Successful Operator: Corn Hill Nursery always a step ahead
March 26, 2008 By Linda Hersey
When customers come to Corn Hill Nursery Ltd., located in Corn Hill, N.B., they are surrounded by a natural and peaceful setting in which they are free to wander.
|Corn Hill Nursery offers customers a retail area, extensive display gardens and a café.|
When customers come to Corn Hill Nursery Ltd., located in Corn Hill, N.B., they are surrounded by a natural and peaceful setting in which they are free to wander. “It’s like walking into a giant garden,” says Bob Osborne, who co-owns the nursery with his wife Kathleen. “You can’t really distinguish that well between the selling area and the garden area,” he added.
Located in Corn Hill, N.B., the nursery is a popular destination for “fantastically loyal customers” from throughout Canada and the U.S., sold on its impeccable reputation in the industry.
Planting now for about 28 years, but officially in business for the past 25, the farm that’s home to the nursery was once a retirement property for Osborne’s dad, the late Robert Osborne. The shallow soil (like broken shale with the advantages of clay nutrition but with a gravelly structure) proved to be incredibly rich, and Bob Osborne understood that if he wanted to realize his dream of becoming a farmer, it was a good time to leave his furniture-making and take the plunge.
The result was Corn Hill Nursery, and fruit trees were the original focus in the early days. More lines were added as the business grew from a quarter of an acre to its present size of 85 acres in production, and about six acres of containers. Today the nursery offers about a thousand varieties of material – shrubs, trees, vines, fruit trees, small fruits and herbaceous perennials (no annuals), and grows the largest selection found anywhere in the Maritimes.
Excellence has long been the owners’ mandate, both wholesale and retail, as they provide hardy, acclimated nursery stock for colder climates in Canada and the U.S. They also specialize in growing the hardiest of roses – plants that will survive winters of -30 C without protection – and offer a huge variety. Corn Hill is one of the few nurseries that propagate their roses on their own roots from cuttings.
Once a supplier of box stores, Osborne found the profit margin there to be “infinitesimal,” and so they decided to concentrate on their own retail outlet. The centrepiece of the sumptuous display gardens is the Cedar Café, a charming building of unique construction designed by Osborne, where the ambience of nature is recreated. It’s an indoor garden of giant ferns, philodendrons, avocados, anthuriums, violets and orchids. When the weather warms, customers can enjoy a meal on the second-floor deck overlooking the gardens below, or browse through a fascinating collection of turn-of-the-century family farm implements.
Fine wine (and beer) choices accompany a wide range of menu selections, including homemade soups, sandwiches, both hot and cold, and decadent desserts. Because of its garden location, every effort is made to keep the café scrupulously clean and fresh.
A long way from the original shed with a cash box, the café was built for the benefit of customers. Corn Hill’s season begins in late April/early May, a time of often cold, rainy, unpredictable weather. Having had the benefit of many seminars, Osborne was convinced that if they followed the European “approach to garden centres” that usually includes a café as part of the mix, the risk would pay off. The first year didn’t show much of an increase in traffic, but things soon turned around with patrons coming simply for the high-quality menu. Group functions for up to 75 people are now also available.
|At a Glance:
Company Name: Corn Hill Nursery Ltd.
Now into its eighth year, building the Cedar Café was an enormous investment, but one that continues to pay off handsomely in terms of profit margin. Customers can browse through Corn Hill’s extensive catalogue over coffee or lunch, then make their choices as they stroll through a garden centre intended as a throw-back to the romance of old-world nurseries – complete with a grape arbour. Both the café and the retail side of the business are open from April to October each year.
“Our retail sales doubled just with the addition of the café,” says Osborne. “It made it such a comfortable experience for people, and it has really done wonders. The café doesn’t make a lot of money. . . but what it does for the plant sales, which is where our profit is, has been remarkable.”
Obviously there were growing pains for the entire operation, and Osborne recalls that their very first crop of rooted cuttings dried up because of lack of irrigation. That taught him about the importance of water, and the situation was remedied. Winter injury was also something they had to contend with, once losing two-thirds of their rose crop to frigid temperatures. Another problem arose due to the very rural setting of the centre where unwanted visitors such as deer in the outer fields destroyed upwards of 10,000 trees.
Osborne has also been faced with the challenges in the business side of the operation. His obstacles have included working out the complexities of wholesaling, maintaining a “workable inventory,” and attracting retail customers to “the middle of nowhere.” With rising energy prices, energy conservation is an area of concern at the moment, given the size of Osborne’s operation and the cost of running the tractors to maintain it. One energy saver is the fact that no heat is required in his greenhouses, other than an under-floor hot water system used in March to protect cuttings.
Seminars and workshops have become a mainstay at Corn Hill Nursery, everything from garden design and rhododendron weeks to choosing shade trees and building with stone. They have a landscape crew and in 2006 won New Brunswick’s Design/Build Award for residential work over $10,000. They specialize as well in the creation of unique wood and stone structures.
The nursery also has a strong presence on the Internet, where a website is maintained to attract customers and inform them of all that the operation has to offer. Customers can visit the site each week to see new pictures of what’s growing and cooking at Corn Hill Nursery.
When it comes to the nursery’s keys to success, Osborne feels that his highly knowledgeable staff – at peak season they number about 30 employees – is one of the main reasons that the nursery is able to thrive. Osborne is also constantly looking ahead to further build on the nursery’s success. Future plans include shrinking the acreage and expanding the retail.
In the meantime, Corn Hill Nursery, nestled among the verdant rolling hills of gorgeous Kings County, will continue with a proven formula to succeed. “You have to create something that is totally unique, and you have to be able to provide service and information. If you don’t have those two things,” says Osborne, “I don’t think you can ever compete.”
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