A blooming lovely way to run a business

After apprenticeships at Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens, it is no wonder than Newent garden centre owner Steve Browning has made such a success of his business.

Together with wife Sally, who also has impeccable training credentials at Wisley Court Gardens and Kew, Steve set up Hazelfield Garden Centre six years ago. In that time he has transformed the greenfield site into a multi-franchise centre and has further expansion plans for the near future.

Last year Hazelfield earned a 30 increase in turnover and the Browning are predicting another great year in 2003, as interest in gardening continues to grow apace.

"We have a lot to thank Alan Titchmarsh for," said Steve, 47. "He and his gang have really generated a huge amount of interest in gardening, especially in young people.

"We see more children here than ever before, and they are actually interested in what they see, rather than just being dragged along by their parents.

"We also have coachloads of schoolchildren in term time and, apart from the usual tour, we also give them the chance to pot up their own seedlings and take them home to grow."

Steve and Sally met at Kew Gardens, where they were both studying for the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens Diploma.

"After qualifying we bought a bungalow with a glasshouse in the garden with the intention of running a landscaping business from there," said Steve.

"We began to grow our own plants and sell them and that side of the business really took off.

From small acorns, large oaks have grown. That centre expanded so much they bought a second site, before selling both in 1997 and moving down to Gloucestershire.

"We all love this area - the beauty of the countryside and the calmer way of life," said Steve. "Our three children have also taken to the county and all it has to offer."

Hazelfields grow about 70 of the plants they sell, making it a true nursery as well as a garden centre. "Sally and I are trained in that field and it's what we love doing," said Steve.

"More growing is planned as the centre expands, including a larger range of herbaceous, tropical plants and specimen shrubs and bedding plants."

Steve also claims they can undercut most of the major garden retailers, with better offers and higher quality plants and garden accessories.

"This is a hugely competitive industry and when we started off we never dreamed that we would come this far," said Steve.

"We import directly from the growers and manufacturers, often from the Far East, and our products are good quality and very good value.

"Our gazebos are tough and will withstand weathering and everyday use where others could fall apart, and our barbecues are also made to last. Both are imported from China."

Steve said they would also try to find any plant a customer wanted. "We have very good stocks but if someone asked for a rare plant that we didn't have, we would find it for them, even if it took several months," he said.

Hazelfield is now known as a horticultural village because of the nine other franchises that sell from the same site.

These include an aquatic centre, children's clothing and toys, a lakeside restaurant, an art gallery and a petshop.

"When people come to visit us they stay on average for two hours and some people come for the entire day because there is so much to see and do," said Steve. "People used to spend 20 minutes or so at garden centres so it's changed a lot since those days."

Hazelfield also has events, such as talks, demonstrations and children's activities. BBC gardening expert Michael Leach does talks about various aspects of gardening and staff also do barbecue demonstrations with music provided by a local band.

"We have a 16ft tree fern from New Zealand that we hold barbecues around which is 400 years old," said Steve. "That means the seed was germinating before the British discovered New Zealand!

"We are different from other centres in that we think the service we offer is more important than how much profit we make, and that service is second to none."