1. After 27 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, what continues to inspire you about gardening?
I am often described as an expert in my field, but I see myself still a student in it. You never stop learning. It's exciting to still be learning - every day, observing, even if not actually gardening. I enjoy plants and how the environment responds to them.
2. What have been some of the key learnings from your experiences overseas, having worked in Spain, South Africa and Australia?
There have been some key challenges: Plant supply - in UK & Europe we have a huge diversity of plants. Just in the UK alone there are some 70,000 plants in Plant Finder. In Spain, there are a reasonable level of plants but not the range in the UK. South Africa and Australia are good, but nothing like the UK. Second big challenge is ensuring the watering / irrigation & establishing of plants in hotter climates - low rainfall presents challenges.
3. What advice would you give your younger self if you had the chance?
Looking back, I feel I have had the right mixture of experience in my career, I have taken the right route with no wrong turns. I have in the past questioned whether horticulture was the right career and having done career 'Tests' on websites, they have always come up with the answer that I should be a Gardener, Artist, Designer or Teacher, so ultimately, I believe I have made the right choices along the way. I should have believed more in my choices.
4. What has been the biggest challenge you've faced during your career?
Chelsea Flower Show (in 2016) - pulling off a Main Avenue Garden whilst holding down a full-time job (HG, CPG) and some part time ones too! Coordinating all the growing - buying trips to 4 countries, buying stock from 5, grown on 3 sites in the UK - and ensuring all the thousands of plants were 'Chelsea Ready' at peak perfection for 21st May. Coordinating all aspects of the hard landscaping, adhering to RHS rules, dealing with huge complexity, all within tight time constraints and very close working conditions (220m2) with some 40 in the team.
5. You have spent the last 7 years modernising the design of CPG in London. What advice would you give to a garden centre who might be looking to modernise their store?
Horticulture has woken up to needing to be customer focused, being led by the direct needs of clients. I learnt at CPG that functionality needs to work for space and spatial design was key. When I was first at CPG, we welcomed some 2,000 visitors a year, so designing for 7 years later with some 60,000 visitors the space was key. CPG is a very special garden, so it was crucial to ensure the spirit of the garden was maintained, holding onto the essence of the area, and yet making it accessible. Space changes need to consider other facilities too - gift shop, loos - so it is all about ensuring the fulfilment of customer experience is maintained and that the spirit of the garden is captured.
6. For garden centres looking to inspire their customers, what are your recommendations with regards to finding new and unique products?
How plants are addressed at the Point of Sale. People love plants and gardens, but sometimes don't have the imagination for grouping / pairing them together. In my experience, for nurseries to have seasonal displays with plant combinations already set up will give people ideas. It will inevitably increase sales of plants and give people inspiration too.
Plants - not just from big seed companies or breeders, but ones with a bit of magic. For example, at the same time Geranium 'Rozanne' came out to a big fanfare, a smaller nursery produced Geranium 'Lilac Ice'. Similar parentage and performance but with a pinky / white flower, so keep looking at the peripherals, having contact with the smaller growers for different varieties & products.
Artisan products e.g. pottery, timber and forged iron. Support the local community with locally sourced products.
7. With a significant trend in customers moving to mobile devices for shopping and advice, what impact will online garden retailing have on traditional garden centres, and the horticultural industry as a whole?
In the last 10 years online suppliers, for example Crocus.co.uk has grown enormously and have exceptional customer service. It's a change to keep up with their quality & diversity of offerings. What Garden Centres can offer is the on hand expertise which will be unique - answering questions and managing events. Customers coming to the experts, the human touch is the key.
8. How should garden centres be engaging with the younger generation? Have you seen any great examples of garden centres introducing a new area within the store to attract new audiences?
Lots of products out there to interest the younger generation, for example: sun flower growing kits, equipment, bug catchers. When I was 7 years old, I spent my pocket money at the local nursery and they gave me a junior discount. It worked well! For example, gardening clubs supported by the Garden Centre for children after school - parents use the café and brings many more potential customers into the retail environment. Great engagement with youngsters and overall spending will increase!
9. What top 3 tips would you give to an audience who don't have a garden, but who wish to be involved with the movement towards indoor plant life?
Much of UK horticulture increasingly is being run by volunteers which give individuals great experience and exposure to gardens without having your own garden.
There are 1000's of garden clubs - gaining knowledge plus plant sales / swaps.
The rising trend in house plants - succulents /cacti etc. - don't just visit garden centres, look in Botanic Gardens and what is being grown there under glass and replicate the ideas at home to have more exotic plants than just cacti!
10. Is there anything you think the horticultural industry and garden retailers need to do differently?
Yes. No surprises here, but there is an issue with attracting younger people to work in the industry. It's seen too much of a vocation not a career and pay should be reflected accordingly. The industry should be made more appealing and be well supported with apprenticeships & recognised / supported qualifications. Pay should be increased to make it more in line with other comparable retail industries (e.g. fashion outlets and so on).
11. Congratulations on winning the Garden Journalist of the Year award at the Property Press Awards in May! What's coming up next for you?
I have another 7 more films lined up for Gardener's World coming up for 2017.
My new book 'Revive your Garden' will be published at the end of March 2018.
And on-going, I am being kept busy with garden design & build projects, garden maintenance work, as well as public speaking and overseas tours.
12. What's on your career bucket list?
I would love to be more engaged with plant hunting aspects. There are parts of the world with new plants being discovered and I would love to be in that environment. Places like Patagonia or China: I would relish the adventure and treasure hunting and finding something new.
13. Most memorable moment?
When my first book '365 Days of Colour in Your Garden' went to the top of the best seller list. I was told prior to publishing the book that horticultural publishing was dead, so I was truly astounded to see the book perform in both the UK & European markets and to hold that top position for nearly 2 years. I hope the reason is that it taps into a very particular aspiration for all gardeners, year round colour!
14. Other than gardening, how do you relax / switch off?
I love being in the wild - for example, last summer I spent time in the Cairngorm region - being in an environment with no sign of human activity or presence, is both humbling and overwhelming, as well seeing plants in their natural habitats. For example, seeing Alchemilla alpina growing there was fantastic.
15. You are presenting 3 x 30 minute talks on Monday 11th September at Glee at the NEC, in Birmingham. Can you give us an idea of what you’ll speak about?
1. Threat to bees / wildlife & wider environmental concerns is leading to an expanding interest in eco & organic growing
2. Broadening demographic of those engaging in gardening in its widest sense
3. The broader range of Mediterranean climate zone plants species being available
How to use garden shows to promote your garden centre:
1. Stands, Displays & Sponsorship USP
2. Branding, Giveaways and Discounting
3. Clubs, Membership, Benefits & Services
Ways to engage the youth in horticulture:
1. Make more of the rising trend of youth engaging in "chefing" - vegetables, sourcing, home-grown etc.
2. 'Young Hort' and other representative youth bodies
3. The HTA and The Garden Centre Association (and similar), career shows / events