Small spaces, big opportunities

Retailers become decorators, in response to
smaller residential footprints 

BY SCOTT BARBER

Urbanization, baby boomer downsizing and the glut of condominium and townhome developments across Canada are alarming trends for the garden centre industry. However, they are also providing new opportunities for retailers willing to embrace this pattern.
Art Vanden Enden says growth in the small-space gardening market has been anything but, well, small. 

As the vice president of garden centre operations at Sheridan Nurseries, a Southern Ontario-based garden centre chain and nursery grower with eight retail locations, he is facing the challenge of urbanization head on by providing options for condo and townhouse dwellers to develop — or maintain — their green thumbs. 
 
“Over the past decade, there has been a real surge in the demand for small space gardening products like containers, raised vegetable planters and a wide variety of house plants, succulents and orchids,” Vanden Enden explains. “I believe it correlates with the fact that so many people live in high rise condos, as well as homes with smaller lots, and these products give those consumers an opportunity to enjoy gardening in ways that are a bit different than what we saw in the past.”

Demographics drive demand
Statistics show fewer Canadians than ever are living in detached homes on traditional lots with space for grass and gardens. The last National Housing Survey undertaken by Statistics Canada in 2011 shows one in eight Canadians live in condominiums, including low- and high-rise apartment buildings and row homes. Predictably, just over three quarters of condominium homes are located in the nation’s 10 largest cities, where massive skyscrapers increasingly dominate skylines.
 
Tamsin McMahon, writing for Maclean’s magazine in 2014, described the trend. “Consider that condos made up less than 10 per cent of all homes built in our 10 largest cities before 1981, but more than a third of those built in the last decade — around 413,000 out of roughly 1.2 million new homes,” she wrote in a story titled Condo Hell. “While the majority of those are clustered in the big cities — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — condominiums are going up everywhere from St. John’s to Regina to Victoria. Cities as different as Guelph, Ont., and Whitehorse in the Yukon are now building more condos than single-detached houses.” The condo market isn’t just for Millennials, either. Many baby-boomers, long the bread-and-butter of garden centres, are taking advantage of red hot real estate markets by selling their detached homes in exchange for condos and town homes, Vanden Enden says. But their passion for gardening moves with them; it’s just being “downsized” as well.

Seasonal style and colour
Vanden Enden says many clients are incorporating exotic plants, succulents and orchids into their interior décor. Combined with driftwood, rocks or sea shells, the creative possibilities are limitless for unique table settings, window displays or entrance pieces. 

Others are embracing the little outdoor space they do have to create “outdoor rooms” on their balconies, terraces and patios.
And perhaps the biggest boon for Vanden Enden and Sheridan Nurseries has been the trend among high-end clients to swap out containers and garden products with the seasons. 

“People enjoy having the opportunity to makeover the look and colour of their space four times a year,” he says. “They can do hot pastels in the spring, fall colours in the autumn, Christmas décor during the holidays and then do regular winter colours after that. It’s really no different than changing the linens, pillows and towels, or even simply bringing in seasonal decorations or adornments and then packing them away.” 

While that kind of consumer behavior is not entirely new, there’s no doubt, Vanden Enden says, it has grown significantly in recent years.

Do it for me
Kate Seaver, owner of Kate’s Garden, a full-service landscape company and retail store in Markham, Ont., dove into the custom urn and container market in the early 2000s. She still recalls vividly how it began. “One of my clients called me up and I’ll never forget it, she said, ‘Kate, I’m so busy, I have no time, can you just come and do my pots on the front stoop? Here’s my credit card, come once a season and don’t bother me with the details.’”

Custom urns and pots were really limited to the highest end of the retail market back then, Seaver says — think Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, Shaughnessy Heights in Vancouver or Montreal’s Summit Park.

Over the last 15 years, it has become mainstream, with homeowners and condo dwellers utilizing custom containers to turn a balconies into gardens or to liven up a front porch. “There is a big focus for a lot of people on curb appeal, and there’s nothing like the season-long show of a beautifully done container to make a home look welcoming,” says Seaver.  Currently, Seaver and her team prepare and install urns and planters for some 100 clients, primarily on seasonal packages where planting arrangements are changed at least four times each year. Of course on balconies, containers are the only possibility, but the possibilities really are endless.

“We recently worked with a long-time client as they moved from their home into a condo,” Seaver explained. “Leaving their garden was a really big deal, as it is for so many people. But they were fortunate to be moving to a condo with a wonderful balcony that provided enough space to create a truly remarkable outdoor room.” Using containers, vegetable pots, furniture and design ingenuity, Seaver helped create a space that offers her clients the opportunity to carry on their lifelong passion for gardening, while also leaving room for eating and entertainment areas. 

Taste for something different
Seaver has watched the market for custom containers and other small space gardening products skyrocket over her two decades in business. And as the market grew, so too has the competition. 

“When we started in with custom containers, we were one of just a few businesses that were doing it,” she says. “Now the competition is crazy. It’s not just nurseries and greenhouses and garden décor stores that are doing it; Loblaws and the big chains are in on it as well.” To keep her share of the market, Seaver ensures her shop offers the highest quality products and service.

“We have to do it better,” she says. “In our pots, we have tea bags in the bottom for greater soil absorbion. We use the proper container gardening soil. We have horticulturalists who are designing the pots and implementing the best planting practices. We do the wet to wet. Our process is better and the components are better quality. “We also try to be a little different and a little more innovative with our designs. Sometimes that means we’re a bit edgier and we try to stay ahead of the curve.”

A great deal of thought and research goes into their container designs, she adds. It’s all about creating fresh and unique looks for her clientele.

In the lower mainland area of British Columbia, Kathy Friesen, owner of Bloomsbury Patio Gardens and Outdoor Rooms, has been catering to small space gardeners for nearly 20 years. She transitioned into the green profession in the mid-’90s from a career in academia, in part because she noticed how many high-rise apartment buildings were being built around Vancouver at that time. “You couldn’t help but be struck by the development that was going on then,” she remembers. “I thought, there are all these people with balconies, perhaps they could use some help getting the most out of their space.”

Niche, or not?
The business quickly took off, and Friesen found condo developers were eager to hire a professional gardener to take their display suites and sales offices to the next level. In those days, there were very few green professionals that focused on small space and balcony gardening; that has changed over the past five years, Friesen says, to the point where it’s no longer a niche market.

“It has exploded,” she says. “Retailers are now getting into planters in a really big way. They’ve brought in new kinds of containers, made out of fibreglass, clay, and things that will work in cold environments and are frost proof; lighter based materials that are more suited to a balcony garden than traditional, heavy containers.”

Weight is an issue only in that there are logistical concerns in hauling containers and plant materials through buildings and up elevators, Friesen explains. She has never come within 10 per cent of the allowable weight limit of a balcony with her garden designs. 
Artificial plants also have their place in small space gardening, Friesen says, and they have become increasingly popular since their quality — they look real! — has improved in recent years.

Now, the challenge for Friesen, Seaver and Vander Enden is to market the value of small space gardening to the next generation of gardeners, to ensure that the trend — an increasingly profitable element of the garden retail industry — continues its upward trajectory.
 
Published in the September 2016 issue of Landscape Trades