– Story by Tess Van Straaten Photography by Lia Crowe
A lack of retail experience and an absence of any extensive plant knowledge didn’t stop Robin Knox from buying a popular Duncan garden centre more than a decade ago.
“I was a stay-at-home mom and my son was getting ready to graduate and go off to school, and I thought, ‘what the heck am I going to do?’” Robin explains.
“I was always very involved in school fundraising projects and everything I did seemed to make money and did well, so when a friend said, ‘why don’t you buy this business?’ I thought it was a great idea. And here I am 13 years later!” laughs Robin.
She took over the Old Farm Garden Centre in 2006 and she’s been growing the business ever since.
“We’re known for our pots — people come from all around to look at our pots — but once they get inside, they see we have all this other beautiful stuff for the garden,” the 70-year-old says. “I’ve been told by the different reps that we have the largest selection on Vancouver Island, so we even get people from Vancouver coming back year after year.”
But the Calgary transplant admits the learning curve has been a big one — both for running a store and becoming a gardening expert.
“When I bought the business I thought about pots and all the beautiful accessories for the garden, but I never thought about the plants,” she explains. “All of a sudden the plants started coming in and I thought, ‘oh geez, I don’t know about this one,’ so I started taking things home to plant so I would learn about them. Over the years, it’s been a huge learning curve.”
Robin does all the buying for the store and likes to hand-pick a lot of the items. She tries to buy as much as she can from Vancouver Island and local artisans.
“One really popular item we carry that carries us through the winter months is Anvil Island,” Robin says. “The First Nations pieces are designed by Noel Brown, a Coast Salish carver whose work is on display at the Smithsonian. Anvil Island makes them so we’re very fortunate to carry that line.”
Diversifying the product line and attracting customers in on-peak months has helped the Old Farm Garden Centre mitigate its biggest challenge — the seasonal nature of the business.
“The seasonal factor is definitely the biggest challenge and weather also plays a big part in sales,” Robin explains. “This year, with the snow, we didn’t even open until February 18.”
The other big challenge is big-box competition and an overabundance of pop-up garden centres with cheap prices.
“People are constantly looking for deals and it’s pretty hard to compete with the Costcos of the world, so we have to be very service-oriented because you don’t get that at big-box stores,” she says. “You can’t ask information about plants and what works in shade and what’s deer-proof and all those kinds of things. We tell people to bring in pictures of their garden and we can teach them what they need to know and help them choose plants and pottery.”
Since lots of people have moved to the island from other provinces — as she did 22 years ago — Robin says, they’re not used to such a long growing season or how quickly things grow here.
“My yard is pretty throughout the year, whereas in Calgary, everything dies back and goes brown,” she says. “The first year we moved here, we gingerly trimmed back the rose bushes and then, whoosh, everything just goes crazy. So I’ve learned to be more aggressive.”
She’s also learned to be more aggressive when it comes to getting rid of old stock. Robin says her biggest mistake was buying too much when she first started, and her biggest business lesson has been to clear out what’s not selling.
“If it doesn’t move, put it on sale and get it out of there because it’s taking up space,” she says. “We’re a little boutique garden centre and I can’t afford to have stuff sitting there if it’s not selling, so I’ve learned to try and get your money back, sell it off, and put some new merchandise there.”
That business lesson also translates into the garden. Robin’s best gardening advice?
“Don’t be afraid to move things,” she advises. “If they’re not working in one place, dig them up and move them somewhere else.”
Now that she’s 70, Robin is looking to sell the blossoming business so she has more time to travel and visit friends.
“I’d like to retire this year and I’m hoping somebody who would like to buy it will come along. But I’d still like to be involved,” she says.
She’s also quick to point out that while some plant knowledge would be advantageous, a potential buyer wouldn’t need to have it going in, given how knowledgeable her veteran staff, Lindy and Mel, are.
“In the early years I was afraid to work alone,” she quips. “They taught me so much and are a huge part of our success. It’s such a wonderful environment to be in because you’re surrounded by beautiful things. It’s not like people are here to buy socks and underwear. They’re here to buy pretty things to make their homes nicer.”
Check out the Old Farm Garden Centre online.