The San Francisco approach to selling plants

2013_07030107During 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.  2013_07010335Whilst 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 2013_07010342have 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.


24 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh Helen I LOVE this post on so many levels! First of your quoting what Annie said about selling plants in flower! I watch people grabbing plants in nurseries here and it’s always what’s flowering even when there are other plants in bud just down the row. Also the whole concept of nurseries putting the fun back in gardening. Let’s face it this isn’t heart surgery, it should be FUN. I have a friend with the motto “there is no guilt in the garden” indeed…

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Loree
      Exactly I get very irritated with all the seriousness around gardening.

  2. Gwen says:

    Helen. I love Annie’s Annuals as well. Have visited twice and each time it has got better. Such an exuberance of planting, it quite takes my breath away each time I’ve visited. It is in an odd area, but it is cheap and is why my favourite pelargonium and geranium nursery is just around the corner from Annie’s. Thanks for the info on Flora Grubbs – will try to fit that in next time.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Gwen
      How do you get your plants back to the UK? I didn’t think we could bring plants back?

  3. Desert Dweller says:

    Everything you said affected me, too, but perhaps better. Annie’s Annuals’ bubble machine and music was so surreal, it was only my upcoming move that restrained me (where will I put that?). Until I got to Flora Grubb, and I couldn’t take it anymore, as I cannot resist subtropical elegance…that purchase is on my new patio! I think it’s about the ambiance and possibility…FG’s cafe is better than many others I’ve seen, not to mention the colors and contrasts. Design on speed yet relaxed, would be my guess, for they or Annie’s Annuals.

    It is barely 20c mid-afternoon in El Paso right now w/ showers, as I write this.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi David
      20C!! still in the high 20s/low 30s here – very out of character and not very enjoyable

  4. Pam/Digging says:

    Great post, Helen! It’s intriguing to hear about the differences in nurseries between the U.S. and the U.K. I think Annie’s and FG are exceptional nurseries, and not necessarily representative of how it’s done elsewhere in the U.S. That said, Austin is very lucky to have a handful of plant-centric, independent nurseries too, and a sense of play is very much in evidence here as well. It’s strange to me that English garden centers should be so serious and stuffy when the British people are known for their quirky, dry sense of humor.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Pam
      Its interesting the perception other people have of the British having a dry and quirky sense of humour. Certainly our comedies are like that but generally I dont think everyone is like that. I beleive there is a degree of elitism within some horticultural circles in the UK and certainly some people get far too wound up about things like pruning etc. That is why I think Carol Klein, who Dee and Linda were raving about, is so popular generally as she has shown people that its Ok to have a go and enjoy your plants.

  5. kininvie says:

    Fascinating post, Helen. The fact is that it’s almost impossible for the small specialist nurseries in the UK to do more than break even. No wonder they have to diversify into ceramics and what-have you. You are right though, that the whole business of buying plants is full of a kind of mystery, combined with a degree of snobbery, which puts customers straight into a position of inferiority, so they buiy whatever looks colourful. It’s not helped by the big chains selling stuff that is often completely wrong for the local climate or soil type – so the expensive plants die, and the novice gardener thinks it must be her fault, and is put off further.
    I can’t help but think that we bloggers can do a lot to change these unfortunate habits….

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi kininvie
      I agree and understand that it is almost impossible for specialist nurseries in the Uk to break even but if we reduced the amount we imported and gardeners were prepared to pay more for their plants this would help change the situation.

      There is an excellent plant centre near me, small, independent with a knowledgeable owner. I know she buys some in from abroad but the quality and range of plants she offers is outstanding. Everything is well cared for. I have bought everything from trees to cyclamen from her. The centre is open all year round, there are no nick nacks etc and there is always a customer there when you turn up. So it can be done with some hard work and expertise

  6. Loved your post about Annie’s! I agree that selling with a lot of whimsy and fun helps sell more plants, but what I liked about Annie’s was the very informative and helpful staff.

  7. Interesting take on these nurseries Helen…here in my little part of the US our local nurseries just sell plants in row after row of outside and greenhouse spaces and you certainly can celebrate the plants.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Donna
      Garden centres here argue that they have to diversify to survive hence all the other non-gardening stuff. Last year when we had so much rain I can see their arguement but there are other plant centres, albeit it few and small, that survive due to their reputation rather than the variety of stuff they sell

  8. Yes, it’s very interesting to hear the UK perspective on US nurseries/garden centers. Perhaps one day you’ll give us a virtual tour of a garden center near you? Consider a “compare and contrast” post with Annie’s or FG? Because the British are so keen on gardening, I always imagine British garden centers to be filled with a wide variety of interesting species and cultivars–I imagine the run-of-the-mill UK garden center to be similar to our more niche, independent nurseries–but perhaps that’s just my assumption.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi MHM
      I would say that British garden centres are rarely filled with interesting species and cultivars. There are one or two exceptions but they are exactly that exceptions. I have a plant centre close to me that is an independent, small but full of fab plants and has a very knowledgeable owner. They sell plants, plants and plants and nothing else apart from the odd bag of compost. They are open all year and there is always a couple of customers there even in the winter due to their excellent reputation. So it can be done

  9. Jean says:

    I loved the two nurseries we visited but most especially Annie’s. It is so evident that they are selling to gardeners, not “exterior designers.” I’ve been to two nurseries in Britain, the one at Wisley House and Chelsea Gardener (with Victoria). Are they typical of the stuffy ones you speak of?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Jean
      I havent visited the nurseries you mention but I suspect they are more the exception than the rule if Victoria took you there. Nurseries in the Uk tend to be small and attract the more serious gardener. The majority of gardeners visit garden centres which are often owned by large chains so there is no regionality. They buy in from Europe and the selection is reduced.

  10. Just wanted to say, great post. I looked at Annie’s Annuals website, it looks a fantastic place.

  11. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Sounds fun and colourful! A pity my ‘non gardening’ daughter who has been in US and San Fran at moment can’t give me a first hand report!

  12. Oh my, Helen, you should show them pics of Dobbies…with the furniture, cafe, clothing, books, and etc. LOL. I hear, however, Felder Rushing is spending quite a bit of time in the UK. Perhaps things are about to change.

  13. Cathy says:

    Really enjoyed reading this post and all the comments, Helen – certainly makes you think, so thanks for posting

  14. Anna says:

    Could not agree with your sentiments more Helen. Our originally small, friendly and individual local garden centre has expanded over the years and is now akin to a soulless supermarket, where plants are no longer centre stage. As you suggest buying plants, seeds and other garden related stuff should be fun. We are just back from a holiday in France where we visited a garden festival. Some of the ‘gardens’ made us laugh aloud but more importantly had the same effect on children. Our garden centres should made more effort to engage and inspire customers of all ages – today’s customers are tomorrow’s customers.

  15. Helen Johnstone says:

    Comment from Anna at Green Tapestry ( who is having problem loading her comment
    Could not agree with your sentiments more Helen. Our originally small, friendly and individual local garden centre has expanded over the years and is now akin to a soulless supermarket, where plants are no longer centre stage. As you suggest buying plants, seeds and other garden related stuff should be fun. We are just back from a holiday in France where we visited a garden festival. Some of the ‘gardens’ made us laugh aloud but more importantly had the same effect on children. Our garden centres should made more effort to engage and inspire customers of all ages – today’s customers are tomorrow’s customers.

  16. Gardening is art, it is life. It should be both quiet contemplation and laughing until your stomach hurts and the milk snorts out through your nose. Gardens are a big helping of what you need most at that moment; either solitude or outrageously loud color and joy. Annie’s is one perfect moment among many perfect moments. You found an amazing treasure…congratulations; maybe you also found a little bit about yourself.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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