January 1, 2012

Can a garden centre become a destination?

What do garden centres and tourism have in common? More than you might imagine. Gardening is the most popular hobby in North America, expected to increase as baby boomers retire. This interest in gardening, combined with travel, has created a specialized niche known as "garden tourism."

As a garden centre or nursery owner, you can benefit. Ireland's Gardenworld and Terrain, near Philadelphia, use two creative strategies to attract retail customers.


You may not think of a garden centre as a "destination," but gardeners not only enjoy visiting gardens while on vacation, but they also like to check out where the locals go to buy plants and look for inspiration. Canadian tour operator Donna Dawson of www.icangarden.com and www.gardeningtours.com has been offering garden tours since 1998. She says, "When I take my tour groups to a garden that has a garden centre nearby, it is always a tossup, 'What do we see first, the garden centre or the garden?' Garden lovers enjoy browsing for that special goodie to bring back home, whether it's an idea or a product or just to check out what the locals grow." Though Donna's tours take her clients to far-off places, the same mindset applies when keen gardeners visit a town or city closer to home.

What then qualifies a garden centre as a destination? Is it one that offers superb plants and a knowledgeable, friendly staff? Not necessarily so! These are normal expectations. For a garden centre to qualify as a destination it must offer something unique, and stand apart from all the rest. On a recent trip to Ireland I found such a place. Gardenworld, located in Kilquade in County Wicklow in the south of Ireland, opened in 2007 on the site of the existing National Garden Exhibition Centre. It is a top notch garden centre with a fine selection of hard-to-find plants and a staff with over 100 years of combined gardening experience. It's not surprising that in a few short years this place attracts a lot of gardeners. It has something special to attract visitors ... its outstanding display gardens.

The display gardens were born out of desperate times. For many years Tim and Suzanne Wallis ran a successful retail and wholesale nursery on the property, combining the retail garden centre with a plant propagation operation. Eventually, unable to compete with much larger propagation operations, this part of the business floundered. And as the saying goes, necessity became the mother of invention. Tim decided to do for gardening what department stores commonly have always done for kitchens and furniture; to display products in a realistic setting. Tim's brain child was to create an outdoor exhibit featuring a variety of garden designs, both large and small, to suit various budgets. He hoped that customers would be able visualize how plants, garden accessories

and landscaping options fit into real properties. He then invited Ireland's top garden designers and landscapers to create gardens in the space left by the failed propagation business. It was a huge success. Now about to enter its third decade, the National Garden Exhibition Centre (www.gardenexhibition.ie/about.html) has since established itself as Ireland's leader of new trends in garden design. With over 15,000 plants, trees and shrubs incorporated into the gardens, the displays provide an excellent way for Gardenworld customers to identify plants and assess how they grow. Many of the displays include water features, pergolas, mirrors, unusual furniture, sculptures and stonework.

Some of the gardens present a traditional approach to garden design, such as the 100 metre Harlequin Walk. This permanent garden reflects the Edwardian style and serves as the main axis of the exhibition with climbing roses rambling over the eight arches that cross the path. In spring and summer, 2,500 bedding plants fill the borders on each side of the walk. At the centre an octagonal rose garden with four exits leads visitors into the other show gardens.

While the plants themselves star in the Harlequin Walk, other gardens highlight hardscaping and the use of garden accessories. In the Celtic Stone Garden shrubs and plants take a back seat to the hardscaping. The star of this garden is a stunning hand-cut stone wall inlaid with Celtic carvings. A Celtic-inspired water fountain emerges from a wooden deck to complete the picture.
The Gothic Garden is designed to inspire and get creative juices flowing. The dramatic cement gothic window overlooks a pool, creating an ethereal effect to illustrate how a theme can pull both plants and structures together. In the summer the surrounding garden is a haze of colour. As the seasons change, the garden evolves naturally until in the depths of winter, it is wild, shadowy and full of character. 

In all there are 20 themed display gardens, each one offering visitors lots of ideas to take home. Some are permanent while others are changed or replaced so there is always something fresh to see.  Most of the plants used in the display gardens can be purchased at Gardenworld. There are also designated retail areas for specialty gardening needs. For example, those interested in water gardening will find everything imaginable needed to create and maintain ponds. A tea room for refreshments provides a reason to linger longer. Today Gardenworld is an outstanding example of a garden centre that has become a destination.

Outdoor living
Not all garden centres and nurseries have the space or resources to create show gardens like those at Gardenworld. But, there are other ways to get on the garden centre destination map. Terrain at Styers' in Glen Mills, Pa., near Philadelphia, is one that comes to mind. Before Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie (yes, the fashion retailers) purchased the business, Styer's was a traditional American garden centre, looking pretty much the same as all the others in North America ... a tad uninspiring. 

Terrain is different. It is a lifestyle store that cleverly blends the line between home and garden. It's a garden centre, a housewares emporium, a gift shop all rolled into a magical place where even those who don't know a daffodil from a daisy can feel empowered to grow anything.  Founded in 2008, Terrain transforms the local garden center into a celebration of nature. 

You know you are not in an ordinary garden centre the moment you drive into the parking lot. One-of-a-kind structures, doors and other large pieces of garden ornamentation that look like they spent a century or so at a castle are set up just beyond the parking lot. Whether you have the space for such pieces or not, you are drawn to check them out. The unusual accessories set the tone for the indoor retail space.

Once inside the store, it is clear is that the inspired merchandising fingers of Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters have been at work. Terrain's style is perhaps best described as rustic-modern, where old and weathered is a repeating theme. Pre-owned and not-so-loved pieces of furniture, along with wooden crates, old benches, planks of wood and pallets, serve as benches and tables along with natural materials like tree branches. Antiquish-looking props are used as retail fixtures to display products. The plants and horticultural products are intermixed with books, giftware, housewares and personal products. Blackboards and chalk are used for signage. The whole atmosphere is trendy and organic. And of course, "the look "is for sale everywhere.

Terrain is a master at creating themed displays. Every season is special.  Winter features bulbs for forcing and everything to celebrate Christmas with home décor, trees and ornaments for sale. In spring the nursery comes alive with flowering branches and is fully stocked for the gardening season ahead.  The nursery stock is top-notch and displayed with accessories that encourage the browser to become a buyer. Summer is greeted with a superb selection of hanging plants and succulents for terrariums to help shoppers think about moving the gardening season indoors after summer's glory. And in fall, it's all about the harvest with pumpkins and gourds to attract the Thanksgiving and Halloween crowd. 

Workshops that are regularly offered on a variety of topics from creating terrariums to building birdhouses to growing succulents are more reasons customers keep coming back to the store.

Located in an antique greenhouse, the café is smack dab in the retail sales area. Surrounded by plants, books and products, it is a place to enjoy a light lunch, have coffee and chat with friends. The food (and the coffee) is excellent. Executive chef Keith Rudolf creates his menus using seasonal produce, meat and dairy from local farmers. And, the café is available for special events such as weddings and parties…after 5:00 p.m., of course.

A retailer like Terrain illustrates that it is possible to set yourself apart in the garden centre business. It takes outside-the-box thinking and creativity, and perhaps a little risk taking. When it comes down to it, what Terrain has to offer is really no different than most other garden centres. But, it is packaged uniquely, and that's what sets this retailer apart.

Standing out from the crowd has its advantages. Both Gardenworld and Styers have created destination garden centres in different ways, but are both benefiting in the same way…by attracting a segment of the market that otherwise might have passed them by. You can do it too.
Veronica Sliva is an Ontario-based garden writer with a lust for travel. Read about her adventures in both gardening and travel on her blog at www.gardenersworld.ca

Terrain at Styers: Glen Mills, Pennsylvania
Gardenworld: Kilquade, County Wicklow