It is unlikely that prime minister David Cameron gives a great deal of thought to garden centres. But in recent years the sector has quietly become a model of his "Big Society" of voluntary mutual assistance in communities.
This has been amply demonstrated by entrants to this year's Garden Retail Awards, in which the community involvement category drew eight strong submissions, making it among the most hotly-contested of the awards, winners of which will be announced in London on 31 October.
How has this come about? As a recent HTA retail strategy document points out: "Particularly in rural areas, the garden centre is the obvious business that can fill the gap once occupied by other service providers (village shops, post offices) that have since declined."
And the motivation for this need not be entirely altruistic, it adds. "If the local community matters to consumers, then local businesses that support that community will in turn be supported by it."
Working with schoolchildren is a key part of most garden centres' efforts in this area. But with keen competition for the attention of young minds, it is no longer enough just to offer the local school a few seeds and expect them to be hugely grateful.
Working with schools
Fermoy's Garden Centre in Devon found its involvement in school gardening led to it being a partner with Scott's Miracle Gro, whose school gardens won Silver Gilt at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show. According to development manager Sarah Dumont: "This was the culmination of three years of effort with schools. Each year has been a learning experience."
This year the centre launched a competition for local schools to see which could produce the best "garden" in a wheelbarrow. "It was a simple idea that you could do anywhere - they all started with something uniform but were then able to create something very different," says Dumont.
"And they managed to tie it into the curriculum, with one group creating an apothecary's garden and another a World War Two garden that tied into their history work."
When these were relocated to the garden centre, customers were given the chance to vote for their favourite, she adds. "It got 3,000 votes and the voting cards included people's email addresses, so it was a useful data-gathering exercise, too." Local press and TV coverage from such events also boosted the centre's profile in the area.
The secret of a successful initiative, she says, is that "it has to be easy to manage, it has to fit in with the school curriculum and the outcome has to be positive for us as a garden centre". Cost need not be prohibitive. "Our main input is time - it takes up a lot of evenings," she says.
Next year, the centre's work with schools will have an increased presence at the Devon County Show, while a food festival at the garden centre will give children an opportunity to learn how to make tasty dishes from what they have grown.
"You have to try new things," says Dumont. "We have built up a reputation with schools and that makes more things possible. Teachers tell me they have to choose between one gardening partner and another. Some national ones have more marketing behind them. Mine has to be better than theirs."
Building up relationships
Woodcote Green Garden Centre in Surrey has also evolved its work with schools, says general manager Phil Barnden. "We have worked with school kids for five years and built up relationships with 228 schools, mainly across south London.
"As a business you get bombarded with requests for assistance. We were looking for a way to help as many people as possible, but for that you need them to help themselves to some extent."
Its latest idea is a horticultural Enterprise Pack, which went out to schools in March. "I saw what my children were doing, learning about business and planning at school, and thought it could be applied to horticulture," says Barnden. "We will see the results, and find out how much money they made, at our horticultural show later this month."
Explaining the centre's approach, he adds: "We don't only do things for profit. But a school satchel is a powerful tool - parents tend to read and remember what's in it. And there are 60-70,000 parents and grandparents we can reach that way.
"You can't be blatantly commercial. Nor can you just keep it the same - you have to work to keep their interest. And you do have to be prepared to put your hand in your pocket."
Involvement with local schools is also central to Cooling Garden Centre's philosophy, says manager Gary Carvosso. "We have been doing tours of our production units, mostly for primary school children, for 15 years. It's a marketing opportunity. If you engage with children, then pester power will bring them back with their parents.
"Also, there is a lack of young blood in the industry. Some of those who have been coming for years with their parents have then become Saturday staff, then joined the team full-time."
The Kent garden centre has also turned itself into a local horticultural training provider, with a training room, kitchen garden, 50-tree orchard and a selection of livestock on the site. "We use our own team as much as possible," says Carvosso. "We will also advise schools on their own kitchen garden or wildlife areas."
This has paid dividends locally because the centre has been approached by the London Borough of Bromley to partner a schools competition to create a town centre floral exhibit for the Queen's diamond jubilee next year, he adds.
"It's hard to quantify the benefits to the business. But it does help our reputation in the minds of customers, and not only those with children. Not all of them want to see a whole lot of children in the garden centre, but if we are seen to be supporting education, they will support that in turn."
A role in the community
He agrees that garden centres have the opportunity to take on otherwise unfilled roles in communities. "People used to congregate in the pub. Now, perhaps, the garden centre has taken some of that role - we have a regular, even daily, clientele," he says. "I think we could do more, but it has to be cost-effective."
The trend is more or less unique to the sector, says Darren Coaker, marketing manager at St Peters Garden Centre near Worcester. "I come from a different retail background and I don't see this as something other retailers are doing," he explains. "Horticulture is quite a caring industry - for me it's been a wake-up call."
The centre's sensory and kitchen gardens were built in part as a learning resource for local schools. "It has a massive knock-on effect," says Coaker. "It's there in children's homework and now, when their parents think of gardens, they're more likely to think of us."
Successful engagement in this way requires "decent but not aggressive marketing", he adds, and points out that continuity is as important as innovation. "What we do will keep evolving - some things you need to refresh. But we did a summer festival for children last year and repeated it this year. It was just as popular. It's okay to repeat something that works."
Gavin McEwan helped to judge the 2011 Garden Retail Awards, which will be presented at Grosvenor House on 31 October. See www.gardenretailawards.com.
Fundraising and providing learning opportunities through links with local schools have become accepted ways for garden centres to help embed themselves in the communities they serve. But Dorset's Gardens Group is unusual in hosting a thriving social enterprise.
When a nearby day centre for adults with learning difficulties and mental health issues faced closure, the company took the opportunity to recreate a similar facility at its Sherburne site, known as Castle Gardens.
A £10,000 grant from the local social development funding body Chalk + Cheese partly paid for the conversion of an old storage shed, resulting in the Green Shed, which opened in October last year.
In it, around 20 supervised workers turn waste pallets from the garden centre into kindling that is then put on sale at the garden centre and other local outlets. A different group washes and sorts the centre's pots, and the shed is also used to teach schoolchildren and others about the practicalities of recycling.
Gardens Group managing director Mike Burks says: "It has been fantastic. We were told at the start that there could be tricky incidents, but having it based in the garden centre has worked well.
"It's a relaxed and safe environment, and the guys get on well with our other staff. It's also strengthened our links with other groups in the area that you probably wouldn't know about otherwise.
"It doesn't make any money but it saves us a cost and it fits well with our environmental goals. I'm sure the idea would be transferable to other places."