The anniversaries provided opportunities to celebrate, as well as engage with the local communities.

Mike says: “We absolutely made the most of our birthdays at Brimsmore and Castle Gardens, beginning with a Cake Cutting Ceremony at each where the respective Deputy Mayor and Mayor marked the start of the 10-day celebrations. We held lots of events, such as a Baking and Making Competition with celebrity chef Lesley Waters, offered gardening kits to local schools and also had plenty of special offers throughout the garden centres.” Getting involved with schools and organisations locally has always been important to the business, Mike adds. “Working with local groups, schools, charities and businesses is considered part of daily life at The Gardens Group and is something that everyone in the team has always taken great pleasure in doing,” he says. “Louise and I have a longstanding and continuous commitment to the local community and over the years have really enjoyed working with many groups, small and large, to raise awareness of their fantastic projects and initiatives, while promoting and inspiring interest in gardening along the way.

“Whether it’s collaborating with Dorset Wildlife Trust on the Wildlife Friendly Gardening Awards or hosting fundraising events for local charities and not for profit organisations, we believe that local businesses should support each other to keep communities vibrant, and that working in partnership with all types of community groups helps to forge stronger, healthier relationships.”

The Gardens Group runs a diverse program of initiatives to support this ethos. “Castle Gardens in Sherborne is home to The Green Shed, which was born in 2010 and provides work opportunities for adults with learning difficulties,” Mike explains. “All of the products that are made by The Green Shed, such as kindling, are sold at Castle Gardens and the money made goes back into supporting The Green Shed and its users. More than this, the team at The Green Shed is very much a part of everyday life in the garden centre and there is a feeling of being part of a larger team and this has been of great benefit to the community within the walls of Castle Gardens. “We are equally committed to supporting and encouraging local gardening clubs in the surrounding area, so the team give their time voluntarily and travel to clubs across Dorset and Somerset. What’s more, after spotting a decline in traditional flower and horticultural shows, we hosted a Flower Show Forum at Castle Gardens, with a panel of experts including Susie Corr from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Affiliated Societies team, Britain’s largest network of gardening clubs and horticultural societies. The first forum was attended by 120 people from local gardening clubs and horticultural societies, all looking for

GCU September 2017

Castle Gardens celebrated its 30th year in business in April, having started as a one-till operation in 1987

We mustn’t dumb down, but we ought to take the jargon out of gardening

innovative ways to keep the traditional flower show alive.

“Since the initial forum in March 2016, Longburton Flower Show has been revived, Radipole and Southill Horticultural Society has seen a 40% increase in flower show entries and relationships are being forged between schools and gardening clubs with the help of The Gardens Group’s free pot scheme.”

‘We need to make the most of having the range and expertise’

While there has been plenty to celebrate at The Gardens Group this year, how has business been more generally?

“It’s been a good first half of the year and even though the weather hasn’t been brilliant, it’s been normal enough that customers have been able to garden at the right time,” Mike comments. “This demonstrates that the weather is still the biggest factor in our success or otherwise.

“I always think that when times are tough with the economy and now with the uncertainty of Brexit, the industry is somewhat sheltered as gardening is a good value way for people to spend their time. What’s more, second holidays are likely to be spent at home rather than away, so garden centres then benefit.”

There are concerns in the industry, however, including one recent headline generator that has been especially worrying.

“The biggest issue has to be the challenge of Xylella and other plant health issues that come along,” Mike says. “We are also facing much more scrutiny from environmental pressure groups too, although the reduction in

The weather is

still the biggest factor in our success or otherwise

pesticides available to the amateur gardener will mean that we all will become greener in our gardening actions, which is good news. “We also need to work harder at renewing our aging customer base and to enthuse homeowners who have very small gardens and those who rent properties.”

Mike adds: “For suppliers, the challenges are much the same, because ultimately we all service the same customer.”

In a competitive market, it is increasingly important for garden centres to leverage their knowledge and specialities, Mike believes. “As supermarkets pick off the easy bits of gardening we need to make the most of having the range and expertise to advise customers and people new to gardening,” he says. “I believe that growing things (a bit like lighting fires) is a primeval instinct and once people are hooked they will keep coming back to it. We mustn’t dumb down, but we ought to take the jargon out of gardening as we need to get to new gardeners who perhaps won’t have had a background in it from their parents.” Having the knowledge and expertise comes hand in hand with a horticultural base to the business, something which has declined in many retailers across the industry. “There is a need to remember why we exist as businesses and where we came from,” Mike says. “The dominance of restaurants in some centres could be a vulnerability. With restaurants and coffee shops filling high streets and just about every other outlet we must at some stage get to saturation point. Too many centres are becoming restaurants that also sell a few other things including, at the back, a few plants.

“Having said that, operators of such centres don’t seem to have to put the hours in that we have to in order to exist!”

Anyone looking to enter the garden retail industry should be prepared for hard work – for anyone who might not be suited to that, Mike has simple advice: “Look for something easier to do!” | 9

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