From bench to border

Garden centres can cash in by offering planting and maintenance services to time-pressed customers, writes Gavin McEwan.

A growing number of garden retailers are taking the view that service doesn't end at the garden centre door, and that they can add value by providing design, planting and maintenance services too.

According to HTA representative Gill Ormrod: "With increasing time pressures on people's daily lives, a 'Do It For Me' approach seems to be gaining momentum as people, especially the marginal gardeners, want to spend more time enjoying their gardens rather than 'working' on them."

This provides a golden opportunity for garden centres to extend their services to cater for this need, she says. "By creating garden 'rooms' within their centres, customers can really start to imagine how their own garden can be transformed - and if the centre then offers a service to install the look, there are winners all round."

Palmers Garden Centre, a family-run business in Leicestershire and Garden Retail Awards' Retail Outlet of the Year (under £3m turnover) 2007, set up its "Plan & Plant" service last year. Managing director Caroline Palmer explains the motivation. "We were being asked all the time, 'do you have anyone who could help me plant up my garden?', so we knew there was a demand for such a service. It has definitely helped to sell more large plants and trees. People worry: 'Is it going to live?' They would rather have someone else do it."

The garden centre offers a two-year guarantee on the plants it has put in, so long as customers follow basic aftercare instructions, and also offers a free follow-up visit one year on. "We have had very little comeback," says Palmer. "We know we have given them the best start possible."

However, the company sets limits on the service it can offer. "We didn't want to call in 'landscaping' - our expertise is in plants and how to maintain them," says Palmer.

Indeed, customers sometimes approach the company only once the hard landscaping is in place. "The work has often been done by builders rather than landscapers," she says. "They then bring us in to spend a couple of days on the soft landscaping, which is perfect for us."

Being a smaller independent also imposes limits on the scale of work. "Jobs can be anything from £500 to £40,000," Palmer says. " We have been lucky in having a member of staff who has been able to drive it forward, and employees who can combine plant knowledge with practical ability. But if we were too big, we couldn't do it."

The company has also been fortunate in having recruited reliable workers directly, rather than passing customers on to a third party. Palmer believes this has been essential. "As soon as you give the job to someone else, you're no longer sure about the quality," she says. "They're not flying the flag for Palmers and don't look at it from our point of view.

"With the credit crunch it might tail off, but it doesn't appear to be doing so yet - we're still getting a lot of enquiries." It took no great outlay to develop the service, other than a vehicle to deliver things like topsoil, she adds. "It was a fairly obvious step - I don't know why we didn't do it before."

Dorset-based Orchard Park takes a slightly different approach. For the past two years the garden centre has rented space to another local landscaping firm, which has a display of its work on leaflets.

Managing director Richard Cumming says: "It's so important to make the right choice (of partner) - if they do a bad job you get tarred with the same brush. We always get a stream of people wanting to display leaflets but we are picky - you have to be convinced they offer a good service. But Whites of Witchampton is a good company and it's working very well."

A good landscaping company can start somebody off in gardening, giving them the confidence to do it on their own, which can mean a customer for life, he says.

The company had considered bringing the service in-house. "But it's a question of doing what we do best," says Cumming. "We're developing our retail skills rather than trying to do everything else as well."

Longacres Garden Centre is a well-established outlet in Surrey, which four years ago set up a separate division, Longacres Landscape, to provide a complete design and build service for customers. A year and a half ago it became a full member of BALI.

Landscape manager Zac Inston explains the reasons for the move: "The shop staff were being asked to recommend a landscaper, and if they don't do a good job then you're tarred by association."

As a consequence, the landscape division uses its own staff for all work apart from tree work at height and electrical work.

Most of the landscape division's work still comes through the garden centre, he says. "We work closely with them. But the staff are quite separate as the skills involved are different." Nor are there that many opportunities to use garden centre stock. "We use bits and pieces, but the garden centre stock changes all the time to ensure it's looking good, whereas we're planting up to ensure there's continued interest through the year," he says. "We tend to use the same plant suppliers though."

The Boma Garden Centre in north-west London is another retailer that has taken the sidestep into other gardening services in response to customer demand.

Co-owner Denise Mathew says: "We didn't intend to provide other services when we bought the garden centre six years ago. But within two years we started providing garden maintenance, and then got into design and landscaping. They fit well together and each feeds off the other."

She adds that the services are popular with customers across the board rather than with only the more well-heeled.

The challenge, she says, is to manage all three effectively. "It's a lot of work, particularly the maintenance side, where you might have a crew doing four different jobs a day. And you need to find the right people."

New Hopetoun Gardens in West Lothian has made a name for itself in showcasing a range of garden designs for different situations with which to inspire customers. Its Avant-Gardens Festival this summer led to more than 1,000 customers voting for their favourite design. But managing director Dougal Philip says finding quality staff to actually install designs is the hardest part. "We did run our own landscaping team, but found we couldn't guarantee the quality. One time in three they'd do something silly. And since you're the point of contact, it's you they come back to if it goes wrong.

"We now offer only a design service, and leave it to the customer to put it in themselves or get someone to do it. They ask who we recommend, but the problem is the good ones are already busy."

DEVELOPING BETTER LINKS WITH LANDSCAPERS

The HTA is responding to the "Do It For Me" trend with an initiative to encourage its garden centre members to develop closer links with Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) members in their area.

"Obviously, only those centres without their own landscaping services will be interested in doing this," says HTA representative Gill Ormrod.

A letter will shortly be sent to the HTA's garden centre members along with an APL poster and booklet of local APL members to give out to customers. The APL is also promoting collaboration with the Society of Garden Designers, with whom it created a show garden at this year's RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. The two will host a landscaping workshop at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew next month.


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