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Gwen Gower

Nursery flourishes with the fertilizer of good relationships

The secret fertilizer that keeps the plants lush and the business flourishing at Earthworx Garden World in Hout Bay, Cape Town, is the careful tending of relationships, says Gwen Gower, who started Earthworx as a tiny garden maintenance crew twenty years ago.

Since its establishment, the landmark nursery has withstood its share of storms, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the day-zero drought of 2018, as well as the riots that occurred after the big fire that left 1 200 people homeless in Hout Bay. Every time, Earthworx just seems to rise from the ashes.

It’s all about tending to relationships with your staff with patience, nourishment, and lots of care – just like you would a plant, says Gwen.

Unlike other nurseries, her more than 40 staff members are each responsible for a certain part of the 800 square metre centre, keeping it tidy, taking care of the plants and arranging them enticingly for the customers. They are highly trained and knowledgeable about gardening, and directly incentivised on each sale they make.

When it comes to her suppliers, Gwen does not believe in playing the one off against the other. She pays on time and remains loyal to a carefully chosen to set of suppliers, a strategy that has paid off in abundance.

Earthworx is one of the few nurseries where much of the stock is on consignment, in other words, paid for only once it is sold, which is very good for Earthworx’s cash flow.

Consignment is all about trust, says Gwen. Her consignment suppliers can inspect the nursery at any time to make sure that their stock is well cared for. She makes sure that stock is never sent back unnecessarily, and she pays her consignment suppliers on a weekly basis for any stock sold.

When the greatest drought in the history of Cape Town hit in 2018, Gwen agreed to keep the entire stock of a wholesale grower whose source of water had dried up. Earthworx is situated next to the Disa River which never dried up, so the wholesaler was able to save his stock and Earthworx gained the reputation of being a luxurious oasis. Throughout the drought Hout Bay residents flocked to the nursery for the relief that it offered in a parched landscape.

Gwen nurtures Earthworx’s relationships with its customers by providing an experience rather than just plants and equipment for sale. Apart from the staff’s emphasis on the beauty of the arrangements of their plants, Earthworx has developed a play park so popular that the nursery offers kiddies parties as an additional service. The Roots Farm Shoppe, which is run as a separate business inside the nursery, is a popular local meeting place.

During the pandemic lockdowns, when locals were not allowed to walk their dogs on the Hout Bay beach, Earthworx became a popular alternative. Arrangements and features are constantly changed in the nursery to give customers a fresh experience every time they visit.

Gwen says she landed in the garden trade by chance two decades ago when a friend who had a landscaping business encouraged her to take over the garden-maintenance side.

Gwen started with three workers, hand tools and a “million-year-old bakkie”.

Up until that point in her life there were no indications that Gwen had particularly green fingers, not even growing up on a farm in the Free State. After school she studied ballet, art, speech, and drama in Cape Town, but her success in a job selling typewriters just as computers were emerging proved that she certainly had a flair for sales. From there she worked herself up in the courier industry until a merger left her in between jobs, and she decided to give running her own business a chance.

Gwen says her corporate experience made her start her tiny business with formal systems and branding, right down to striking orange and purple uniforms for her workers, which are still the colours of the Earthworx brand.

Soon she was deploying multiple teams throughout the Atlantic Seaboard and once her garden maintenance service merged with the landscaping service of her fiancé, starting a garden centre was a logical next step.

They set their sights on a property in Hout Bay and approached Business Partners Ltd for the finance to buy it. At the last minute the rezoning application failed, and they pivoted to buying a tiny nursery on a rented property elsewhere in Hout Bay. Business Partners Ltd proved flexible enough to go along with the change of plan, and in 2011 Gwen found herself in charge of her own nursery.

The learning curve was hair-raisingly steep. That first May it dawned on her that she had hopelessly underestimated the seasonal nature of the nursery trade, and she had to ask Business Partners Ltd for some repayment relief to get through the first winter. This cemented her bond with Business Partners Ltd as her go-to financier.

She could not have hoped for a better move. In the new premises, Earthworx’s turnover shot up by 30% due to its visibility, and today Hout Bay residents refer to the central traffic circle as “the Earthworx Circle”, which of course Gwen keeps impeccably landscaped and manicured as a living billboard.

Unsurprisingly, Earthworx’s next challenge is likely to be a need for more space as the business expands to keep up with the constant evolving ideas and plans.

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