If we mentioned the Black Country near Birmingham, you might find yourself thinking of dark, manly things: flat caps and smoky chimneys. Sooty miners and sweat-stained steelworkers. And while it’s true that the deep black seam beneath our feet is what gave the Black Country and Blackheath their name, something greener and gentler is going on right here in the midst of it all. Just off busy Halesowen Street, the West Midlands earth is giving up treasures lusher than coal. At Green Leevs Garden Centre, we find a small oasis; a hub of horticultural wisdom and a blooming centre of the local community. Owner Gary Lee talks family, flowers and finding your passion.
What lead you to set up a Garden Centre in the heart of Blackheath?
“It’s a family affair: the spelling Green Leevs refers to our surname Lee. So the answer to that question is really mum and dad’s story. They were running a successful operation selling plants for offices and things blossomed from there. When a big supermarket opened up in town, they knew there was a huge opportunity from all the extra footfall it would bring. So they set up shop and got cracking. It was soon pretty clear they’d made the right call. We’ve gone from strength to strength.”
So plants are the family passion, not yours?
It’s hard to square this thought with a man who is inclined to deliver breathless monologues on potting, pruning and the rise of garden tech. Gary grins as he answers our question. “True, at first anyway. I was working in the steelworks before I took over and no-one would have called me green fingered. But I came to love gardening quite quickly once I took the reigns. The team here are such experts and so enthusiastic, it was impossible not to get pulled in. Ruth over there has just finished a horticulture degree – there’s not much she doesn’t know”. Gary is referring to a woman watering an enormous elephant ear plant nearby. “She showed me what a mysterious place the world of plants is. There’s so much going on you can’t see. You’re learning their secrets all the time.”
What has been the biggest challenge for you?
“Early on, I’d have to say consistency. I really wanted to take the business to the next stage so I was focused on getting on top of new thinking. This meant a few basic lessons I should have learned from mum and dad were missed. For example, gardening is very cyclical, you have to carry the lessons one season gives you into the next year. So you might learn what bulbs people want one spring, but forget it by the next and have them come in and be disappointed wanting and expecting more of the same.”
You mentioned garden trends. Tell us more.
“I used to think of gardening as traditional: steady and timeless and exempt from the comings and goings of say, fashion or interiors. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Gary goes on to tell us about gardening trends and the rise of the #Instagarden. “Gardening has a very visual result and at the same time, more and more young city folk are getting into it: so no wonder plants are very popular on picture-sharing apps like Instagram.” Like any savvy business owner, Gary’s passion is tempered with a good head for business. “You have to look outwards” he says. “You absolutely must stay on top of what people want: what they’re talking about. Social media is fuelling a me-too mindset that creates clear trends fast. That means we need to listen to our customers and realise when something new is worth stocking. I also insist we fill our Facebook page with tips and tricks for beautiful gardens and indoor plants”.
What do you love most about being an independent business?
“Being a part of the community. I dropped Brenda over there at home the other day and she invited me in to see her garden: it was absolutely stunning: a suburban wonderland, and it gave me a warm feeling when she pointed out that it all began with my little seedlings.” As we’ve been chatting, regular customer Brenda has been pottering about, making her weekly selection of plants. She takes her time, examining each one slowly and balancing it on top of her fabric shopping trolley as she does each and every week.
Stacking seedlings nearby is Lee, a young man with learning difficulties who came to Green Leevs as part of a local outreach programme. “One of my nicest, most loyal workers” says Gary. Clearly very much at home in the place, Lee endeared himself to all on the last day of the scheme. “I asked him what he was going to do with himself now it was over and he replied simply: ”I’m going to keep coming in: I like it here.” Eight years on, he’s still part of the family.
Green Leevs is clearly a place with an admirably community-minded approach. As Gary says “There’s more to it than money. If some people use us as nothing more than a place to have a quiet moment, that’s fine by me. That’s the difference between us and a big chain. We’re not just a shop: we’re a knowledge library, a social hub and a part of the community. We supply hanging baskets to some of the pubs and when I spot one in full bloom as I walk by, I feel proud and more connected to my home.”
Speaking of home, do you take your work back with you?
They say chefs never cook off the clock. Can the same be said for gardener centre owners? Gary chuckles and admits our suspicion is true. “I work pretty damn hard, so there’s just no way I’m going to be planting, weeding and pruning when I get home. In fact, we’ve just moved into a place with a smaller garden so I don’t have to!”