Monkton Elm is a unique garden centre destination based in central Somerset, nestled in the undulating countryside north of Taunton. We caught up with Mike Lind, Managing Director, to find out what has made this family business successful.
What was the origin of the company and when was it started, when did you get involved?
Monkton Elm Garden & Pet Centre was launched in 1982 by my parents-in-law David and Luella Bellman. There has been a nursery on-site since the early 1900s, growing plants, tomatoes and other salad crops, including courgettes, French beans, cucumbers and outdoor runner beans. It also offered everything from fruit trees to roses and shrubs.
Thirty-four years on, it is now one of Somerset’s leading independent, family-run garden centres.
I officially took on the role of Managing Director in September, 2012, but had been working in the business on a part-time basis since January, 2010.
Tell me a little about the goals and ethos of the company?
We aspire to be people’s destination garden centre of choice. Our mission is to share our passion and inspirational ideas for gardens, homes and lifestyle with our customers.
We always aim to offer the widest range and highest quality of plants and gardening accessories and a safe, knowledgeable and informative environment for gardeners of any experience and any age.
Overall we hope to offer a positive experience and a reason for people to return to us.
Who are your main consumers?
Our main consumers are anyone interested in gardening! If we were to be more specific it would be the over 40s as many of them have a bit more time on their hands to do a spot of gardening. However, we’re always keen to encourage people of all ages to take up an interest in horticulture.
When I first joined the garden centre we sold the usual plants, seeds, tools and equipment and we had an on-site café as well as pet and craft departments but as garden centres have evolved they have become more community centric and much more than a garden centre.
We have had to move with the times and while plants are still our core we have expanded our gift range to include homewares and furniture and we also now stock trinkets, clothing, shoes, books, DVDs, gifts and greetings cards.
People want to be able to get everything they need from one place and make a real day out of visiting a garden centre. Not only that, they want somewhere they can grab a coffee or a light snack or bigger meal. They also want somewhere where the kids can run around and since my involvement we have gone from strength to strength and provide a destination for people to visit, thanks to the opening of our 1000sqm Elm Tree restaurant, which seats 350, and new children’s play area.
What do you look for when sourcing new products/plants?
We pride ourselves on our fantastic offering of plants and our expert plant team always source the best quality plants. They spend time visiting growers all over the world, including in Holland, Italy and the UK, to choose our fantastic stock so our customers know they are getting top of the range specimens. They like to choose a mix of customer favourites and some new introductions too and we have built a reputation for offering the finest choice in the Westcountry.
Our shop team regularly visit trade shows and exhibitions across the country, which is where most of our products come from, and they spend time talking to traders and discussing the items. Again, quality is extremely important, we only want the best products for our customers.
Do you find that more and more people are engaging with their outside spaces as extensions of their indoor environment?
Absolutely, people are making much more use of their outside spaces in this day and age. They have realised that they can use them almost as an extra room, decorating and accessorising them how they choose and using them as a way to escape.
What has been your best-selling product over the past 12 months? And what products are you excited about for the next 12 months?
Solar lights have been huge during the past 12 months. People are really getting on board with energy saving methods and the lights can be used inside and outside, they’re perfect for gardens. Our garden furniture has also done well, in particular our wicker outdoor suites.
In the shop area we’ve introduced Yankee Candles to our range and these have proved extremely popular.
Plants are still at the very heart of the garden centre and some popular varieties that have sold well during the past 12 months include Lavandula Hidcote, which is always a popular one and great for attracting bees and butterflies to gardens. Photinia Red Robin, Choisya Sundance, Salvia Hot Lips and Rose Gertrude Jekyll have also been big sellers.
Do you offer any services to aid customers when landscaping their gardens? Or to help customers with their gardening?
Our expert team have a huge horticultural knowledge and are always on-hand to help people with their gardening, whether young or old. We also have an on-site garden designer, Jenny Short, who can assist people with any plans they might have for their outdoor space.
Jenny works on all sorts of sites, from two or three acre fields to pocket handkerchief courtyards. She believes every single garden, whatever its defects, has the potential to become beautiful and welcoming. Jenny works to find that potential and capitalise on it with her designs.
In every garden she works as much as possible with the lie of the land to avoid excessive construction work. In planting schemes she will select plants that will flourish in your particular soil and will be favourable to local wildlife too.
Whatever people require from their garden – whether it is to accommodate young children, do gardening from a wheelchair or simply sit on a lounger and enjoy – Jenny will design a garden to perfectly meet those needs. This could be a major change or just minor tweaking.
Has the past year been kind to your company? Do you find that people still think of gardening as a priority for their time?
We have gone from strength to strength over the past year and the Elm Tree restaurant has definitely been a huge contributor to that. It celebrated its first anniversary this year and it has bought customers from across the country to visit us. Once people arrive they can then also do a spot of shopping and of course peruse our extensive plantarea.
Gardening/landscaping is definitely still a priority for people’s time. It has become trendy to use the garden as an extension of the house so people are taking more pride in their outdoors spaces and investing more time and money into them.
With many gardening celebrities having a higher media profile nowadays, do you think this is one way in which younger generations will be encouraged to get involved and is this something you and your business try to encompass?
Gardening celebrities are certainly helping encourage the younger generation to get into gardening, but we all have to do our bit. Here at the garden centre we work with lots of local schools and often receive visits from pupils who are keen to find out more.
One of the nearby schools is horticulture based and it is fantastic to see so many
young people with an enthusiasm for gardening.
We host a pumpkin growing competition every year for youngsters and hold an annual sapling giveaway for schools and worthy causes who might be undertaking various gardening projects.