Squire’s Garden Centres is a well loved family-owned horticultural business that has been serving the green-fingered citizens of London and the South East for the past 80 years. We settle down amongst the potted plants and chimeneas for an insightful, industry-revealing chin wag with the owners.
How has the garden centre business changed in the last 10 years, and where do you see it going?
Sarah Squire (Deputy Chairman): There have been some really great changes in the last 10-15 years. There are even more interesting varieties of plants to choose from, and there’s been a significant improvement in plant healthy and longevity. Some items such as compost have become cheaper in real terms. Garden furniture has changed significantly too, from being largely plastic, to now having a huge choice of stylish wood, metal and resin weave furniture, which are all much more low maintenance.
I believe that there is a great future for good independent garden centres and small family groups like Squire’s Garden Centres. We really believe that local is good, and that we have a role to play in providing our local communities with great plants and gardening products, as well as local employment opportunities.
I feel very strongly that we must never lose focus on our plants and gardening products. It is who we are. Lots of outlets can sell gifts, garden furniture and BBQ’s, but they don’t have the specialist knowledge or expertise that we have. There is so much competition out there from the high street, supermarkets and the internet. Ultimately if supermarkets take our business the consumer will be faced with much less choice, as they will just offer a few profitable lines.
We have seen some garden centres turn into Christmas theme parks in an effort to entice visitors through the cold winter months. Is there a danger of losing sight of the core business of horticulture?
SS: Christmas is important to us because it helps bring people into the centres during the winter when few people are thinking of gardening, but we still have all the overheads to pay. Selling Christmas lights and decorations is a natural extension to selling real Christmas trees. It is also nice to give something back to our local communities, especially at Christmas – which is why so many of our centres offer a free visit to Santa, with the opportunity to donate to a local charity. However we never lose sight of the fact that we are a garden centre. I feel very passionately about that!
Has there been a noticeable shift in the demographic of your customers, and if so what do you think has been the contributing factors?
SS: Our demographic remains largely female and 50 plus. This reflects the fact that this age group often have a little more time to enjoy their gardens, and see a visit to the garden centre as a leisure activity in itself – often enjoying a coffee or lunch there as well as a good browse. This is also the age group who tend to be more knowledgeable and experienced gardeners.
However we are seeing more and more customers in their 30’s and early 40’s coming to our centres, often with little or no gardening knowledge. They often feel a little overwhelmed by the choice that we offer. So, to help them with their plant choices, we are changing the way that we communicate in our plant area – with clearer signage, more information and top gardening tips.
Another focus has been our ‘Planted by Squire’s’ range of containers. We know that many people are short of time and often need an instant result, and this is what our ready-planted containers give them.
Squire’s are also keen to encourage young gardeners, so we do as much as we can with families and schools. During school holidays we run children’s planting activities called ‘Create & Grow’, and in many of our centres we are seeing more families and younger people coming in.
We give as much information and encouragement as we can to all our customers, to enable everyone to enjoy gardening and succeed. Ultimately however, it is only by gardening and making the odd mistake and enjoying our successes that we really learn.
What are the plants that have been ever popular, and what are the new trends?
Tim Jacob (Squire’s Group Plant Buyer): Cottage garden perennials such as lupins, delphiniums and foxgloves remain extremely popular and for very good reason. Roses are always in demand, ferns and grasses are still on trend. Herbs are seen as good, easy to care for reliable plants – lavender in particular is a ‘must have’ for your garden due to its scent and culinary uses.
As far as trends are concerned, although some people have a wealth of knowledge, many of our customers do not have the gardening know how of their parents and grandparents. Part of our task is to help them (with advice and suitable plants and products) to succeed at a basic level, which will give them the confidence to become more adventurous and enjoy their gardens and gardening more.
Grow your own fruit and veg seems static now after a period of growth, but tomato and strawberry sales are still on the up, and more unusual and novel lines are of interest such as the “pinkberry” and “tomtato”.
What are your best selling items?
Darran Oakley (Squire’s Buying Director): Our best- selling item is actually our Squire’s multi -purpose compost 75 litre. We sell over 70,000 bags a year across our 15 centres. Good reliable garden tools such as trowels, forks and secateurs remain real essentials for any gardener. Green ‘master gardener’ gloves by Town and Country are one of our top sellers because they are a good tough glove that rose thorns find difficult to penetrate.
TJ: Increasingly, customers have less time and so ready planted containers and hanging baskets are popular as you get instant results. They are popular ‘pick-up’ products to dress a patio for a party. Similarly, larger bedding plants in pots give instant impact, and are increasing in popularity, whilst pack bedding sales seem to be static or in decline.
What is the best new innovation you have found?
DO: For 2015 New Westland tomato gro-packs are ideal for small areas and for children to have a go. We also have a new Garland ‘Jumbo Kneeler’. Many kneelers are not quite big enough but this is perfect. New Jacks Magic plant fertilizer is a traditional recipe but ‘beefed up’ to give great results.
Also innovative are ‘back door shoes’ to slip on when you go outside, with washable inserts, and in cheerful designs.
Is there a gardening implement you personally can’t live without?
SS: It may sound conventional but for me it is my secateurs which I never leave the house without. I need to snip, whether it is dead-heading (I am a compulsive), a little light pruning, or just clearing some over enthusiastic foliage so you can get through a gate. Also it means I can cut some flowers for the house.
Rainy bank holidays, hot scorching summers, World cups on TV… What do garden centres fear the most?
SS: Definitely cold wet springs where every Bank Holiday is a wash out, and people just don’t venture out into their gardens. We can be very quiet when that happens and Spring is the key trading period for us. My father believes that most fair weather gardeners don’t really venture out to tend their patch and visit the garden centre until the temperature hits 16 degrees, and year on year he is proved right. A lovely sunny Mother’s Day weekend and a warm Easter period is definitely on our wish list!
We run a ‘Spud-Off’ competition every year (who can grow the biggest yield from one single potato). In order to lord it over Nick, what variety would you recommend I plant, and how should I nurture it?
DO: Best yield…
- Vales Emerald (early)
- Kestrel (second early)
- Good old Maris Piper (main crop)
SS: I think it is all in the chitting. That period when the tubers are left in a light dry place to sprout before planting. Earthing up I think has a big impact on yield too.
We’ve generously given you a bed in our allotment. What five plants would you grow?
SS: For me it has to be things we like to eat as a family or the effort is pointless. And as a working mum it has to be crops that are not too labour intensive. So apologies if this isn’t too unusual a list. It is a yummy one though.
- Potatoes – because I love them freshly dug and boiled with lashings of butter. I particularly like the flavour of some of the salad potatoes such as Pink Fir Apple.
- Courgettes – because they are so easy to grow and so generous in their yield.
- Runner Beans – are just heaven to eat, and again crop so kindly and can be wonderfully un-stringy if you water them well.
- Salad Leaves – cut and come again leaves, dead easy and you can sow in stages for a continuous summer crop.
- Tomatoes – especially the little cherry tomatoes that are so sweet and you can just pop in your mouth or roast with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a truly wonderful accompaniment to steak or fish.
That’s my 5 but if you let me have your allotment for a little longer I will plant:
- Asparagus – for the long term, especially as mice have attacked mine in my garden, so I need a new spot.
- Soft fruit – lots of it, raspberries both Summer and Autumn fruiting varieties, and a host of currants for summer puddings.
- Flowers – to cut and bring into the house such as Gladioli, Dahlias, Sweet Peas and Carnations.
- Herbs – in abundance.
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