The garden centre bringing Christmas to town
PUBLISHED: 09:59 08 December 2012
Searching for Santa this Christmas? You would do well pop down to Millbrook Garden Centre where there isn't just a grotto, but the chance to dine with Father Christmas, enjoy a breakfast with him or meet real reindeer who will fly in for a visit.
It is the most wonderful time of the year... for managing director Tammy Woodhouse.
“We do really go to town with Christmas. We open the grotto this weekend so my mum is making some grotto curtains and it’s all go,” she says.
It is just one more event in the packed calendar that Millbrook puts on through the year.
There are pumpkin-carving parties, barbecue demos, veggie-growing competitions and eco-tours.
And at various lunch and learn sessions, visitors can learn the basics in gardening from perfecting lawns to planting according to seasons.
All this has won the centre various accolades including a recent Gold award in the Kent Wildlife Trust 2012 Wild About Gardens competition.
Now employing up to 70 people in Gravesend, Millbrook has come a long way from its origins back in 1979 as a couple of greenhouses in Crowborough near Tunbridge Wells.
“My mum and dad found a house that had some spare land and after pondering over what to do with it they decided to go for a garden centre. They both used to work for the electricity board and didn’t have masses of horticultural knowledge, but they built two greenhouses and things started from there.”
The Crowborough site expanded and by 1994 her parents, Dick and Sue Allen, who both grew up in the Gravesend area, decided to launch a second centre in a spot here in Station Road.
Tammy, 39, grew up next to the garden centre in Crowborough, but never thought she would enter the family business until her dad passed away when she was just 24.
“When he died I came back to work with my mum. I worked in industry to get experience and then did a garden design course, and three years ago I took over as managing director.”
Now in charge, she is preoccupied with making the garden centre stand out from the rest in what is becoming an increasingly crowded industry.
“It is probably one of the last markets where we have still got a lot of independent businesses like us. It is quite a challenge with big companies coming in like Tesco-owned garden centre chain Dobbies.
“We try to be a bit different really and always have things going on for the customers. It is about giving people a reason to come and see what we are doing,” she says.
Besides the vast number of plants on sale, Millbrook has its award-winning wildlife garden which has many birds living there and cameras fitted within nests for customers to watch what is happening.
The centre also works with the RSPB, and has partnered with local schools to design gardens.
With environmental awareness at the heart of everything they do, their green credentials match their aspirations.
“We compost all of our green waste, and anything left over from the café, and we recycle all our rain water instead of using water from the mains. We have just had solar panels put in for generating electricity, and grow our own fruit and veg and try and show others how they can grow their own,” Tammy says.