June 2011 feature on Castle Gardens
As you drive out of town towards Sherborne Castle, a few cars stop off to let out tail-wagging dogs going for their walks, others start indicating that they are turning off to the Castle, except that most of them slip into an adjacent entrance to what is soon evident as the busy car park of a garden centre – Castle Gardens.
This well-established Sherborne centre is popular not only for its plants and horticulture but also for all of the paraphernalia associated with gardening: pots, statues, water features, feed, manure, compost – in short, it caters for all gardening needs. There is also a popular restaurant, the Walled Garden, and the Butterfly House acts as a multi-purpose venue for all sorts of groups and activities.
Castle Gardens was set up by Mike and Louise Burks in 1987, in a derelict site incorporating the old stables belonging to the Sherborne Castle Estate. Having graduated in horticulture and business studies, the Burks submitted a business plan to develop the site which succeeded against 85 other applications and their company ethos has stood them in good stead ever since: to provide high quality plants together with high quality advice delivered with high quality service. Their business philosophy is to aim for a long-term relationship with their customers, advising them, guiding them and supplying them so that the customers are totally satisfied with the results.
This company ethos has served them well and the Gardens Group has grown to encompass two other centres, Brimsmore in Yeovil and Poundbury in Dorchester.
One of the challenges of running any garden centre is its seasonality – indeed, half of the business takes place between March and June – but Castle Gardens has developed ways of boosting the off-season, primarily through its Christmas offering. This impressive, award-winning display has become a mini tourist attraction in its own right and draws visitors from all neighbouring counties. Not only can you buy your Christmas tree, your Christmas wreath and Christmas plants here, but also all of the baubles, lights, decorations and ornaments to go with them.
The advantage of this more uniform, year-round business is that it means most of the well-trained, high quality team can be kept on around the year. Most of the 145 group staff (they started with 5!) is now permanent although inevitably there are seasonal staff as well.
While many garden centres have diversified, often relying more on catering than actual plant sales, Castle Gardens and its sister companies have worked hard to keep the focus on their speciality – selling plants, shrubs and trees. The staff includes specialists in all areas and a lot of effort goes into providing good advice to customers. The Group delivers over 350 talks a year to gardening clubs and they work with primary schools helping with plans for their school gardens. Whatever opportunity is found to promote a better understanding of gardening is taken.
As many residents of Sherborne and the surrounding area will know, Castle Gardens is also a firm supporter of the community. They are happy to help facilitate local projects and to be involved in local charitable activities, as evidenced by their sponsorship of the Hidden Gardens of Sherborne weekend on 25 and 26 June and also through their involvement and support in the Sherborne in Bloom event.
No doubt there will be some sort of celebration of Castle Gardens’ 25th anniversary next year and, given the roots Mike and Louise Burks have put down in Sherborne, hopefully there’ll be many more anniversaries after that.