Owners and managers from garden centers around the country made the trip to Burlington, Vt., September 18-21 for the 2017 Garden Center Group Fall Event. Attendees were eager to learn from one another through group workshops and discussions, as well as through tours of local retail businesses.
Throughout the third day of the event, the tour group visited four garden centers in the region, seeing first-hand what makes each Vermont retailer unique.
Stop #1: Claussen’s Florist, Greenhouse & Perennial Farm in Colchester, Vt.
- Founded in 1972
- Divisions: 50 percent retail, 5 percent florist, 45 percent wholesale
- Around 26 year-round employees, up to 50 in spring
- Size: 11 acres (9 acres retail)
- All soil produced in-house
Mum season was in full swing at Claussen's, with displays packed full of the tender perennials dominating the store's outdoor retail area. The growing department at Claussen's produces about 40,000 six-inch pots per year and grows 95 percent of the green goods sold at the store.
At the front of the facility, rows of strong, vibrant potted perennials are complemented by a wide selection of fall-themed decor in a cozy but navigable secondary retail building. Retail displays store-wide effectively communicate the company's growing expertise, reflected by the impressively healthy plant stock on display.
Growing is a big focus at Claussen's, with an emphasis on using biological pest controls whenever possible. The greenhouse operation is roughly 95 percent chemical-free. "It’s all about prevention and catching it all before it crops up," says grower Lori King.
An unusual sight at grower-retailers, Claussen's has its own solar panel array set up in the rear of the facility, which produces around $2,500 in electricity per month. The panels were installed on a payment plan with help from a federal tax credit.
Event attendee Emelie McDaniel, of Red Barn Garden Center in Austin, Texas, said she was impressed by the plant quality on display at Claussen's, as well as the store's general layout.
"I really did like the flow at Claussen’s, the way it felt so relaxing to just walk through there and how every single thing was so perfect," McDaniel says. "The plants were perfect and you could tell that there was a lot of effort going into that look. All of the plant material there was so incredible."
Stop #2: Gardener’s Supply Company, Intervale location in Burlington, Vt.
- Founded in 1983
- Divisions: 95 percent retail, 5 percent wholesale
- Four full-time employees, one part-time year-round, 10 full/part time seasonal
- Size: 2 acres retail
- 100 percent employee owned
Both locations of Gardener's Supply Company feature several home improvement departments, including kitchenware, cookbooks and more.
This location of the Gardener's Supply Company is adjacent to a community garden and public farm in a Burlington area known as the Intervale. The community-oriented growing spirit of the Intervale is reflected in the Gardener's Supply Company business model. An employee stock ownership program was launched in 1987, and employee ownership of the company is 100 percent as of 2009.
Gardener's Supply Company's Intervale store is characterized by strong hard goods, giftware and mulch/soil departments. There's also an entire section dedicated to sustainable garlic, as well as pickling and canning kits and supplies. A separate "housewares" room includes herbs, appliances and kitchen implements.
The company also offers a guarantee on plant stock, with exceptions for water plants, fruit-bearing plants and others.
Stop #3: Gardener’s Supply Company, Williston location – Williston, Vt.
- Location opened in 2008
- Divisions: 70 percent retail, 30 percent wholesale
- 15 year-round employees, three part-time year-round, 45 full/part-time seasonal, five full-time office staff
- Size: 10 acres
- In store restaurant - "Garden of Eatin' Cafe"
Although the two Gardener's Supply Company locations share a somewhat similar product mix and overall store atmosphere, they are set apart by some specific specialties and amenities.
Being the larger of the two locations, the Williston store boasts a sprawling outdoor nursery and perennial sales area, with an adjacent playground for young visitors. The Garden of Eatin' Cafe, Vermont's only greenhouse cafe, serves a selection of sandwiches, salads, soups, quiche and more.
There's also an on-site outlet section, where returned merchandise is sold at a discount.
Stop #4: Horsford Gardens & Nursery in Charlotte, Vt.
- In business for 124 years
- Divisions: 28 percent retail, 44 percent landscape, 28 percent wholesale
- Three year-round employees, 15 full-time seasonal, one part-time seasonal
- Size: 42 acres
- 140-year-old horse chestnut tree on property
Horsford Gardens & Nursery embraces it long history as a Vermont grower, and these roots are apparent in the homey, farm-like atmosphere of the growing fields and display gardens. Signage and tags are minimal, emphasizing the plants themselves and natural setting they create.
Shopping at Horsford is an almost entirely outdoor affair. With a 400-square-foot garden center building containing bulbs, tools and decor, with the vast majority of plant stock arrayed in rows outside.
A windmill on the Horsford property completes the farm-style presentation and provides a portion of the power needed by the company's landscaping office.
Whether gaining inspiration from store tours or comparing experiences with other retailers, garden center industry professionals came away from The Fall Event with valuable knowledge and insights. McDaniel says the event works as well as it does due to the cooperative nature of the Garden Center Group.
"That’s one of the things that’s really great about this group," McDaniel says. "Everybody is willing to share everything and that’s really the most valuable thing to me about being a group member – the openness of the group and the willingness to share solutions."
Pictured above, the storefront of Claussen’s Florist, Greenhouse & Perennial Farm. All photos by Conner Howard.