A tour of 5 independent garden centers in Houston

A tour of 5 independent garden centers in Houston

Highlights from The Fall Event’s bus tour of five very different plant retailers.

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October 11, 2016

Houston, Texas – The Garden Center Group kicked off The Fall Event in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 26, which marked the 16th event for the group, whose focus is to help independent garden centers improve operations and increase sales. Approximately 155 attendees, most of whom are independent garden center owners and staff, attended several informative education sessions and keynotes from industry consultants, including Sid Raisch, Steve Bailey, John Kennedy and Garden Center Group founder Robert Hendrickson.

The goal of The Fall Event, which is organized by Managing Director Danny Summers and Karen Summers, client services coordinator, is to give IGCs an opportunity to share ideas with one another and also hear new ideas and strategies to improve their stores. The week also included a tour of five independent garden centers in the area, all with their own individual niches.

Visit our Facebook page to see the full photo gallery from the event.

The first stop of the day was at Cornelius Nursery, which is owned by Calloway’s Nursery and is one of 19 independent garden centers the company operates throughout Texas. Cornelius has an 80-year history in Houston, and the location the group toured has been there for 55 years. Cornelius was preparing for its annual Fall Harvest Family Day that took place Saturday, Oct. 1, and tour guests, especially from the East Coast and Midwest, noted how full the retailer was and how healthy plants looked.

Many garden centers offer unusual pumpkins, helping them differentiate from the big boxes and grocery stores that only offer orange types, but Cornelius had plentiful offerings in all varieties, not just the common ones. They featured Cinderella, carnival squash and other gourds in many colors, including blue, green and white. Attendees also noted their tropicals department, which has a prominent and large space in the 12,000-square-foot retail space, and included an array of bromeliads. Instead of having rows of shelves throughout the garden center in the home décor department, Cornelius created islands of interest with scenes and vignettes using what looked like restored antique and vintage furniture to spotlight the products.

Cornelius Nursery specializes in carrying a large selection of unusual pumpkins you can't find at grocery or big box stores in the area.

The next stop on the tour featured a business completely devoted to water gardening. Shallow pools line the walkway of Nelson Water Gardens & Nursery and are covered with blooming water lilies and pads. Near the back of the aesthetically pleasing nursery are ponds filled with colocasias and koi. Established trees naturally shade much of the outdoor area of the property, which is also filled with an extraordinary amount of pottery from Vietnam and Bali.

Nelson specializes in disappearing fountains, a top seller, and even has a “proprietary design on reservoirs for the disappearing fountains, which they wholesale,” according to The Garden Center Group. They also merchandised their products in vignette style, creating open-air spaces divided with stone walls but leaving them exposed like a dollhouse, showcasing how even people with small or balcony patios can create outdoor escapes.

Nelson Water Gardens specializes in disappearing fountains, a top seller, and even has a “proprietary design on reservoirs for the disappearing fountains, which they wholesale,” according to The Garden Center Group.

For most garden centers, competition from big boxes is a disappointing reality, and just their mere presence tends to be considered a bad thing in the industry. A Home Depot moved right next door to Plants for All Seasons back in 1999 – customers can see the big orange stripe on the building from the outdoor plant area – but it hasn’t negatively impacted business. In fact, just the opposite is true for the company. After the retail behemoth moved in, the IGC reported a 20 percent increase in sales, according to The Garden Center Group. When Home Depot staff can’t answer customers’ questions or don’t have a specific product or plant, customers go next door to the 44-year-old Plants for All Seasons. The garden center sits on about 4.1 acres, and the owners added a temporary building recently that has extra restrooms and space for meetings and workshops. The company’s potting station is between the indoor and outdoor portions of the property, a space customers are sure to pass through, giving associates the opportunity to interact with visitors.

A Home Depot moving in next door didn't hinder, but helped business at Plants for All Seasons.

Dean and Bernice Warren have created a space customers want to relax in with their business, Warren’s Southern Gardens. Dean, along with staff, built interesting and beautiful destination areas throughout the garden center property, including the tiki-like workshop station in the middle of the nursery area. Palm fronds and cedar posts were used to create the structure, which also doubles as a potting area for employees. Dean says that workshops, especially the Adult Evening Plantings that include adult beverages, have been popular. Warren’s, in addition to the plant staples, also makes custom fire pits in star shapes and sells distressed furniture and other antique items in The Vintage, a small indoor furniture and gardening accessory shop in a building on the property that just opened recently. The Warrens also offer landscape design build services, mulch and rocks, portable buildings and tree services through their sister companies, all with their namesake. Mason the Cockatoo, Warren’s resident bird, entertains guests by dancing and repeating a few words.

Dean Warren uses his design/build background to create structures on the Warren's Southern Gardens property to create destinations and beautiful displays for customers.

The last stop on the tour, Buchanan’s Native Plants, is located in Historic Heights in Houston. Unlike some of the other garden centers that are in developing, expanding areas with room to grow, this historic neighborhood is established, and yards are smaller. The garden center property is also smaller at 1.6 acres, but Buchanan’s uses savvy merchandising, layering products on several levels and organizing it in a way that’s both attractive and shoppable, to make the most of the small space. The 30-year-old business specializes in native plants and organic gardening, but offers perennials, herbs, vegetables, trees, shrubs and roses suited to the Houston climate. Signage was both informative but conversational, allowing customers to navigate the store without hand-holding from staff. For example, signs around hops read "Let's grow some beer!" and "I host the Admiral Butterfly!"

Buchanan's makes the most of its 1.6 acre space with creative merchandising and displaying products at varying heights.

For more, www.thegardencentergroup.com

All photos by Michelle Simakis.