From assembling garden furniture to watering lots and lots of plants, FRAN GILLETT tries her hand working at Cwmbran's Sunnydale Garden Centre.

THE amount of water consumed at Sunnydale Garden Centre makes experts’ recommendations to drink eight glasses of water a day seem like a piece of cake.

This is the place where the watering never stops and where hosepipes run continuously all day, every day. Even through the night the automatic watering system kicks in to make sure there is not a dry bit of soil in the house.

But with apple trees needing around one gallon a day, the garden centre cannot afford to skimp on the water.

So as I joined the garden centre team one morning for a behind-the-scenes insight, it was clear that I would have my watering work cut out.

I was met by Jason Samuel, one of the directors of the garden centre, who said watering is one of the major challenges facing the store.

He said: “We cannot physically get enough water for the whole place. It’s a continual issue.”

“There’s always someone doing the watering and when they go on their break they will pass the hosepipe to different people to keep it going. It depends on the season with how much water we use, but we can’t water the whole centre in one day.”

But the danger of under-watering is a very real one, as it can lead to a loss of plants and ultimately a loss of business.

Mr Samuel said occasionally plants do die or are not up to the high standard needed to sell them, but most of the time the 15 to 20 members of staff keep on top of the watering and weeding.

As well as the ongoing pressure to keep parched plants at bay, it soon became apparent just how little I knew about the seemingly vast world of gardening.

So much more than a neat lawn, a few potted petunias and some gnomes, keeping a garden tidy and full of life is a serious business.

Most of the long-standing members of staff I spoke to had a keen interest in plants, with healthy gardens of their own at home and a sophisticated knowledge to match.

As a customer approached Mr Samuel with an intricate query about tomato fertiliser, I struggled to understand what she was talking about and instead tried to mill about inconspicuously by the garden gnomes.

But Mr Samuel assured me it is easy to pick up nuggets of green-fingered knowledge once you work at the centre.

He said: “We have quite a few members of staff who do know a lot about plants. But over a period of time you sort of pick it up. A lot of customers’ questions are the same because it’s all seasonal.”

Whereas once garden centres were only for the die-hard growers, now a trip to your local centre is more than just a nip in and out affair; people come for a day out.

“Although we do still get hardcore gardeners who come in, the coffee shop now runs itself really,” 37-year-old Mr Samuel, from Cwmbran, said.

As I tidied away behind the counter at the coffee shop, it was clear from the tea, cake and toastie sales that for many a trip to the garden centre means lunch as well.

And why not, when nearby are a whole host of beautiful flowers and plants to enjoy – and the Welsh cakes are homemade by the owner’s wife?

On rainy days in the summer holidays, parents bring their children to explore the rows of plants and visit the fish in the neighbouring aquarium.

The centre has also benefitted from the organic and grow-it-yourself revolution, spurred on by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Mr Samuel said: “More and more youngsters are buying vegetables and flowers to grow themselves because of the whole grow-it-yourself trend which has really took off in the last couple of years.”

Also at the current height of popularity is the movement for people to encourage more wildlife to their gardens, as sales of plants to attract butterflies and bees have risen.

On a hot summer’s day in July, however, I found it strange that the centre was not busier with customers.

I was told that most of the gardening work is done by now, with the bedding plants already put in during April, May and June.

“Now is the time for people to sit out and about and enjoy the work they have done in the garden,” Mr Samuel said.

“Lots of furniture and barbecues are going. It’s that time of year to be out in the garden so slug pellets and fertilisers are all really popular.”

In this line of work, everything from the product selection to the amount of profit generated is reliant on the weather and the seasons.

“We’re absolutely dependent on the seasons. If it’s a really wet day our sales could drop by half.”

The store’s furniture manager, Malcolm Daw, 61, told me the fashion for garden furniture has changed enormously within just a decade.

“Go back 10 years and everyone wanted aluminium stuff as it looked like Victorian and didn’t go rusty. Then it moved onto teak wood, and then onto quite modern looking steel tubular furniture.

“That quickly diminished in popularity so now we’re back to cast aluminium and wood.”

The former police officer, who has always been interested in plants since he was young, said some customers are big spenders but the economic recession has affected furniture sales.

“We’ve had customers spend £3,500 in one go. But garden furniture hasn’t got the place in people’s lives that it used to have.

“When DIY programmes like Groundforce were at their peak, people loved titivating up their gardens. But now people are spending their money on more pressing things. It has picked up a little bit lately though.”

I helped Mr Daw assemble some furniture, which is all brought in from the centre’s sister site, Caerphilly Garden Centre.

Aside from furniture, he said some customer requests are a little bizarre as he told me: “The other day a lady came in looking for a spray that you paint your lawn green with.”