Cape Town - The early 1960s were a heady time for local gardeners. Stellenbosch gardening author, the late Una van der Spuy, was launching gardening books that would influence a generation.
Local gardeners were busy planting trees, shrubs (hydrangeas), herbaceous borders, rose gardens and swathes of green lawn. In the back garden were fruit trees, a vegetable patch and compost heap.
Stone terraces made gardening on slopes easier, slasto paths were laid from the gate to the front door, and a table and chairs were placed on slasto under the shade of a tree. Rectangular swimming pools were located far away from the house, and fish ponds were rare.
Local gardeners bought trees from municipal nurseries, bare-root roses came through the post from mail-order companies, and bedding plants wrapped in wet newspaper bundles were bought from door-to-door salesmen.
Plant nurseries were located in unmarked backyards or on smallholdings owned by enthusiastic gardeners. Plants were grown in jam jars or paint tins, and labelling was non-existent.
The arrival of newly qualified Dutch and German horticulturists in the early 1960s introduced a whole new dimension to gardening in SA. Having worked on German rose farms or in the Dutch bulb industry, they brought knowledge and exciting cultivars to a rather rustic gardening scene.
A young Robert Stodel had worked on the famous Dutch bulb farms during his school holidays and over weekends. After studying horticulture in Aalsmeer, he immigrated to SA in the early 1960s. He initially worked as a consultant to the many flower farms in the Western Cape, advising on bulbs and potting-soil mediums.
With good connections in the Netherlands, Stodel began importing flower bulbs which he sold either door-to-door or from an informal stand on the Grand Parade in Cape Town’s city centre.
“I survived on a couple of apples and a pint of milk a day,” he recalls with a smile. “Not to mention passion and a vision.”
Working out of a garage in Plumstead, Stodel developed a six-page bulb price list which he sent out to local gardeners.
By the mid 1960s, Stodels Flower Bulbs had become the biggest bulb retailer in the country, posting nearly 320 000 36-page full-colour catalogues to gardeners twice a year. To fulfil orders, he imported up to 20 million flower bulbs from the Netherlands annually, which were distributed across SA.
The customer-centric systems he developed for his direct mail business were so sophisticated that the director of the SA Consumer Council requested that he assist in establishing a National Direct Mail Organisation to monitor the emerging direct mail industry, and ultimately eliminate dishonest trading. The result was the formation of the SA Mail Order Association (now the Direct Sales Association), of which Stodel was chairman for 15 years.
Discount garden centres:
Ahead of his time, Stodel could see that gardeners wanted access to more than just bulbs.
His vision was to establish a one-stop garden centre that sold not only bulbs, but also associated products such as plants, tools, fertilisers and insecticides. It was a radical step from the concept of the backyard plant nursery, and in time would place SA garden centres at the forefront of international best practice.
In an encounter that is now legendary, Pick n Pay mogul Raymond Ackerman is reported to have told Stodel: “If I can discount fresh vegetables, you can do it with plants.”
Stodel’s first one-stop garden centre was opened in Kenilworth in 1968, followed by a store in Bellville in 1973. “From the start, I wanted to establish a one-stop, self-service garden centre which offered stock at discounted prices,” Stodel says.
As an important player in the country’s transition from plant nurseries to garden centres, he established many of the systems we now take for granted in garden centres. He guaranteed every plant sold, bought large consignments of plants and bulbs to keep the prices down, and entered into co-operative import deals with Johannesburg garden centres to make sure Cape Town gardeners had access to a range of goods (especially ceramic containers) from the Far East.
Credited with bringing Arbor Day to SA, Stodel was a passionate advocate of greening in disadvantaged communities, and used his high profile to invite local and international celebrities to plant trees in the first week of September.
Over the years, he initiated a peace garden for Nelson Mandela at the Trauma Centre in District Six. It is here that trees were subsequently planted by Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Prince Haakon of Norway and Prince Albert of Monaco. Over a 20-year period, Stodels sponsored the donation of about 400 000 trees to projects in and around Cape Town.
In 2007 Stodel handed the company over to his son Nick, and went into semi-retirement.
“I definitely feel that after 50 years, it’s time that young energetic blood with new ideas and technology must take the company much further,” he said at the time.
Today, Stodels Nurseries Bellville is regarded as one of the largest garden centres in the country, and has been the recipient of multiple national industry retailing awards. The branch in Kenilworth continues, and in 2005 Stodels opened a branch in Milnerton which was honoured in the recent SA garden centre awards of excellence. Constantia Stodels was opened in JanuarY, and a branch in Somerset West is set to open soon.
Nick Stodel now heads the five Stodels garden centres. A past president of the SA Nursery Association and current president of the International Garden Centre Association, he continues to source plants, stay at the forefront of international trends, and supply an ever-increasing range of equipment to local gardeners.