Reinventing themselves

August 20, 2012
Written by Dan Woolley
The last three years at Lowland Gardens in Great Village, N.S., have been largely eventful and successful for co-owners Tony and Gerrie Van Den Hoek.  

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A sampling of Lowland Gardens containers.
PHOTOS BY DAN WOOLLEY


 
They had brisk sales during the 2009 retail season. “Things were just flying out the door,” said Gerrie. And in 2010, their 25th anniversary in business, “was the most fabulous year we’ve ever had.”

So did the momentum continue in 2011? 

Not quite. Tony explained that while spring sales were good, they were down a little compared to the two previous years due to cool, wet weather in April and May.  

Since 2009, the Van Den Hoeks have significantly altered Lowland Gardens operations, along with their business plan.

NEW INDOOR RETAIL SPACE FOR PERENNIAL SALES
■  One of the major changes was the development of a new indoor retail display area for perennial plants. A Nova Scotia spring often features snow and cool temperatures.

“People like to be under some sort of cover when they buy perennials,” said Gerrie. “It was a really good decision. People like to be dry and out of the cold.”  

They still have perennials outside, added Tony. “For the first few weeks of the spring season, when it is still cold outside, this (the indoor display area) is more convenient.” 

Gerrie considered indoor perennial sales, “one of the best things we have ever done.”

PERENNIAL SALES DOUBLED WITH NEW INDOOR DISPLAYS
■  The results speak for themselves. Perennial sales doubled the first year with the new indoor display.

The creation of the new interior display area came after they stopped wholesale production of landscaping plants. Until then, one-third of all they grew went to major Halifax-area landscapers.

“We knew we weren’t getting any younger,” said Gerrie. “We had to step back and concentrate more at home and we dropped the wholesale.”  

They haven’t regretted the decision. “I’m glad we don’t have Halifax anymore,” said Tony. “I would be gone every day because I had to do all the deliveries.”  

They now focus on what they do best. “We switched our whole approach to growing plants and designing containers,” said Gerrie.

LARGER CONTAINERS GAINING IN POPULARITY
■  They have also been moving away from bedding plants and small packs. “People seem to want larger pots… to create that instant look. We do some really unusual containers. People really like them.” 

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Owners Gerrie and Tony Van Den Hoek. PHOTOS BY DAN WOOLLEY

 
Tony said customers love the look and unusual textures of ornamental grasses and Lowland has a number of container designs incorporating subtropical grasses.  

“People want to create an outdoor living room and are looking for unusual things to place around their patios and decks. We have been creating containers for customers for many years and know what they want. We keep notes of what they like.”  

Customers tend to return to businesses “that offer a little extra service,” said Gerrie.

Enhanced customer service, they said, helps set them apart from big box stores. “The major difference we can make today is by offering a little more personal service. The big retailers have the same plant material as we do, but we offer extra service.”  

They expanded into giftware several years ago. They attend a trade show in Toronto each January to scout the latest products.

They also have demonstration gardens and ponds, plus a children’s petting zoo with goats and rabbits to attract customers with young families.

The Van Den Hoeks founded Lowland Gardens in 1985, starting with a single wooden greenhouse and a 34-year-old boiler. They built a second wooden greenhouse the next year.  

They grew plants for flea markets and farmers’ markets in nearby Truro and Halifax, some 120 kilometres away. “There were days we didn’t make enough money to pay for gas to come home,” said Tony, “so, I slept in the truck.”

In 1989, they bought out another nearby small greenhouse grower, moved the three small greenhouses to their nursery, and opened a retail shop. “From then on we really got going and have expanded every year,” said Tony.  

They now have 11 greenhouses, with 35,000 square feet of production and retail space heated by oil-fired forced air furnaces, except for one greenhouse serviced with hot water. 

The Van Den Hoeks produce between 2,200 and 2,400 hanging baskets annually and another 3,000 flats of annuals, primarily petunias and marigolds. They also focus on 4-½” pots, obtaining their unrooted cuttings from the U.S., Costa Rica and Israel.

“A very large part of our clientele comes from Halifax and Moncton,” said Tony. “We’re right in the middle between the two cities.”

That works well in marketing to attract new customers. “People who like to garden,” said Gerrie, “also like to travel.”  

The province has a relatively new highway signage program to help nurseries and garden centres gain the attention of motorists. The provincial government approved the program following intensive lobbying by Greenhouse Nova Scotia.

Tony was one of the most dedicated proponents. “I am the one who instigated the whole thing,” he said. “I fought for it for years.”


Dan Woolley is a freelance writer and photographer in Nova Scotia.

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