Garden centres are portals to the world of the undead. Zombies stalk their orderly aisles, moving awkwardly in a strange world of fragrances and soft music. You can see them any weekend – the near and post-retired generation, harassed parents with young children, and young couples trying out lifestyles. They shuffle past the displays, scented candles and hanging baskets, hosepipes and bird food, jams and cushions; or roaming the endless patio outside, with serried ranks of plants, all exactly sized and perfectly in flower, pallets of compost and stacks of pots, and a builder’s yard of trellis, fencing and posts. Groups of them cluster hungrily around the restaurant, eyeing up the chilli and the bakewell slices.
Garden centres in the modern sense are relatively new on the UK retail scene. Once, gardeners bought their plants from nurseries, a label suggesting green-fingered plant lovers carefully tending their charges. Some specialised and local nurseries survive, but most have changed beyond recognition. Prior to the Sunday Trading Act 1994, garden centres were one of very few retail businesses allowed to open on a Sunday in England. In Margaret Thatcher’s ‘free market’ Britain of the 1980s, consumers ruled. Garden centres welcomed Sunday shoppers with open arms, becoming outdoor superstores, selling anything from strimmers to soft furnishing, tropical fish to fashion. Many are now part of national chains, and big supermarkets and DIY stores have joined the bonanza.
Garden centres are churches for a secular consumer age: temples of consumption, offering visions of endless summer, neat and docile nature and perfect family life. They are central to the great pagan festivals of shopping that punctuate the descent to midwinter in the UK (Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas). One I visited in Wales in the second week of October had already established the core of its ‘winter wonderland’ of tinsel and glitter. One in Cambridge was offering ‘Rudolph rides’ and a visit to Father Christmas by 17th November (£6 per child including a ride with Rudolph and a present).
There is also nothing new about this sort of mass consumption of unessential commodities, or the economic system that drives it. However, that does not mean it is unproblematic. The global economic crisis of 2008-9 led some commentators to speak of the demise of the ‘neoliberal’ model of free-market capitalism epitomized by the ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reagonomics’ of the 1980s. Yet the world continues to be in thrall to the idea of a free market. The process of neoliberalization continues, with market-based solutions to the crisis dominating approaches to the crisis. In 2009, Ben Fine wrote of the ‘zombieconomics’ of capitalism: alive enough to consume all other ways of organizing production, yet dead because it offers nothing beyond parasitic invasion of new sectors of life. John Quiggin’s 2012 book (Zombie economics: how dead ideas still walk among us) develops the same theme, from a different theoretical perspective.
It is somewhat unfair to single out garden centres as the focus of consumption: they are not so very different from any other out of town store. Yet they are a classic example of zombie economics in action. As customers, we keep the wheels of the global economic system turning by satisfying our ephemeral desire to have and hold. But we shop like zombies: our consumption is blind to consequences.
It seems there are a lot of economic zombies about. The Financial Times speaks of zombie banks (insolvent but continuing to operate), and zombie companies, which are able only to repay interest on debts and not the principal. Garden centres are different, in that they clearly offer a perfectly sound business model. Yet they provide a natural habitat for zombie consumers.
Why does this matter for conservation? Well, zombie shopping creates a zombie ecology. Garden centres are themselves ecosystems, although strange ones. There are few wild species: insects, slugs, snails, mice and rats are routinely eradicated, although bird feeders may attract common birds, and the odd rook. On the other hand the artificial biodiversity of garden centres can be rather high, with thousands of plants from all over the world concentrated in a small space. If they sell tropical fish or exotic pets, the resulting diversity of life can be dazzling. And the whole place is plumbed in: water for koi carp and runoff from the roses are both part of the local freshwater ecosystem.
More interestingly, garden centres offer ecosystems in kit form to take away. Every part of a garden can be bought, installed, and when you are bored with it, changed. The approach to gardening sold in most garden centres is not about working with nature to yield beauty or pleasure or food, but about design, purchase and installation: gardening is the ecological furnishing of an outside room. Of course, the creation of complete synthetic ecosystems can be positive for biodiversity. When carefully designed and planted, city gardens can be havens for nature (and indeed allow some urban areas to support more wildlife than farmland). Wildlife gardening is a recognized conservation activity, and brings huge pleasure to many people.
But the wildlife garden is still a niche ecosystem. Garden centre shelves suggest a different approach, involving complete control of nature. The good garden consists of an immaculate lawn, perfect vegetables and tidy flower beds. Above all the garden must contain no pests, an aim to be achieved by purchasing aisles full of chemical killers to destroy everything from wasps to moss, greenfly to mice. There is also an army of machines available to cut, burn, sweep and suck the garden clean. Garden centres, and the garden worlds they sell, offer no space for dirt. I recently saw a young sales assistant vacuum cleaning a bin of cheap bulbs: let not the customer get dirty fingers.
Garden centre ecosystems are not just swept clean of unruly nature, but weirdly composed. Because gardens are about visual effect, they combine natural and synthetic objects, living and dead versions of life. Along with living designer plants are plastic pumpkins with flashing LEDs for Halloween, ‘fish friendly glowing gravel’, imitation plastic pond weed, and oddly scaled outdoor models of animals, including (in one recent survey) sheep, meerkats, otters, hedgehogs, giraffes, dogs, dragons, and robins the size of cats.
Most seriously, zombie ecology too often involves robbing one ecosystem to enhance another. Despite the rise of product labeling (e.g. FSC certification), garden products are often abstracted from their material context, their embedded ecological relations hidden. Plants come with trinomials that identify their breeder, but rarely their place of origin in the wild: do they come from swamps, savannas or mountains, and if so, from where – the Andes or Caucasus, California or fynbos? Potted plants and trees are trucked in, their origins and methods of production (and the embedded carbon involved) often obscure. Sometimes chunks of ecosystems are on sale. Veteran olive trees are currently fashionable in the UK, presumably dug from once farmed terraces in the Mediterranean, and you can buy the physical fabric of other ecosystems to create your own: river boulders, gravel, multiple shades of fine broken rock or chunks of slate, all dug up somewhere (who knows where) and shipped over for our pleasure.
It is a commonplace of environmentalism that consumption threatens the biosphere. A garden centre is probably no worse than any other emporium in this respect. But it does show our impacts more clearly: for here we are consuming to make a garden, and yet our very consumption degrades nature somewhere else. Like zombies, we ultimately consume ourselves.