In 2020, independent garden centers on Garden Center’s Top 100 List saw a big bump in revenue and we welcomed a few new names as well. We can’t wait to see what next year’s list will hold. If you’d like to see your company on next year’s list, simply visit gardencentermag.com/form/top100 and fill out the quick survey.
#49 ON THE TOP 100 LIST
When we spoke with Nicole Bent, president of Shelmerdine Garden Centre, the Canadian IGC was in the midst of a province-wide shutdown. Even businesses deemed essential in the spring, like IGCs, are barred from selling any non-essential goods.
“When we heard that, we closed our doors,” she says. “It’s Christmas, we can’t rely on seed sales.”
Shelmerdine is a destination garden center outside Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. Much of Bent’s marketing is directed toward city dwellers. In fact, the IGC’s robust online store was designed mainly as a showcase to convince Winnipeggers to make the drive out of the city to the store. However, it was quite handy to have the infrastructure for an online store already in place. This year, when the pandemic forced many businesses to close their doors and change their operating procedures, they were scrambling to build a system like Shelmerdine’s.
“Once we closed due to COVID, it was, ‘Thank God we had this website already in place,’ so we could just start selling online,” she says.
Bent gets a lot of questions from other IGC owners about her site. She’s hands-on in every aspect of Shelmerdine’s web presence.
“It’s kind of my baby, to be honest with you,” she says. “I design the home page. I write the copy. I pick the colors. So it’s not an accident. A lot of hard work goes into it, and it has a consistent set of design eyes looking at it and planning it. If you want to have a strong web and brand presence, you have to be prepared to put the work into it and to be consistent with it and to invest in it too.”
It’s been a struggle to populate the online store with more and more items that are stocked in the brick-and-mortar store, but Bent believes the effort will pay off as customer behaviors change.
“Even when we are allowed to reopen, I feel that people will be more comfortable placing online orders with us,” she says. “I think that that arm of our business will remain strong now that people are used to the service.”
Shelmerdine Garden Centre set up an online form where customers can order Christmas trees, and make a few requests (i.e. skinny/wide).
A year of strong sales
Despite all the challenges, 2020 has been Shelmerdine’s strongest year yet in terms of sales. In the spring, seeds, tomato plants and anything to do with vegetable gardening was king.
“I consider this a blessing for the horticultural industry because it literally took a pandemic to get people into gardening,” she says. “It’s been there all the time, and I believe that research is showing anybody that starts gardening now intends to continue.”
In the 2020 Christmas season, greenery and poinsettias have been strong sellers. Looking at shopping trends, Bent sees customers returning to basics and the traditional comforts of home.
“People can do without fancy soaps and candles, but they can’t do without their Christmas tree,” she says.
The IGC has been innovative in developing ways to keep the business rolling. Even though customers aren’t able to shop for their traditional Christmas tree like they would in a normal year, Bent set up a special order form with detailed instructions explaining the seven-step process culminating with contactless curbside service or delivery. While it’s a little nerve-wracking to tell customers they can’t pick out their own trees this year, shoppers have been grateful that the business is still open to serve them at all. The phone has been ringing off the hook and Shelmerdine’s online form has been getting a lot of traction as well. It’s another way 2020 has been unique.
“I tell people, ‘When you get the tree home, it’s like opening a present,’” Bent says.
Building a strong brand
Another factor that differentiates Shelmerdine from other IGCs is the high level of quality photography on display. Bent insisted on a “no stock photos” policy everywhere, from social media to the online store. While stock photos get the message across, they aren’t doing your brand any favors.
“They’re actually our photographs of our products, our store, our team,” she says. “And that really does help to improve your brand presence and tell a story about who you are.”
Bent says one of Shelmerdine’s keys to success is the work its owners put into building the company’s culture. That culture includes charitable donations and fundraisers to help its community and internal initiatives to support its team. Even though the challenges of COVID-19, Shelmerdine has taken steps to keep a positive workplace, steps rewarded by excellent staff retention.
“Our internal motto is ‘Work hard and be nice,’” Bent says. “And at the end of the day, I feel that if you do those two things, you’ve had a successful day here at Shelmerdine.”
#84 ON THE TOP 100 LIST
Rosedale Nurseries has been providing stellar plants to the greater New York Metropolitan area, the Hudson Valley, western Connecticut and northern New Jersey since 1898. The IGC is known for its wide selection and carries nearly 1,000 different varieties of hardy ornamental plants in multiple sizes.
The full-service landscape and retail nursery is headquartered in Hawthorne, New York, with 15 acres at that location and another 400 acres of growing fields about an hour away. With all of that growing space, Rosedale is able to provide larger plant material for customers and its own landscape department.
Pat Colwell is the co-general manager, and she’s been with Rosedale for 31 years. The IGC is well-located, 30 miles outside New York City, conveniently accessible by highway. Many of Rosedale’s customers are able to find them quite easily, whether they’re apartment dwellers looking for the latest hip houseplant or New Yorkers looking to outfit their escape from the city with beautiful trees and shrubs.
“Houseplants definitely are on the rise, but many of our customers have second homes,” she says. “So whenever they’re leaving the city on a Friday afternoon, they can stop by Rosedale on their way to their country home.”
A stellar staff
Colwell says one of the keys to Rosedale’s success is the employees the IGC has hired. Some of those employees took an unusual pathway to hiring.
Because one of the key elements that help an IGC stand out is the knowledge base it brings to its customers, you want to offer shoppers exceptional plant knowledge. Want to know where to find them? Here’s a clue: They’re already in your store. They’re just paying you instead of you paying them. Many of Rosedale’s top employees were plucked from its pool of customers. Some of the very best customers you have may be master gardeners, walking repositories of plant facts who have planted (and killed) hundreds or thousands of plants over their lives. They’re well-suited to answering questions from novice gardeners.
“We like to educate our customers because that way they’re successful in whatever they’re trying to accomplish and we want people to be successful, so they come back,” Colwell says.
Colwell was a customer first, too. She had her own garden business and loved shopping at Rosedale because of the assortment and quality of the plants. She started as a part-time employee and was promoted to co-manager. Her background as a painter and degree in fine art translate well to horticulture and have helped with everything from garden design to store displays.
“A lot of artists become gardeners,” she says. “You learn the same principles in your art classes that you use in your garden design — dealing with texture and color. It’s a natural progression.”
Safe and easy shopping
Another reason Rosedale has been successful is the effort put into making it easy for customers to shop in the sales yard. The yard is divided into blocks by plant material type — evergreens, flowering shrubs, etc. Each block is assigned a salesperson who is responsible for stocking, maintaining it, signage and answering availability questions.
COVID-19 compliance is one of the biggest challenges to any business at the moment and Colwell doesn’t expect that to change right away. She believes the IGC will still be taking precautions for months, even after the vaccine arrives.
The IGC shut down for a few weeks in April, not for a state-mandated shutdown, but to find a way for its employees to work in a safe and comfortable environment. When Rosedale re-opened May 1 with plexiglass at the counters and social distancing marks on the floor, a stampede of eager plant lovers was waiting.
“We just had lines out the door from the garden center, day after day,” she says.
Curbside service and delivery has been a constant since they re-opened. It’s been a record-breaking year, Colwell says, with seed sales and vegetable gardening leading the way. But the momentum has continued as the fall coronavirus surge kept people isolating in their homes, once again looking to their garden center for ideas to beautify the space in which they’re spending so much time.
“We’re finding with our Christmas sales, people are coming in early, buying the tree, wreaths, and really decorating,” she says. “They’re at home. What else are they doing?”
Colwell has noticed an influx of new gardeners throughout 2020, and many of the faces she’s seen above the masks have been noticeably younger. As much as 2020 was a rough year for many people, she thinks the increase in interest in gardening, particularly from the younger generation is a good sign for the overall health of the industry.
“We’re so lucky to be in this industry,” she says. “I’ve been in it for decades. I’ve worked here for 31 years and I still love what I do.”
#17 ON THE TOP 100 LIST
With a farm-to-table restaurant, extravagant holiday boutique and stunning seasonal plant displays, Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, California, is a destination garden center.
The IGC was founded by Roger McKinnon in 1965, but five years later, his friend Gavin Herbert Sr. purchased the business and moved it from Costa Mesa, California, to Corona de Mar. That’s where “the heart and soul of the company developed,” according to the garden center.
Throughout the years, Herbert Sr. established friendships with some of Orange County’s most famous names — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne — and even developed connections with Disney.
Now the garden center is run by Herbert’s son, Gavin Herbert Jr., who describes the business as “half garden center and half lifestyle with patio furniture and home décor.” The garden center sits on 5 and a half acres, with 10,000 feet of inside space dedicated to lifestyle, and the remaining land consumed by the nursery and parking.
An eclectic clientele
Since the garden center is “in too many businesses,” as Herbert Jr. says, it’s tricky to pinpoint their target audience. And while COVID-19 has attracted new customers this year — like many IGCs — he describes the regular gardening audience as “the passionate gardener that’s looking for unusual and different stuff, 80-85% of which are female, some with college education and typically north of 45 years old.”
But Herbert Jr. says clientele is quickly changing and so are the products they like. According to him, millennials don’t like the brands baby boomers like, and vice versa. Along with those customers, Herbert Jr. also describes the “high-volume, low price kind of guy” and the “extreme, specialty retailer that likes to experience customer service.” But the garden center is sure to have products for everyone.
Although the garden center attracted new plant enthusiasts, Herbert Jr. says sales did “dip” around March and April when the pandemic first began. Since they were considered essential, however, newcomers began coming in, which shot plant sales up 50%, soil sales up 70% and pot sales up 60%. Herbert Jr. connects that to the rising interest in container and edible gardening. Their rose and succulent categories continue to do well in California’s dry climate as well.
Not only did the garden center see a spike in plant sales, they are seeing sales increase during the latter part of the year, which is not out of the ordinary for them.
Roger’s Gardens’ busiest months are October, November and December, which make up two-thirds of their annual sales, Herbert Jr. says. Since Southern California has warmer weather year-round, these sales are holiday-driven.
“I think more people naturally shop for Christmas [and other holidays] than garden,” Herbert Jr. says. “Plus, no one here’s really doing holiday stuff so it draws people from a much bigger radius. My gardening customers are maybe 5 to 15 miles away, but when we do holiday, we get customers from Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside. That may only be 40 miles away, but it’s about an hour and a half with traffic.”
While COVID-19 has affected a lot of this year’s favorite pastimes, Herbert Jr. says the garden center is already “up considerably this year from last year.” He connects that to people wanting more normalcy in their lives.
“The fourth quarter of the year is always fun for everyone because there are holidays almost every other month,” Herbert Jr. says. “But especially now, with things as limited as they are, keeping something like holidays normal is a big deal.” As he drove around in October, Herbert Jr. says he saw a lot of homes decorated for Halloween, even though they may not be welcoming trick-or-treaters.
And when we spoke to Herbert Jr in October, he said people were starting to decorate for Christmas. “That’s telling me that even though people may not trick-or-treat or do typical Christmas events, they’re still doing the traditional deals to keep the rhythm at home,” he says.
He also associates the holiday décor spike to a change in needs. Before, Herbert Jr. says customers would spend 90 to 95% of their shopping on basic needs. But thanks to at-home delivery services, their free time is now spent on “experimental items and retail experiences.”
Spectacular holiday displays
Each year, Roger’s Gardens is “experimental” with its store displays. This year’s Halloween Boutique inspiration was pirates, so staff built a pirate ship and positioned it to protrude from the entrance as though customers were walking into a ship. The holiday section was separated into “below deck” and “underwater” departments so customers can shop for the corresponding home décor. They even hired a Johnny Depp impersonator from a Los Angeles-based look-alike company to portray Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
For Christmas, the garden center has curated hand-painted glass ornaments from Europe, diverse nutcracker options and whimsical Santas, along with other items that combine traditional themes and contemporary elements. And although the garden center sources some items from domestic and international markets, for the past few years, Herbert Jr. has looked to Germany to supply their custom-colored and customer-designed Christmas products.
“It just feels good to know nobody will have our product,” he says.
Another service that sets the IGC apart is the farm-to-fork restaurant they introduced about four years ago. Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens serves the season’s freshest flavors to customers.
In 2019, OpenTable, a restaurant reservation and review service, even rated the eatery as one of the Top 50 restaurants for vegetarians in America, and one of 100 Best al fresco and scenic restaurants in America in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Why did Roger’s Gardens incorporate dining into its services? While their fourth quarter is the busiest, the year-round garden center needed something to offset the slower months. Plus, it attracted non-gardeners.
“Opening Farmhouse changed business dramatically,” Herbert Jr. says. “First, there’s a whole bunch of people that don’t garden, so they wouldn’t necessarily come to Roger’s Gardens and now they do. They’ve discovered a whole other part of our businesses — the garden center and lifestyle component. That created more buzz around the brand as a whole.”
The chef at Farmhouse also creates a lot of buzz. Herbert Jr. says he was “lucky” to find Chef Rich Mead because he has “quite a name for himself in the farm-to-table industry.” With 35 years of experience, Chef Mead has cultivated a relationship with organic farms that allow for the fresh taste of local seasonings, ingredients and specially grown vegetables that customers love. A quick look at its Yelp review shows a four-star rating and repeat customers.
One unique aspect to the restaurant — aside from its location in a garden center — is its connection to Disney. In the mid-1970s, Roger’s Gardens acquired Disneyland’s original Magnolia Park Bandstand and used it for Christmas shows, Santa visits and more. Now, it serves as a special place for customers to dine within the Farmhouse.
Roger’s Gardens also likes to go green with its comprehensive sustainability programs and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of selling organic products. They conserve energy by using LED products, skylights and programmable timers to reduce electricity consumption from lighting by 35%. They refrain from using plastic bags and trunk liners, and even reuse and recycle empty plastic plant containers that customers drop off. Their entire outdoor store has been converted to a low-water, “California Friendly” garden that promotes biodiversity.
Advice to other IGCS
From years of personal history to innovation, adaptation, personalization and holiday spirit, Roger’s Gardens has proven its position as an industry leader. As for other garden centers looking to implement holiday décor and events, Herbert Jr. says to “start slow, let your customers know and build from there.” In regards to the changing — and sometimes challenging — industry, he says IGCs will always be in favor and will be successful as long as they offer unique and differentiated items that appeal to their customers.
The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is returning to the Top 100 List at No. 65. This second-generation garden center is considered travel-worthy and drives customers from all over, including London. It offers a host of gift and garden items and even has homemade treats readily available for purchase. Learn more about them in the interview with Owner Dave Van Raay here.
Garden Center magazine: How does The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre set itself apart from others?
Dave Van Raay: One of the things that we pride ourselves on is our appearance — the way our garden center stands out. I’d also like to think we’re a destination garden center. We’ve had people actually visit from far away, even out of the country. Most customers come because their friends bring them to our store and the cycle continues. It’s kind of funny when people, especially from Europe, visit and say ‘My friend brought us to your store’ And and I say, ‘We welcome you to our garden center.’ They look at me and say ‘Well, you’re not a garden center.’ I think it’s because we have so much to offer but I do believe we are a garden center.
We have lots and lots of plants, but when you first walk into our store, it is quite heavily geared to a gift and gardening boutique and everything to do with outdoor décor. You don’t really see the plants until you go to the back, which is where our annual greenhouses, along with our perennials, shrubs and trees are. So upon first impression, it does look more like a garden gift store, I suppose.
GC: How has the garden center adapted to COVID-19?
DV: Well, we’ve made a lot of changes and I consider those changes to be the main reason for our business success this year. More so than just the fact that, ‘Oh, everybody’s starting to garden.’ We’ve readapted to a more spacious environment, even as far as Christmas goes. We have two large greenhouses which are about 5,000 to 6,000 square feet that we opened up and put furnaces in. That’s allowed us to put our Christmasland out there. We have no aisles less than 5 or 6 feet wide and of course we’ve done a ton of signage, and spent a lot of money on educating our staff and customers on protocols to make it a safe environment. We’ve had no incidents, so we’ve been lucky that way and I think we’ve done an excellent job.
GC: We see that you have a waffle bar. How did that come about, and how has the response from customers been?
DV: My wife Sue and I went to Bruges, Belgium, about three or four years ago. As I was walking around, I found a waffle bar, and it’s not your typical waffle bar. It’s more of a treat waffle and it’s called a liege waffle, which is considered a dessert in Belgium. They’re like a sugar waffle and are made from pearl sugar.
What they do is, they serve this waffle to you and top it with whipped cream, strawberries, chocolate, sprinkles and caramel — anything you want. When I had one of those, I said I was going to have this at the nursery one day because they were serving about 1,500 waffles a day. Ours is called Opa’s Waffle Bar, but we can only serve takeout waffles now. We also do all in-house homemade fresh fudge which does well too, but when the waffles are baking, the whole place smells amazing.
GC: How do you hope The Glasshouse Nursery & Garden Centre impacts your customers?
DV: I am glad to think that it impacts them in a positive way. I think it makes people happy. I’ve talked to so many people who have careers that are related to customer service, but in a different way. We’re involved in customer service, but when our customers come through the door, the thing is, we have to keep them happy because they came happy. And I think we’ve done a great job at making them even happier.
GC: Speaking of Christmasland, how does that impact your staff and customers?DV: We’re big on Christmas and have actually seen a 25% increase this year. We decorate — and decorate a lot! As far as product line goes, we are fresh and new every year. We do not like to put the same old thing up each year. We truly do try to reinvent and add a new look of the store to try and give it a nice unique appeal from year to year so it gives people a reason to come back. I think that’s the reason that we do get a lot of travelers from a distance. It also keeps our staff busy. One of the comments that we do get from the staff is that they really look forward to the season and they just love it. They’re all dressed in their Christmas red and you can feel the good vibes when you walk through the place. It’s quite invigorating.
NEW TO THE TOP 100 LIST!
Enchanted Gardens in Richmond, Texas, is making its debut on the Top 100 List at No. 83. The IGC recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and has grown into a community leader. It offers a wide array of products, holds educational events, and sponsors school gardens and multiple neighborhood initiatives. Learn more about them in the interview with Owner Joey Lenderman and Operations Manager Peggy May below.
Garden Center magazine: How has Enchanted Gardens grown over the years and what do you offer your customers?
Joey Lenderman: Next year will be our 26th anniversary. When we started, we were out in the middle of nowhere, and now everything is just growing like crazy in our area. We’ve been really fortunate. We are a full-service garden center. We get all different types of run-of-the-mill plants, as well as unique and collectible plants. We have a great selection of pottery, statuary trees, custom containers, and probably the best selection of herbs and vegetables, annuals and perennials around. We grow most of those in our own greenhouses.
GC: How has Enchanted Gardens gotten creative and stayed connected with customers during the COVID-19 outbreak?
JL: A couple of the folks here came up with an Instagram and Facebook deal called #BeatTheBoredomKit for kids. Every week, we’d come up with something different and people would pick up “the boredom kit” to take home and do an activity with their kids.
GC: Enchanted Gardens is heavily involved in the community. Why is that important to the IGC?
JL: This is our community. This is where we all live, and we want it to thrive and want everyone to be successful. So we always support those in need and always share our love of nature and being outside.
Peggy May: Joey’s son is also autistic, and Joey had the idea to have this thing called a #MilkweedMovement to give back to local nonprofits and support monarch conservation. We gave all the profits of our milkweed to three different organizations who are involved in helping people with disabilities. We donated over $18,000 last year, and will be donating to special needs-based organizations again this year.
GC: How else does Enchanted Gardens give back to the community and how did you support your customers during the pandemic?
PM: When COVID hit and restaurants closed for dine-in, Joey had me order from surrounding restaurants for the staff to make sure everybody had some business. There’s also an organization called Lunches of Love that aims to end childhood hunger. Some kids were home and didn’t have any food to eat and Joey funded them for a month. There was also a hand sanitizer initiative from our county that was supposed to go for a while, but funding was pulled from it. So Joey and some other business people got together and funded it for about a week.
JL: The sheriff’s department used to give away hand sanitizer to a 1,000 or 2,000 people a day until they ran out of supplies. When I heard that, a buddy of mine and I talked to the sheriff and offered to help out. We did enough to get them about probably 10,000 bottles of sanitizer.
PM: Joey also had this great idea to help feed families outside of the Lunches of Love program. We had so many people get scared about running out of food, so they were starting to garden and of course, had no experience. When things were getting too big for the 4-inch containers, Joey started sizing vegetables up into larger containers.
We offered 1 gallons, 3 gallons, 15 gallons, pretty much almost full-grown vegetable plants, for folks that didn’t have a green thumb. We had people standing in line for it. It was phenomenal.
We also have a lot of events here for the community. We teach people how to do raised garden beds, how to grow citrus, tomatoes, vegetables, herbs — we have lots of helpful seminars and host have book signings, all of which has been surely missed during the pandemic.
GC: How do you hope Enchanted Gardens impacts your customers?
JL: We want our customers to have a wonderful experience when they're shopping here and take that home with them and continue that experience. We hope they find all the information, knowledge and inspiration to become successful gardeners and just be happy and live a great life. With lots of these folks — especially nowadays — we are the only real people that they see. Sometimes they may stay quarantined in their home and eventually visit just because we're outside, are a safe place and have lots of nice people around. There's a lot of people that just don't get to interact with others and we just want to be here for them whenever we can. We found ourselves being a lot of counselors during COVID.