During the Garden Bloggers Fling in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago we visited two nurseries. When I saw these on the itinerary I was a little down as to make a plantaholic visit a nursery when they couldn’t buy any plants to take home to the UK seemed a bit mean. Oh well, I thought I would wander around and try not to covert too much and then we would be off to the next garden.
I was wrong. Both of the nurseries/plant centres were eye-opening. Their approach to selling plants was very different to the UK and in Annie’s Annuals case quite breath-taking. I was so distracted by this that I didn’t really look closely at the plants.
Annie’s Annuals was founded 20 years ago and was in its third home. I had been warned by one of my fellow attendees that it was in rather a run down part of San Francisco but then as Annie herself said the land was cheaper. I don’t think I have ever visited a nursery with barbed wire around the top of the fence! The colour hits you before you have entered and not only colour but mad eccentric ornaments and ephemera. It’s like a nursery on speed. Annie’s approach is to grow plants – perennials and shrubs as well as annuals – that perform year on year. All the plants are grown on site and they acquire seeds from all over the world growing them for a number of years before they introduce them to the nursery. Whilst the nursery was colourful it was mainly from the displays of mature plants and ornamentation rather than the plants for sale. Annie told us during her enthusiastic welcome that if there are plants in flower for sale it’s because they grew too many; they want people to buy the plants before they flower so they get the best of them and are inspired and enthused to grow more. This made me smile because I know from many a plant sale that it is the plants in flower that go first and anything without a flower tends to sit waiting for a more knowing gardener to come along.
Victoria and I were quite entranced with the nursery. As well as the approach to plants there was funky rock music playing and a bubble machine. We had the giggles imagining the reaction of UK gardeners if this approach was transplanted to the home counties. But then why not, if you found the right location and targeted the right market maybe this is the sort of injection the UK nurseries need, it’s certainly would improve many garden centres. Instead of garden centres filling their space with various food, book and gift outlets so you can’t find the plants they should consider the whole experience of visiting. If visitors could look at plants and have fun and a laugh at the same time it wouldn’t matter that there wasn’t a gift store or a coffee shop etc. Word would soon spread that if you wanted a different more modern experience this was the place to go.
Our very last stop of the whole weekend was Flora Grubb’s (isn’t that a great name and the owners real name). This plant centre was focussed more on your sub-tropical plants but they were artfully displayed in groups among garden furniture, pots, and other nick nacks so you could see how you could grow them in your own space. Whilst the plants were generally greens and greys the accessories were every colour of the rainbow and it really showed how you could add a different dimension to sub-tropical planting and have some fun. I would say that Flora Grubb’s was a more sophisticated shopping experience there was a coffee shop and lots of nicks nacks for sale but again it was very different to a UK outlet. It hadn’t lost its focus and it was clear to its customers exactly what that focus was – sub-tropical plants.
Both nurseries/plant centres were, to me, fun and they took away that serious ponderous tone we sometimes have to plant buying in the UK. I love plants, I love their diversity and I think it should be celebrated and gardening and plant buying should be fun. I think we are too serious about gardening full stop in this country and I think this discourages some people who are frightened of having a go. This is what I loved about Annie’s Annuals the whole approach was ‘have a go’ put what you want with what you want, see what happens. And this approach is working – when we visited Keeyla Meadow’s garden the next day I noticed that the exuberant planting of her garden was spilling out down the side-walk and into her neighbours. I asked her about this and she put it entirely down to the huge impact Annie’s Annuals was having on gardeners and more importantly non-gardeners in the San Francisco and the surrounding area. Huge praise from a garden designer.
I think there is a lot that could be taken from these nurseries/plant centres and adapted for the UK market. We are at fault in that we aren’t prepared to pay a reasonable price for our plants so the garden centres buy in bulk from Europe bringing in virus and diseases and also reducing the selection of plants. I really believe that we need a change of approach, we need to move forward from garden centres that are more interested in generating income from anything apart from plants and instead we should have places that celebrate the plants and the joy of growing them. I know there are arguments to be made that there isn’t enough money to be made from plants which is why garden centres diversify but I think the big chains have led the way creating what they call ‘destination garden centres’ and the smaller independents feel they need to keep up. I would love to see some independents taking a different route and maybe the approach of the two establishments above, of making the plant the star could inspire them.