Innovative Retailer – Rocket Gardens

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The Name: Rocket Gardens

The Place: The headquarters are in Cornwall and up to 25 staff grow plants there but the retailing is done online.

The Story: The motto of this company could be ‘River Cottage – it looks good but do you really have the time, dear?’ and that’s because founder Mike Kitchen cottoned on very early that people like the idea of self-sufficiency and growing their potatoes but as soon as you get back from the garden centre it’s downhill all the way. Enthusiasm wanes once you have read the instructions on the back of the seed packet and before you know it your horticultural dreams are dust.

Mike Kitchen at home in the greenhouse

So he speaks from experience: Err, not really. He is from Cornish farming stock but had drifted away from farming…

Don’t tell me. Low profitability, low morale, high rates of depression. I listen to the Archers: Actually, he left farming to ‘live the high life’ and set off to work all over the world latterly in Mexico where he specialised in subterranean ocean floor exploration. But hey ho, with a young family his thoughts turned homewards and the rest is Rocket Garden history.

Give me the gist: Kitchen has taken a totally normal farming macro-scale practice and brought it down to the micro level. Contrary to urban opinion, farmers do not grow things from seed, they buy vast numbers of young plants which have been grown on an industrial scale by professional growers and then they take it from there.

Advantages being? The pros being much less waste, no germination problems and uniform growth rates. And that in a nutshell is what Rocket Gardens offers. A box of baby plants delivered to your door. He’s done the hard work and the customer just plants, waters and reels in the crops. Start on the weekend and start eating it pretty much immediately.

Now this is interesting. He must see all kinds of consumer trends emerging: Oh yes. For example a couple of gardens recently developed with US-based supermarket Whole Foods Market (you can also buy e-vouchers for the gardens in their shops). Firstly, there is the nutrient-dense garden – yours for £32.99 – which includes red Russian kale and green borecole amongst much else, so you can be sure of an improved diet. The second, still in development, is the medicinal garden that will catch the move for self-help and herbal remedies.

Ah, gardener heal thyself: Exactly so. In fact Rocket Gardens touches on all sorts of current thinking. All the plants are organically grown, and they are delivered in a wooden box without plastic packaging by courier. I could go on…

Please do:Well, do you realise in these straitened times that you might save £700 a year by growing your own organic vegetables. Not to be sneezed at, although Kitchen says that the organic tag is now more in the background. Consumers think organic equals more expensive and he wants to avoid that. In fact no one could accuse him of profiteering – prices have not risen in eight years.

I’m sorry. I think I misheard: Ahem. Rocket Gardens have not raised their prices since its inception in 2005.

I think I have a question: No, you don’t. It’s simply a matter of efficiencies and scale. Kitchen does not want to price anyone out so the best-selling small vegetable garden still retails at £39.99 and the urban constant gardener at £129.99. A bargain – especially with a week’s free camping thrown in.

Pardon: Rocket Gardens offers customers their own pitch for four people on their own farm as a thank-you. Part of the ethos. Last year around 400 families availed themselves of the opportunity.

I can’t believe they actually make any money: Oh but they do. Profitability is up every year and there is no one else doing this because it is very niche and not many people are in a position to grow 2 million baby plants a year are they? As Kitchen himself says Cornwall has been in recession for 200 years so a triple-dip shock for everyone else is neither here nor there for a business based in the West Country.

As we are on the subject of austerity can I assume the customers are of the ‘Barbara and Tom’ rather than the ‘Margo and Jerry’ variety? You may not. Kitchen says customer profiling is very difficult as there is such a great diversity. Older customers buy because their fingers cannot deal with seeds, chefs buy them to use in their restaurants, and there is a range for people who have allotments and need to fill them. And yes, urbanites are in the mix too, and in attracting all of these customers no advertising has ever been done. It’s word- of-mouth, and social media is also important.

The Good Life: suitable for everybody

Isn’t it rather, well, seasonal? Rocket Gardens sees a lot of activity at Christmas with people buying the gardens as gifts, and then in the Spring that changes to people buying their own gardens. But they offer a range of winter gardens too and the best-selling Constant Garden comprises five deliveries throughout the year.

Can I ask a downer question please? There must be timing issues here in the growing cycle? You know what, this is my favourite bit. The plants are grown in the very west of Cornwall, the growing season down there is a full six weeks in advance of the rest of the country amazingly so the timing can afford to be spot on and customers can be told with relative certainty when to expect their gardens.

OK, that is clever. What’s next for Rocket Gardens? A new website is being built at the moment but the real focus is on schools. Kitchen feels very strongly that there is a lot of talk about school dinners and children knowing where their food comes from, but very little action. Children are not good at waiting and Rocket Gardens provides instant results so 1,000 schools now have a Rocket Garden and Sodexo chefs feed the children from their own garden.

The plan for five years time? ‘A nation of children growing stuff is the only real aim’.

And a very fine one it is too. 

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