of doing things is obviously the best way, a danger of working alone I expect. I still believe though that expense is an impediment to free expression and that without this freedom gardening cannot be a means to express one’s artistic and creative instinct.

Lou May 11, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Love this article. I’m a yoghurt pot sort of a person who loves a shouty half hour on a Friday night when I try to add up Monty’s financial outlay. I prefer making plants from plants and learning how to do better year on year – just learning about stratification this year!

Katherine Crouch May 11, 2015 at 7:39 pm

yes, garden porn on TV with undisclosed costs has a lot to answer for!

Chelsea is even worse! And I am looking forward to going – particularly to roll my eyes at impossibly expensive and bonkers gardens. There is seldom as much innovation in the planting as in the hard landscaping. I wonder if cow parsley will still be all the rage?

I have more enjoyment looking at new varieties of perennials in the Grand Marquee. Sue Beesley – first stop, making notes of yummy plants with a view to trialling them in unsuspecting clients’ gardens – only 1 at a time.

If it dies, it won’t be as embarrassing as the time I planted 48 Geranium Kashmir White in slightly the wrong place with slightly the wrong client (‘you mean I had to water them?’) and all but one died.. If it lives,the new treasure will become more popular, and cheaper next season. Then I might get it in multiples.

Digitalis Illumination is going into a client’s garden on Friday. Only 1. I shall nick some seed in autumn – I hope it comes true. Then in June 2016 I hope to have it in drifts in my shady garden. Then and only then I might use it in dozens.

Meanwhile I am quite content with good old Digitalis purpurea and D.p.alba.

Ben's Botanics May 12, 2015 at 6:13 am

You do know Digitalis ‘Illumination Series’ isn’t very hardy?

T&M hailed it as perfectly hardy but have back-tracked pretty sharpish! If you search for ‘Digitalis Illumination’ and go to the entry on T&M’s website and click on ‘aftercare’ you’ll see they now advise keeping plants frost free for winter. Not really a surprise, given that one of the parents (Digitalis (Isoplexis) canariensis) is hardy and the other (Digitalis purpurea) is biennial! It’s also sterile, so see is out.

Stick to forms of Digitalis purpurea!

Katherine Crouch May 12, 2015 at 11:13 am

yes, if a plant is glamorous yet you never see it taking over anyone’s garden – beware. It is probably ‘miffy’. Groves of eremurus? Majestic prairies of posh echinaceas? Infestations of delphiniums? If only….

Luckily we are sheltered, in Somerset and on a hill so I can get away with more fussy jobs than when I lived 400 metres away in the valley bottom.

Katherine Crouch May 8, 2015 at 11:34 pm

The pricing and quantity surveying of garden plans is my worst skill. Anyone have any tips on pricing plans? More and more I am finding I am way off the mark, with the hard landscaping. Planting is easier to quantify. The first thing clients want to know is how much it will all cost – before I have a brief, analysed and measured the site, and designed the bloody garden. And I ask how much budget they have in mind, so round we go in circles before we even start. Any tips or training courses, anyone? My favourite landscapers are a great help, but they too are now being caught out, what with all the rises in prices and expectations….another whiskey….

Ben's Botanics May 8, 2015 at 6:36 pm

You can raise an entire garden from seed and/or divisions, but by buying a 3L plant you’re buying time. Great! Or so you’d think. Garden centre plants are increasing in price and nurseries are sure to follow. It’s not actually profiteering; the cost of producing plants has ROCKETED; fuel to heat propagation houses, pots (and their delivery), compost (and delivery), water/running boreholes, fertilisers, technology (such as label printers), staff, transportation of final product… these costs have all been going up for a long time now, and yet until recently gardeners were treated to fairly low and stable prices. Sadly it’s now no longer viable for nurseries to absorb these costs and endure ever tighter profit margins, and prices are having to increase. Remember that the profit made by a horticultural business rarely goes on an expensive lifestyle for the owner; money is often reinvested in product development and infrastructure, so a reduction in profit means nurseries can’t invest, and this is why so many are struggling when they’ve not increased their prices. Of course a garden centre then adds its own costs and profit onto each plant…

I sympathise fully with anybody who finds gardening expensive- I’m in the same boat. If you’re on a budget you simply can’t afford to go into garden centres and buy masses of plants. You can’t buy big specimens or expensive trees. I know from my own experience how much it actually hurts to leave behind a plant you really really love because you can’t afford it, but I’m afraid we have to live within our means.

Growing plants from seed is great, as is swapping things with friends and picking up an opportunistic bargain. Early season young plants in 9cm pots will usually bulk out nicely if planted out and cared for… there are ways to do gardening on the cheap, but sorry it won’t be by buying designer plants and expensive new introductions! If you enjoy gardening itself then there are ways around poor cash flow, but if you’re struggling with your inner garden designer/landscaper then you will struggle on a budget.

Sorry, but it’s true.

Katherine Crouch May 8, 2015 at 11:27 pm

All true about the commercial plant prices. I have just come back from reworking a plan for a client who is not short of a bob, but can’t believe that and all-singing-all-dancing garden comes in at twice the price he wants to pay. He wants the same garden for about half the price. Which he can’t have without reducing the spec.
Now for rework again. Well into injury time on this one. Here we go again – lots of gravel, stone paving probably dug out of Indian quarries by barefoot seven year olds, liner perennials and one big tree. Grrr!

It is a lovely site that i could make a fab garden of out of the housekeeping. Over about ten years. But they want it to look fabulous straight away. At least they have a gardener twice a week, so there is hope that it will at least be watered. Double grrrr!! Opens bottle of whiskey…….

Charles Hawes May 8, 2015 at 2:58 pm

This is totally off the point but I am embarrassed by Anne’s pic of this piece of the wall I built in the garden. No wall should be built with four courses of the stone with their joints lining up as my wall does. The only reason it hasn’t fallen down is that it isn’t dry-stone; I used concrete in the joints. Sorry.

annewareham May 8, 2015 at 2:59 pm


Helen Gazeley May 8, 2015 at 9:54 am

Well, with the election result and the prospects of ever more austerity, I think we’ll be seeing more DIY in the garden by those who are interested, and less spending by those who aren’t really.

Deirdre May 7, 2015 at 8:30 pm

In many ways, poverty is good for design. It helps control plant lust. One-of-a-kinditis is bad for design. The last recession hit my husband’s business hard. If I wanted more plants I had to divide or layer plants, or search under favorite plants for seedlings, rather than buy whatever was new and cool. If I wanted swathes of something, seeds would be the only possibility. My garden is better for the repetition.

annewareham May 8, 2015 at 6:16 pm

I think this is right. The basis of my garden was seed growing, though it severely restricted what I could grow. On the other hand a little money means that it’s possible to choose plants which will really enhance a design rather than simply (as I did) use those which chanced to germinate.

Hard landscaping is difficult – and the possible solutions warrant sharing, perhaps.

Vanessa Gardner Nagel May 7, 2015 at 6:36 pm

So much truth to this post! However, as a garden designer I do have to disagree with the concept that a designer completely ignores what a client wants. Also, I need to add that, I am not the biggest fan of Sedums unless it’s the best plant to put on a green roof. It’s very important to me that clients get plants they will love so that they will care about them and for them. I tell my clients that my goal is to inspire them to go out into their gardens rather than viewing them from the kitchen window. Hiring a garden designer is a good value for those individuals who are at a loss with how to layout space and select plants that will survive in their environment, as well as relating their garden with their home or structure. And as you’ve pointed out, this doesn’t come for free, but it often is less than the cost of time, as well as making continuous errors in the process of discovery.

Susan ITPH May 7, 2015 at 3:49 pm

Given the number of comments here which mention the word ‘client’, forgive me if I do not mention that perhaps garden designers are at the root of the problem? Plants, especially the unusual varieties I want, are expensive for me to buy, especially as many of them have to come mail order. But my interaction with mail order and wholesalers have taught me one thing, there is a retail price and a wholesale price for plants, the latter of which only being available to those ‘in the trade.’ Given my knowledge of gardening history, many celebrated gardens were not designed, planted, or maintained by anyone in ‘the trade.’ They also were completed, done, and ready for garden tours in three years, which is often the case nowadays. If anything, gardening has become a commodity for social climbers and the wealthy. Is it any wonder that vegetable gardening is more popular among the young and the not-so-tonied among us?

Katherine Crouch May 7, 2015 at 6:54 pm

with regard to wholesale v retail, generally a garden centre will have only 6 to 8 of any one thing, except hedging whips. As soon as you need a dozen of anything or a single large non stock shrubs or tree, go and see a wholesaler. I have never been refused. Except by one fashionable wholesaler in the South East who was very snotty. For those in the South West, go to Barrington Hill Nursery near Ilminster, or Champion Plants at North Perrott. Cash helps too.

Janna Schreier May 7, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Katherine, similarly, I try to ‘discover the garden my client didn’t know they wanted’ AND find that few take me up on the suggestion of buying one plant and dividing it. I guess the world’s gardens are divided into those owned by gardeners and those owned by people who employ gardeners. On the whole, garden designers are largely engaged by the latter (and at least a garden is then created), but for me, it is even more rewarding when the former want some guidance, ideas and confidence boosting. Inspiration without imposition is our role here and when we get it right, within an hour, we can add enormous value to a gardener. I wholeheartedly agree that it is sad when gardening becomes overly commercialised, but equally the situation is not black and white. Sometimes, spending a little money can make the difference between it all being too hard and it all being very do-able and enjoyable.

Emma Rogers May 7, 2015 at 10:16 am

Always a good idea to grow from seed. Puts you more in touch with your plants and forces you to understand what they like/don’t like in order to survive!

Katherine Crouch May 6, 2015 at 5:17 pm

I totally agree Karen!

all our family gardeners have a scarlet Papaver Orientalis from Grandma’s plant.

Also Heucherella Green Spice at garden centre was over £6 for 2 litres. They have big overheads to cover. 1 litre for £1.50 at the car boot – yay!

I do enjoy supplying scrummy varieties of perennials to my clients that I particularly like. Then I can beg bits back after a couple of years for myself.

karengimson May 6, 2015 at 4:48 pm

I’ve had some really great bargains from NGS plant stalls recently. Not only do they provide lovely home made cake and tea, but you can take home a couple of plants, very reasonably priced- and be helping a fantastic cause too. Virtually everything I buy I immediately split in half or take a cutting to share with my Mum- and she does the same. We have always enjoyed thrifty gardening, and my grandparents were the same. Not having any money has never stopped us from enjoying our gardens. You don’t have to spend big amounts to make a gorgeous garden. You just have to look about for alternative sources, and be willing to share.

Katherine Crouch May 6, 2015 at 3:47 pm

sounds perfectly sensible to me. But –

1) you are shopping in the wrong place. 2 litre Echinacea Pallida a mere £6.50 from me.

2) growing from seeds, roots and divisions from my neighbours and mates is the way I have always gardened for myself as much as possible. I spend my own cash for only one new perennial big enough to split. Preferably from a car boot sale. (And sometimes one half promptly dies – heigh ho). I buy only things for myself I would not be bothered to propagate for one or three plants only, mostly woody things. And I have my eye on a verge with some white honesty I shall nick seed from in autumn.

3) Many clients look at me as if I am mad when I suggest they might do the same.

4) A good garden designer should not be a dictator and impose a garden that does not suit the client or site. A good garden designer discovers the garden the client didn’t know they wanted. With any luck, at a price they can afford. But not always. . .

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: