Photographs: Charles Francis
March 2017: For generations, the Sandry family have farmed at Trevisker, just outside Padstow. There were 350 sheep and 50 bullocks on the mixed farm when Mark Sandry was a boy, and his father also grew barley and made hay. Twenty years ago, Mark started growing soft fruit in a polytunnel in a corner of the farm. From these roots grew one of Cornwall’s most successful garden centres
Mark stresses that Trevisker remains a working farm, and his father still has some sheep. But he says: “Me and my brothers were discouraged from going into farming because my dad could see the way things were going — there was no money in it. So I went into commercial horticulture, and then I did a garden centre management course. I didn’t know if it was something I really wanted to do, but I thought: ‘At least you can go indoors when it’s raining!’ And I had heard there was a future in it.”
He admits that he has never worked in a garden centre, other than on placements during his course at Pershore College, Worcestershire. After the course, he stayed in Worcestershire and worked on a farm. “Then one day I decided to go and grow strawberries back home on my old man’s farm. I resigned at 10am that day and left at 5pm.”
He found other horticultural opportunities as soon as he was back in Cornwall. “My mate had a pub in Padstow, and he said he had no one to do his hanging baskets. I said I’d do it — even though I had never done a hanging basket. I borrowed £600 off my grandfather, and got a polytunnel, some plants and some bags of compost.”
Mark soon had enough of a hanging basket trade in Padstow to earn a living, which allowed him to start investing in other crops. For his girlfriend Sian — who went on to become his wife and partner in the business — it was a steep learning curve. ”I didn’t know anything about plants!” she says. “My background was in art and textiles.”
The couple spent the next few years living in a caravan, and selling bedding plants. “I was also working in a clothes shop,” says Sian. “And we both spent winters working for Rick Stein’s restaurants in Padstow, because the work here was seasonal. But when I was pregnant, we had to get a bit more serious.
“So we put up a bigger tunnel, and started selling herbaceous perennials, not just seasonal stuff. We then began having Christmas trees to get us through the winter. I increased my horticultural knowledge as we went along. After about eight years, we decided to really go for it, and have not just a plant nursery, but a year-round garden centre.”
As the business expanded, so did the customer base. Mark remembers seeing a Rolls Royce stuck in the mud outside the garden centre, and watching the driver teetering towards the entrance in her high heels. He realised that constructing a car park was a top priority.
He and Sian produce 90 per cent of the plants they sell, and have a strong commitment to organic growing. “We don’t like using too many chemicals,” says Sian. “It’s part of our green ethos. Our water comes from our own borehole and electricity from our solar panels in our field, and all old pots get recycled.” Mark adds: “I’m old-fashioned. I’ve always believed in things like ‘make do and mend’ and ‘if it’s broken, fix it’ — and now these ideas are trendy!”
In recent years, they have started to specialise in coastal and wind-tolerant plants, and anything which is not grown on site is sourced from elsewhere in Cornwall. As Mark says, there’s no point in buying in plants from Holland which will die after a few weeks’ exposure to gales on the North Cornwall coast.
With such sturdy roots, the business has grown healthily, and has branched out to. sell not just plants and garden equipment, but a range of largely locally-produced giftware, including a range of mugs designed by Sian.
Their most recent innovation has been to invite other local companies to lease space in order to expand the range of products still further. “We wanted people to come in with their enthusiasm and energy,” Sian says. “The aim is to have different businesses all working together.” A florist already has an outlet on the site, a clothing company is set to open up shop in the spring, and it is hoped that a dog boutique will soon follow.
Mark and Sian are particularly excited about their new restaurant — due to open at Easter — where the emphasis will be on top-quality local produce. Mark explains how the idea was born: “Henk de Villiers-Ferreira, the chef from Kingsley Village, came to see us one day, and said: Why don’t you have a restaurant?’ We realised it would increase footfall and be the catalyst for many more things we want to do here. We’re going to be doing foraging walks around the farm, gathering stuff which will be cooked in the restaurant.”
It remains to be seen whether the next generation of Sandrys — Tom, 15, and nine-year-old Jocelyn — will follow the long family tradition of working on the land at Trevisker. “We’ve tried to bring our children up to be conscious of the environment,” says Sian. “We only live down the lane, so this place has always been part of their lives. They help out, and it’s given them a lot of self-confidence. Tom is now very good with the customers.”
As she points out, the business they now have is totally different from the one which began with a single polytunnel in 1997. “People can now buy hanging baskets and bedding plants from Tesco or on the internet. They don’t want to just pop in to a garden centre to buy some pansies — they want a day out. You have to go with the flow and move with the times.”