Tributes for Ernest Wertheim, the original Garden Centre Guru
Tributes have been pouring in for the original garden centre Guru, Ernest Werthiem, who died last week in California aged 100.
As a landscape architect in the fifties he designed his first retail plant nursery for Jack Schneider. The term garden centre didn't exist before Orchard Nursery was designed and developed. Then in 1958 Ernest predicted that plants would sell better and last longer if they were sold in containers rather than bare root or rootballed.
In the eighties he brought his expertise to the UK, first working with Warren Haskins who leads these tributes to a remarkable man.
Warren Haskins, Haskins Garden Centres writes: "Ernest Wertheim was born in Hamburg in 1919 and as German Jew managed to escape Hitler by the skin of his teeth, just before the outbreak of the second world war, eventually settling in the US. After becoming a citizen he was trained as a spy to be dropped back into Germany but was seconded by General McCarthy to go to the Far East as an inelegance officer and he went on missions behind emery lines on a number of occasions.
"He had been qualified as a landscape architect so after the war set up a practice in San Francisco with two architects as partners, Wertheim Van der Pluge and Klemeyer. When finishing the designing a new house for the owners of Orchard Nurseries they were was asked to work on their retail business and in the process they came up with the description "garden centre”, so in fact coined that term.
"I met him at an IGCA Congress in California in 1981 and he started work for us a year later. The designs of the centres that he worked on were all unique as he was skilled at interrupting the businesses experience and ideas and working with the owners. Apart from Haskins, he worked with Bents, Barton Grange, Stewarts and Alton and also overall on projects on four continents. He has also lectured at GCA conferences and in many other countries.
"We opened our first centre purpose build centre in 1994 and have used the same model for three further centres, most recently at Snowhill near Crawley. He was not only a designer but a consultant and really got behind the families and the way a centre operated and we found that with our new concept we could run our purpose build centres with less staff due to the straightforward built-in efficiencies.
"He became my mentor and a good friend, and last August visited him at his home in Alpine Meadows, Lake Tahoe to find that his mind to still be sharp but that his body was starting to give up. He turned 100 years old on 30th December last year.
"He has recently produced his life story which tried to encourage him to find a way to turn into a film, but I think the production of the book was too tiring for him. Chasing Spring is available from Amazon and a good read."
Warren told GTN Xtra: "His life revolved around the garden centre and horticultural industry generally and his customers. He used to land in England after a flight from California. I picked him up from the airport at six o'clock in the morning and by 8:00 or 9:00 he would be showered and, in my office, working until 10:30 that night. I would pick him up at 7:00am the next morning for breakfast and he'd already done all the notes of the previous day! A remarkable man.
"His work has had enormous influence on the garden centre industry internationally and his legacy will live on for many years. Haskins as well as many other businesses around the world will be eternally grateful to him."
Guy Topping, Barton Grange said: "We found Ernest quite late on; in fact he was 84 when we started working with him.
"What Ernest did, which in my opinion was unique to him, was to work out what Garden Centre you wanted to build rather than deliver the Garden Centre that he thought you should build.
"This was achieved via a painful, lengthy process as he tried to work out what you wanted and in many instances you simply didn’t know what you wanted.
"He helped you to find the answers and for that I will always be eternally grateful.
"As we worked with Ernest over a period of years, we were fortunate to learn of his former lives; as an aspiring landscape architect growing up as a Jew in Nazi Berlin, as an intelligence officer in the US army during the 2nd world war and then his involvement in Garden Centres from their creation in the late 50s.
"There will never be another Ernest Wertheim!"
Derek Bunker, Alton Garden Centre recounts: "Ernest was not only an adviser to us, but also a personal friend. He brought an enormous amount of experience in garden centre retailing to our business and really opened our eyes in those early days.
"He never stopped working and even when we went out for an evening meal with him to a restaurant, he would be pointing out how they could be more efficient.
"There are an awful lot of garden centres around the world, UK, Germany, USA, etc. that have Ernest to thank."
Ron Bent writes: "Holocaust survivor, Intelligence Officer for General MacCarthy, World Renowned Garden Centre Designer all terms to describe one man.
"100 year old Ernest Wertheim has played a pivotal role in the development of Bents Garden & Home. Having been involved with the development of the Bents family business since the early 1990s he became a very close family friend and we are deeply saddened to hear of his passing.
"I first met Ernest when he was a guest speaker at the Garden Centre Conference in 1988, I was immediately taken by him and his approach to garden centre planning and design. He was a very knowledgable plantsman and garden designer so his approach was totally different.
"He was also actually a psychologist. He would listen to all of your hopes and aspirations and ask you the most difficult questions, nothing escaped his observations but he always managed to capture your ideas and dreams in his notes and eventually on paper in the garden centre design.
"He converted me from a reactionary into a planner and we still use to this day all of the questions that he would ask. “What would Ernest ask” is still a core part of our discussions and planning.
"Ernest has been part of the Bents family for many years, during which time he has helped us plan and deliver every stage of our development from the first shop extension in 1996 to our latest expansion plans. We are enormously grateful to him for all the help and guidance he has give to us over the years, but most of all we will miss him as a dear and cherished friend."
Matthew Bent comments: "Ernest was a big part of our life not only in work but also at home, he has shaped and influenced all our lives in a great way. ‘What are your plans for the next 5 years, Matthew?'
"He has had a fantastic effect on the business helping us to work together better, plan better and see the business from the customers point of view."
Reinhard Biehler, Baytree Garden Centre says: "Ernest was a pioneer of garden centre design and was a big help and influence on how Baytree developed over the years."
John Ashley told GTN Xtra: "Ernest loved coming to the UK and made many friends during his many visits. He loved talking on a one to one basis. His deep knowledge of marketing garden products and understanding the Miracle story within the US help me in the early days of the launch in the UK.
"He was very happy when talking to Horace Hagedorn two great industry men who will be long remembered. Rest in peace."
Sue Allen, Millbrook Garden Company: "I am very sad to hear that Ernest has died. Many of the leading garden centre entrepreneurs in the U.K. will not need me to tell them what a remarkable man he was and I know that the response to this sad news from around the World just underlines in what high esteem he was held by so many.
"Although Millbrook never worked with Ernest and his team on a professional level, meeting him on IGC trips or at the British GCA conference was always a memorable and enlightening experience. I particularly remember standing on the deck of the New York Harbour evening cruise boat, looking at the Twin Towers (destroyed just a couple of weeks later) while he spoke of sailing into New York as a young man and telling me of just some of his experiences. Having since read his book, I realised that was just one tiny part of his unique and incredible life story.
"My thoughts are with Ernest’s family and business associates as they all come to terms with the loss of such a lovely man and the end of an era in which he was the key driver of developing the garden centre industry of today. In these current difficult times I do believe that of all the retail sectors out there, we are privileged to be in the one which could potentially be in a far better state than most. This is in no small measure thanks to Ernest. What an amazing legacy he has left for us all."
Carol Paris, Rosebourne Garden Centres said: "I thought Ernest was an inspiration to all in the industry. A pioneer of garden centres. He was also a lovely man and great company. His book , Chasing Spring shows what an incredible character he was. He will be much missed."
Iain Wylie, GCA Chief Executive adds: "Ernest was known by many in the GCA, through his association with the IGCA and he attended a few GCA Annual Conferences too (which is where I met him). He has worked with many of the UK’s leading garden centres, helping them with developing their concepts and master plans and has made a significant contribution to the evolution of garden centres into the great retail destination centres we see today.
"On behalf of the GCA, our thoughts are with his family at this sad time."
Boyd J Douglas-Davies; HTA President: "Ernest was an incredible part of the Horticulture industry who for many, many years quietly and modestly influenced the shape of UK garden centres.
"There are many great examples of his work that are looked upon as leading examples of profitable retail. His skill can be seen throughout the world and will continue to inspire.
"One of the industry's true gents, he will be missed by all those who had the privilege to meet him."
John Herbert, European DIY Retail Association, based on Cologne said: “Ernest was a truly remarkable person and when you read his book “Chasing Spring” it is simply amazing to see how positive he was considering the destruction of his family by the Nazi’s.
I remember asking Ernest if he still felt he was German. He looked at me, paused and said... but John, I am an American! Ernest was an inspiration to all whom he came in contact with. Even at 98 years of age Ernest talked about the what we do for the future!"
Here's a video: Celebrating Ernest: An Unmatched Legacy, from American Hort in 2017.
"It is on the mountain, among the primroses, where both Margrit and I would like to be put to rest. We hope our ashes will provide some nutrients for these beautiful plants, just as my relationship with plants has nourished me. But it is the love and joy of my family — particularly for Margrit, our sons, and grandson — along with the gift of good friends and the many lessons I’ve learned that have humbled me and hopefully made me a better person. How lucky I have been."
Linda Parker Hamilton, Ernest Wertheim. Chasing Spring (p. 375). Lulu Publishing Services. Kindle Edition.