John Clarke, the founder of Johnstown Garden Centre, in Co. Kildare, Ireland, passed away peacefully on 24th March 2022, aged 91 with his family at his side.
John had been a keen gardener all his life and grew vegetables and fruit commercially for many years. Following an Irish Army career of 25 years, including 3 tours of duty with the UN in the Congo, Suez Canal and Golan Heights, John with wife Elsie set up Johnstown Garden Centre in 1974.
The industry was in its infancy then with only 6 other Garden Centres, members of the fledgeling International Garden Centre Association in Ireland at the time. Container growing had not started, and everything came into stock in the autumn for the season ahead.
Imagine a van load of rose bushes arriving in November, bundles pitchforked out on the ground in front of the door and 1 label per bundle! This is how nearly everything arrived then. We did 1 order for Holland each summer and it arrived in winter.
Every label had to be handwritten with a pencil and plants heeled in or potted by hand.
John had undertaken a “work study” course and knew there had to be a better way of handling products, arranging stock and of doing things a better way. He saw the need to get a more regular supply of plants throughout the year and set up a nursery across the road.
He pioneered the pot growing of trees, shrubs and conifers, producing plants of amazing quality all year round and embraced potting machines, computer labelling and handling systems, much of it to the amazement of his traditional Dutch suppliers who still grew everything in the ground and said it couldn’t be done!
Nursery stock advisor Paddy Gleeson organised many tours of nurseries and garden centres in other countries, and John embraced all the new ideas garnered on these trips. His Army training made him very organised, regimented, everything had its place. He studied supermarkets and saw what worked for them. He avoided the trend to circular beds and windy curvy paths where you lost your sense of direction. He liked the paths wide, smooth and straight as the most efficient way for customers to find their way around – it worked for the supermarkets then and still does today.
He had great time for Ken Allen, then of Hurrans Garden Centres, later Jardinerie who became a mentor and great family friend for many years. John co-organised many conferences here in Ireland for IGC and Ken was a regular speaker at these. The industry really pulled together at that time and strove out for improvement. Consultants in many fields were widely used.
Garden Centre of the year competitions came out of this, organised by Bord Glas – the horticulture development board and Johnstown was the first recipient of Irish “Garden Centre of the Year”.
Just then in the new millennium a road widening scheme adjoining the centre compulsorily acquired a quarter of the site and John made the brave decision to relocate the whole garden centre across the road to the existing nursery site. This was a huge undertaking but was very successful as the business could expand rapidly with new carparking, the large Garden Café and the Conservatory Centre which John had founded in the meantime.
John had 4 sons and 1 daughter, and they and their children all worked there over the years. John still took a daily interest in the business during his retirement. We were lucky to have had him for so long. Today the Garden Centre is owned and managed by son Sean and his family. The Conservatory Centre is owned and managed by son Peter. Jim and Maria are happily retired and Pat lives in England.
John is survived by his wife Elsie, daughter Maria, sons Jim, Sean, Pat, Peter
He made a difference!