How the pandemic brought new growth to Bristol’s longtime garden store after 75 years

Currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, Henleaze Garden Shop is one of Bristol’s oldest family businesses.

The store – now Henleaze’s oldest – was opened by John Stenner and his wife, Vera, shortly after World War II in 1946.

Stock was limited at the time, but they did sell a few gardening tools and plants in the yard. When it was cold, they would simply cuddle their black cat to warm up.

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The couple’s son Robert took over the business in 1981 and he still works at the store alongside his own son Matthew, who joined full-time eight years ago after earning his HND in horticulture from Pershore College. in Worcestershire.

Occupying two stores and a large outdoor area to the side and back, Henleaze Garden Shop sells a wide range of indoor and outdoor plants, compost, tools and pet supplies.

To mark its recent 75th anniversary, they’ve cut the price of all plants by a third and made cupcakes for customers, some of whom have used the shop for decades.

Henleaze Garden Shop has been open for 75 years and remains a family business

“A few weeks ago a lady walked in and said she first came with her father two weeks after the store opened in 1946,” Matthew tells me in the ramshackle upstairs office, where he still has piles of dusty ledgers and ink. pots and feathers used by his grandfather at the beginning.

“The lady used to tell me how adorable my grandfather was. It’s amazing that we still have people coming here after 75 years.

When Matthew left Bristol Cathedral School he did a preparatory year in forensic pathology at UWE, but it wasn’t for him.

At school he loved biology and his first love was always plants.

“I specialized in plant pathology, its chemical side because I am bad at identifying plants. I can’t tell the difference between a daisy and a daffodil, but I can tell you what’s wrong!

After school, Matthew spent hours in the store with his father, learning about plants and talking to the staff, some of whom had worked there for decades.

The store has been in the family for many decades with several reminders of its past

Sadly, Matthew’s grandfather passed away eight years ago and his grandmother passed away just before the pandemic, but he cherishes the memories of his time at their Stoke Bishop home.

“They had a huge house on Parrys Lane with greenhouses and large gardens and they grew plants there. As I got older I started helping out by growing plants for the store in their greenhouses.

“Some of my fondest memories are spending time with my grandfather in his greenhouses with tomatoes and aloe vera.

“For me, gardening is a tactile thing. I love to repot things and cover my hands in mud and gravel.

The pandemic and subsequent closures positively impacted the business of Henleaze Garden Shop as a wave of new gardeners emerged.

There was a huge increase in sales for the gardening industry as people suddenly found themselves in their homes with more free time.

Long-time business Bristol Henleaze Garden Shop

Matthew says: “Before the pandemic, our typical clients could be people over 60 and young parents, because between those ages people don’t have the time or the inclination to spend a lot of time gardening.

“During the lockdown, however, people were stuck at home looking at gardens they had neglected for years. Suddenly everyone wanted a garden and there are now millions of new gardeners in the yard. UK!”

Although garden centers were allowed to reopen earlier than many businesses when the restrictions were lifted, the past two years have also been difficult for Henleaze Garden Shop, and they have also seen incredible acts of kindness.

“As the containment was in the height of summer, we still had to water the plants 12 hours a day and we always delivered.

“The community support we have had was absolutely mind-blowing. We had people running big orders for entire streets, so we didn’t have to visit every house.

“A lady from Clifton even offered to donate money just to keep us going, but we politely declined.

“I didn’t want to take it from someone when we didn’t need it and that’s why we didn’t really take the government loans.

“There were a lot of people in worse situations than us and I have always believed in running an ethical business.

“Of course we’re here to make a profit, but if a customer doesn’t really need to buy something in particular, I’ll tell them so they don’t waste their money. I think people really appreciate that and the fact that we’re not trying to take money from people.

Since the lockdown, The Garden Shop has seen a wider range of customers

In the 75 years since the opening of Henleaze Garden Shop, the range of equipment and products for sale has changed dramatically, but there is also a return to old trends.

“We haven’t changed much in 75 years and we’ve seen a lot of garden centers close during that time.

“The things that are available have changed a lot and what people want has changed too. What we are seeing now are some of the old things coming back.

“Plants like hydrangeas are popular, whereas five years ago you couldn’t sell them, they were almost considered annoying.

“Old-school flowering plants like azaleas are very popular because they have this mass of bright colors that you don’t get in many shade-tolerant plants.

“With people focusing more on privacy and having more blankets, there will be more shade in the garden and that’s why these older, shade-tolerant flowering plants are popular again. “

Besides the pandemic, the family business has encountered other obstacles in recent years, including the impact of leaving the EU on the gardening industry.

Matthew says: “Brexit was a disaster, it was an absolute horror sight in horticulture.

“The UK produces around 5-6% of its own factories and the rest is imported. The new plant passports and phytosanitary certificates doubled the amount of paperwork, then there was a shortage of drivers and general stock delays.

“Hydrangeas are a good example. We normally have them for 12 weeks, now we only have them for half that time.

“The supply is so limited for some factories that I now tell customers to buy things when they see them because they might not be there the next time they walk in.

“Prices have also increased by around 10-15% and some suppliers have warned us that there could be another price hike next year in the middle of the season which is unheard of.”

Although the store sells plants and trees grown in Britain, most are imported from Europe, especially Holland, but Matthew doesn’t see this changing.

“The UK market is so small it’s not worth the investment – in Holland they have huge nurseries that work together rather than independently.

“UK nurseries use ten year old Dutch greenhouses, which is why we are ten years behind the Netherlands in horticultural technology.

Although busy year round, Henleaze Garden Shop has gained a huge local reputation for its Christmas trees, which will go on sale next week.

Priced from £ 29 to £ 69 depending on size, the vast majority of trees are grown in the UK and some are supplied by local company Frenchay Forestry, which owns several fields of Christmas trees.

Matthew says: “If there’s one thing we do well in Britain it’s rain, then the Christmas trees grown in this country are of a much better quality.

“A lot of the trees are grown along the M4 or in Scotland so they get a lot of rain and the trees expand more and hold water.

“They are healthier and last longer than imported ones. They’re also cut down a month later, which is why imported trees can look tired by the time they get here.

“We haven’t increased our prices for four years, but we have seen a general decline in Christmas tree sales during that time.

“Five years ago we would order 1000 and sell them all, but now we order 750-800. Some people go for plastic trees which can be a bit of a false economy, but what we have been fighting against is IKEA selling trees for £ 29 and giving customers a £ 20 voucher for the store – so basically £ 9 per tree.

“In fact, in the past we have had people buying cheap trees and they would come to us before Christmas Eve to buy a new one because theirs had already lost all of its needles! “

As Robert gradually retires from the day-to-day management of the store, Matthew takes over the family business but has no intention of changing things.

“We don’t want to change too much. People say the store reminds them of what it was like 50 years ago.

“Yes, it’s a bit run down, but we wouldn’t want it to have the sterile and clinical look of more modern garden centers where they brush every speck of dust. They’re boring and soulless – mass-produced gardening just isn’t the same.

“We’ve seen a lot of other garden centers open and close since we’ve been there, and it would be difficult for anyone to find such a large site in such a popular residential area.

“The only thing that could impact us is if Amazon goes into gardening. It would be a long term problem.

“We can deliver locally in our van, but we couldn’t ship them nationwide like Amazon could. But then I’d love to see how they would send a six foot tree to a customer like we do! “