Urban greens: a visit to the ‘smallest garden centre with the biggest heart’

Emma Clegg visits ‘the smallest garden centre with the biggest heart’ and finds a collaborative social enterprise that offers a host of plants and garden products, but also has the power to boost emotional and physical wellbeing.

Gardening is uplifting, restorative and full of heart. But there are times when the garden retail industry feels impersonal, powered by turnaround, and devoid of the chance of a chat with a friendly specialist about how to start growing tomatoes or what plants might best suit your partially shaded west-facing balcony.

We have the solution. The Urban Garden, located on the border of Royal Victoria Park at Marlborough Buildings, described as “the smallest garden centre with the biggest heart”, brings the matter of plants and gardens down to an accessible size where human interaction fuels its every endeavour.

Opened just a year ago, the bijou but bustling site is leased by BANES Council to Grow Yourself, an established Community Interest Company (CIC). Executive director Matt Smail, who previously ran Bath City Farm, explains that The Urban Garden works in partnership with BANES Parks department, which grows up to 60% of the plants sold in the Council’s nursery, adjoining the site. Ten percent of the overall takings goes to the nursery to fund the growing of the plants.

It’s a long road for some people to get into employment but hopefully we are helping people with that

The Urban Garden sells houseplants, outdoor plants and a mixture of annuals and perennials, along with bulbs, seeds and all sorts of garden accessories and products, from garden pots and outside mirrors to bird tables and feeders, with a number of products made by local artists.

Sustainability is high on the agenda with all compost peat-free and supplied in refillable bags. There’s also a supply of ‘POSIpots’ by the till so that when a plant is purchased, it is transferred to the biodegradable POSIpot which can be planted in the ground or recycled by the buyer, and the plastic pot is kept for future use, helping to close the plastics loop. And with so many plants grown by the nursery travelling just a few metres to get to the centre, the carbon footprint is exemplary.

As small enterprise, the company has to be clear about its emphasis, says Matt: “We have to be different to enable us to better compete with the larger garden centres. We specialise in ideas for smaller urban gardens and we offer a really good customer service – we’re friendly, we like to have a chat and offer advice.” The recent introduction of an on-site horsebox café selling hot and cold drinks, cakes and pastries (all sourced and made locally) extends the social potential even further.

The other crucial part of The Urban Garden’s offering is around social enterprise, because they work in collaboration with Bath-based charity, Grow for Life, who deliver a City & Guilds course in Practical Horticulture. What’s more, all profits from the Urban Garden are reinvested back into this training, helping to improve the mental health and wellbeing of local adults.

On the morning of my visit the City & Guilds Level 1 course had taken place, and the results were on display – students had designed a spring container, a follow-on from learning about seed sowing, propagation and taking cuttings. Matt says, “We run two City & Guilds courses in practical horticulture for people with mental health issues and the long-term unemployed. The Level 1 is delivered with our partner charity Grow for Life and we deliver the Level 2. We’ve had some really good outcomes from this – last year 23 of our people got qualifications – and alongside the training we offer work placements in the garden centre of between three to six months, once they are doing the Level 2 course.

“We also help our students with getting a job and doing a CV. It’s a long road for some people to get into employment but hopefully we are helping people with that.”

The centre relies on a stalwart team of volunteers who work on Wednesdays and then from Thursday to Sunday when The Urban Garden is open to the public. “We’ve got some really committed volunteers and we value them so much,” explains Matt. “We wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

Right next to the Royal Victoria Park, The Urban Garden has regular passing trade from those enjoying the park who stop off to take some time to browse. It’s no secret that involvement with gardens and gardening can have a massive positive impact on emotional and physical wellbeing, but seeing how much it is changing lives here shows just how transformative it can be.

The Urban Garden, Marlborough Buildings, Bath BA1 2LZ; Open Thursday to Saturday 10.30am–5pm, Sunday 11am–4pm; @urbangardenbath on Instagram and Twitter; theurbangarden.org.uk