Pub gardens: put a spring into your step

Related tags Pub Union pub company Gardening Flower

Believe it or not, but spring is on its way - it's time to think about the garden.Time to look out the window. Nature is shrugging off winter's pall...

Believe it or not, but spring is on its way - it's time to think about the garden.

Time to look out the window. Nature is shrugging off winter's pall to resume the annual battle of life against death. The crocuses are pushing their heads out to meet the strengthening light of spring, the snowdrops brightly sprinkling the lawn - and you too should be coming alive to the opportunities that your pub garden has been hiding away from you these past bleak months.

The British spring, a two steps forward, one step back kind of affair, is hardly designed to give you confidence that warm, sunny weather lies ahead. But past experience has taught us that summer is definitely on its way and it's not something you can afford to miss out on, even if it does only last a few weeks.

Easter is late this year, the 18th to the 21st of April, which means a better chance of good weather - and more time to get ready in the garden for the long weekend.

Your garden, if you are lucky enough to have one, is potentially the most valuable part of your business when the sun shines. If you get it right it can give you a tremendous power of attraction.

But, like anything else, you have got to put the effort in. It may no longer be enough to rely on a tired old set of splintering bench tables and a haggard hydrangea. You need, above all, a point of difference.

Last year, tenants Martin and Caroline Roberts won the Union Pub Company's Best Pub Garden award thanks to their determination to make their smallish outdoor area at the Royal Oak at Leigh Sinton, Worcestershire, dazzlingly different (pictured top)​.

Martin, a keen gardener himself, has created a garden busy with interest in the five years he has been at the pub. He had help to get started but since then he has done everything himself, working a couple of hours each day. The flower beds are raised three feet so he can carry on despite an artificial leg.

He makes use of all kinds of things others would regard as junk. Pig troughs, railway sleepers, oil cans, Coronation souvenir billy cans and an old pub sign masquerade as flower planters. A multiple water feature uses a water wheel and barrels ending with a miniature waterfall into a goldfish pond.

Last year he spent £400 on plants, nurturing seedlings in a nearby greenhouse, plus he grows hop plants and his palm trees are now 12 feet high.

His eccentric garden is an extension of the philosophy he has adopted in 30 years in the pub trade.

"You have got to do something different," he says. "That's why people come. We don't do chips or peas here for the same reason."

Following that logic through, Martin is gradually replacing the bench tables he bought at the beginning of the project, introducing interesting makeshift furniture put together out of cartwheels, barrels and old church pews.

Prize gardens

Pub companies are often keen to give their tenants and lessees an incentive to improve their gardens, recognising how important they can be for a small business.

InnSpired is one group which runs an annual contest among its licensees and this summer, with the help of a sponsorship by brewer Scottish Courage, it will be offering a £500 first prize and £250 second prize in two categories, best garden and best floral display, across three regions.

InnSpired chief executive Peter Brook is a great fan of pub gardens.

"An attractive garden or floral display with plenty of flowers has always been a good pull to get customers to visit pubs, particularly during the summer months," he said.

"With our new regional format we hope to encourage even more InnSpired tenants to enter the competition. Whether it's a country pub with a big garden or a community pub with no garden, each will be judged on its own individual merit. The two categories allow tenants with any size of outside space to enter."

Last year's overall winner in the garden section was Gerald Smart of the Crown Inn in West Harptree near Bristol.

With 20 years in the navy behind when he took his first pub, Gerald (pictured)​ hardly had the chance to develop green fingers. "But I knew everything I wanted in there," he said.

The Crown garden was praised for its creative design and an immaculate array of colourful shrubs and bedding plants set among ornamental farm equipment and a central water feature.

In fact Gerald buys around 2,000 plants each year to create the effect he wants, starting them off as seedlings in a commercial greenhouse up the road. By the end of April they will be planted and the Crown garden will be ready to bloom.

"It's a lot of hard work but it's something you've just got to stick at to make it work," said Gerald.

Even if you haven't got a garden, investing money and effort in plants and flowers can pay off.

Overflowing window boxes, baskets and tubs of busy lizzies plus a luxuriant archway that literally puts flowers round the door of the Cricketers Inn at Kingsley, Surrey, won David and Veronica Brown InnSpired's floral display prize - and they are an essential part of the business.

"A village pub like the Cricketers needs something to make people stop and come in," said David. "Thanks to the display we get a lot of passing trade and everyone comments on it."

The Browns have no claims to green fingers and employs a professional local man to do the planting, the flowers coming from a local nursery. "I'm certainly not the brains behind it, but I do realise how important it is," said David. "It sells the pub."

Soon the gardener will be hired for a week to do all the spring planting and by the end of May the Cricketers will again be vibrant with colour.

That will even extend to the back of a road sign beside the pub that is not on the Browns' property but would otherwise be a blot on the pub's visual appeal.

"I was warned not to touch it, that I'd get into trouble, but it had to be done," he said. "Last year I grew flowers up the back of it. The villagers love it and even the local councillors are over the moon!"

(Pictured bottom: David and Veronica Brown of the Cricketers Inn at Kingsley, Surrey

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