ALL it takes is one glimpse of the sun and everyone is jumping into their cars and heading off in droves. Not to the seaside, but to what is fast becoming another British institution - the garden centre.

Now the garden centres are going a stage further and are evolving into major players in the leisure industry. Take a day out down the A72 tourist route from Hamilton to Lanark and you find the Clyde Valley, once an area renowned for tomato and fruit growing, blossoming with ever more ambitious garden centre projects linked to family activities.

Dobbies, at Ferniegair, just outside Hamilton, benefits from its location beside the palatial Chatelherault hunting lodge, designed in 1732 by William Adam for the 5th Duke of Hamilton and now a museum. The attractions of a combined visit are enhanced by an adventure playground for the children and a variety of wooded walks.

Further along the A72, just before Garrion Bridge, the striking new Clyde Valley Garden Centre, with its fountain and water feature and Top Deck restaurant, is well worth a visit.

Only open a year, the centre has been selected by Blooms of Bressingham, one of the country's foremost nurseries, as a trial agent and has been approved by the Garden Centre Association, the equivalent, according to owner Andy Sutherland, of an AA listing in the hotel trade.

``The centre is on the main tourist route and there are now about a dozen centres of all different shapes and sizes which I think is good for everyone.

``Traditionally the valley was full of growers - tomatoes and soft fruits - but gardening centres are replacing that.

``I would say garden centres are a leisure activity. People come and look and get ideas; they don't necessarily have to buy everything they see. We try to give them a broad selection: I'm just back from Italy, for example, and have bought back products to increase our range. I think you have to offer something a bit different.''

That philosophy, and the diversification into the leisure industry, is perhaps best illustrated a few miles nearer Lanark at the Clyde Valley Country Estate, in Crossford.

Owned by Jim Warnock, who is also proprietor of the popular Sandyholm Garden Centre and coffee shop, the estate is a development centred on an old courtyard, featuring a covered garden centre, Coach House Restaurant and Bistro, a selection of exclusive shops, and a wide range of activities for all the family, most notably a narrow gauge railway.

The garden centre is going great guns already.

``Things are starting to take off. Gardeners are doing a lot of replacement and reorganisation because of the severe winter,'' said manager Ron Dewar. ``The temperature here fell to minus 20 degrees and that, and last year's extremely hot summer, combined to kill off a lot of plants and shrubs.''

The Clyde Valley Country Estate includes a range of fascinating shops: the Fireside Collection, a stone masons; Clyde Valley Country Clothing; The Kitchen Place; The Gallery art shop; the exclusive Headstart Hats; Buds and Bows, a dried flower supplier; and The Sweet Shop.

Most occupy renovated shop units surrounding the old cobbled courtyard which at present features a colourful kiddies carousel, a great draw for the children.

Outdoors you can take a short round trip on the narrow gauge railway and enjoy a round of putting; have a unique view of the valley from horseback by visiting the pony-trekking centre; visit the Bird of Prey Centre; or take a walk and a picnic on the riverside walkways. The brave can also attempt the ominously named Death Slide, one of the latest attractions.

``Garden centres are really part of the leisure industry now - a visit to the estate is more a day out for all the family - and I can see them continuing to go down that road,'' said Ron. ``You have got to appeal to a wider public than just the dedicated gardener and that is why we have developed the shopping side, so families can come and choose, for example, a gift for granny, auntie or sister. Parents can come here to pleasant surroundings away from the shopping malls and the general melee on the High Street.''

Whatever your needs, you are sure to find them well catered for in the garden centres in south Lanarkshire.