Plants, pots and other pretty things at Old Farm Garden Centre

Buying business included a steep learning curve for owner Robin Knox

  • Jun. 24, 2019 10:20 a.m.

– Story by Tess Van Straaten Photography by Lia Crowe

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

Like Boulevard Magazine on Facebook and follow them on Instagram

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.

Just Posted

Good things cooking at Barn Burner BBQ event this Sunday in Yarrow

Fifth annual event in Chilliwack raises funds for the Full Cupboard

Chat with a Chilliwack cop over coffee

Public invited to informal meeting with local officers at Harvest on July 23

Young musicians get chance to win opening act spot at Chilliwack Fair

Three finalists will vie for top spot at the Fair’s Saturday night show

Getting a new ‘Gig’ easier with new innovative program in Chilliwack

Program will take 12 young adults and help them prepare for their career path

VIDEO: Bloodhounds join the search for missing Chilliwack woman

Petsearchers Canada arrive in town Monday afternoon to help out

VIDEO: Reports say Lashana Lynch is the new 007

Daniel Craig will reprise his role as Bond one last time

$1.5 billion in frigate-repair contracts split among yards in three provinces

The federal government has promised to invest $7.5 billion to maintain the 12 frigates

Anglican Church to review governance structure after same-sex marriage change fails

Some say the current system to change doctrine gives too much voting power to a smaller class of bishops

B.C. adding fast-charge stations for electric highway trips

Okanagan, Vancouver Island, Kootenay stations ready for use

Worried about bats? Here’s what to do if you come across one in B.C.

Bat expert with the BC Community Bat Program urges caution around the small creatures

B.C. on right road with tougher ride-hailing driver rules, says expert

The provincial government is holding firm that ride-hailing drivers have a Class 4 licence

B.C. Ferries cancels two sailings Monday due to mechanical issues

Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay run affected in order to repair Queen of New Westminster

RCMP investigating alleged ‘sexual misconduct’ by cyclist on BCIT campus

BCIT said they were reviewing video evidence of the incident

New home cost dips in B.C.’s large urban centres

Victoria, Kelowna, Vancouver prices decline from last year

Most Read