Small urban garden centres proving size isn't everything

Boom in indoor plants helps improve centres' results.

Nunhead Gardener: smaller centres managing to grow
Nunhead Gardener: smaller centres managing to grow

The small urban garden centre is riding high on the back of the indoor plants boom. Garden centres such as The Nunhead Gardener, West Six, North One and Camden are smaller than average but managing to grow. One of the reasons is that indoor plants and pots take up little space but sell all year round.

High-end London restaurant/garden centre Petersham Nurseries is opening a 16,000sq ft Covent Garden site featuring two restaurants, a lifestyle home and garden shop and a delicatessen with a wine cellar and florist. Urban garden centre Fulham Palace re-opened in March under Chelsea Gardener ownership after being shut since 2014, while small centres such as Battersea Flower Station have seen success in the new environment.

New Zealander Peter Milne took on The Nunhead Gardener site under a south London railway arch with partner Alex Beltran originally to sell Christmas trees in December 2015. He now sells 500 plant varieties as well as indoor plants, pots, candles and some stuffed animals.

"We drove around looking at building sites and anything that might be a garden centre," says Milne. "It became obvious a Network Rail piece of land would be the place." He and Beltran had not worked in the industry before but "wanted to change lifestyle and were very passionate gardeners".

After overcoming drainage problems, the owners now know what people are looking for at different times of the season and have a local following and customer base. Plans include building up stock and a toilet and staffroom.

"We were fortunate because as we opened up last spring there was a big trend in indoor plants and that is something that has helped us through the autumn and winter," Milne explains. "My intention this year is to make sure we don't miss any product groups in terms of plants. I'm learning from last year when we probably had some gaps despite being quite a small site." The site has two tunnels totalling 1,000sq ft inside and another 2,000sq ft outside.

Milne adds: "I feel we have a good selection of indoor plants by most standards." He worked in finance for 25 years and "got to a point where I wanted to get up in the morning and do something I felt really passionate about and dealing with people with a common interest. In my head I decided even if it didn't make money it was OK as long as I can pay the mortgage. My skills in finance are integral to help work with suppliers and staff."

Beltran worked in retail and has good skills in customer service. There is a piece of "unused and unloved" land next door that Nunhead would like to rent "to give us more options and open a cafe".

Award-winning planteria

Camden Garden Centre's planteria is only 730sq m but turns over £834 per square metre excluding VAT and the average customer spend in the centre is £33.95 excluding VAT. The indoor planteria has seen major growth over the past two years, with sales of £2,166 per square metre excluding VAT.

North One in London is just 425sq m "so every plant, pot and product has to be chosen with care". It buys in small quantities so is able to offer a wide choice of plants and has made the most of recent houseplant and vintage trends. The cafe, nestled in railway arches, opened in November 2014 and has seen a 67 per cent increase on year-one trading. Strong demand remains for outdoor plants but houseplants have become the fastest-growing category.

Squire's in Chertsey, Surrey, is the 15-centre group's smallest store and underwent a £1.5m revamp this spring. It now features a full garden centre offer including a cafe. Deputy chairman Sarah Squire says: "Chertsey is a small but perfectly formed garden centre where you can find what you need and be back in your garden in no time."

At Home with Plants, a new book by Indoor Garden Design's Ian Drummond, cites many of the centres as sources of the best and most unusual indoor plants.

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