Garden centre pioneer Michael Cooling has died

  • Michael Cooling, how to get the best from the new Fisons Grow Bag in the 1970s
  • Michael and Shirley at home

Michael Cooling passed away after a short illness in February 2019 aged 84.

He was the only son of Arthur and Miriam Cooling who lived in the town of Chislehurst, where Arthur was the postmaster and had built up a small but successful market garden in his spare time. 

Early experiments with growing shrubs in large tin cans

Having trained at the Kent Horticultural Institute in Swanley and completed his National Service in Germany, Michael joined his Father in business, which was then called ‘Little Farm’.

Michael had many new ideas and was an early pioneer of soil-less composts, often comparing notes with Arthur Bower. He corresponded with George Ball in USA who was achieving great results with hybrid seeds of colourful annuals.  

Early experiments with growing shrubs in large tin cans (salvaged from the local hospital) were quite successful, too. These early containers allowed easy self-service by the customer and could be successfully transplanted all year round.

The first garden centre

The early 1960s saw the first Garden Centre in Chislehurst, when Michael was allowed to take over one end of a small Dutch-light greenhouse. The initial stock of pots, string, bamboo canes and John Iness compost cost 37 pounds and ten shillings, and was viewed with great skepticism by his Father. 

Michael was an early member of the Horticultural Trades Association - Garden Centre Group (which went on to become the GCA) and along with Jeffrey Bernhard he was one of the UK delegates at the first Garden Centre Congresses held in Germany.

Move to Knockholt

By 1988 it was clear the one-acre site in Chislehurst was too small to sustain the thriving business and was sold for housing. This allowed the purchase of Robinsons Gardens, a fourteen-acre site in Knockholt, whilst still having sufficient funds to build a new shop a year later.

Always one to re-invest the profits, never borrow money, and develop people who were keen to learn, the business continued to thrive, Michael was very proud to collect the first ever Horticulture Week “Retail Nursery of the Year” award in 1997 and this was followed in 2005 by the GCA Garden Centre of the Year. 

Coolings remains the only business to have twice been voted the Best Garden Centre in the UK by readers of Which? magazine.

The team that Michael put together, continues to run and develop the business and this legacy now comprises three sites over 45 acres. More than 200 families gain some or all of their income through working at Coolings.

Family

In 1961 Michael married Shirley and they had two sons, Paul, now chairman of Coolings, who is married to Carol and has two children, and David (51). 

Over the last 20 years Mike and Shirley gradually withdrew from running the business to enjoy travelling and spending time in their own garden in Chislehurst. 

Shirley Cooling died in February 2018 after suffering with Alzheimers disease for four years. Michael passed away after a short illness in February 2019. United in peace once more.

Funeral

The funeral will take place on Tuesday 26th March 2019 St Nicholas Church, Church Lane, Chislehurst BR7 5PE, at 11:30am. Family Flowers Only. Donations to British Heart Foundation, c/o Welham Jones, 4 Belmont Parade, Green Lane, Chislehurst BR7 6AN.

Would those intending to attend RSVP to Paul Cooling paulcooling@coolings.co.uk or call 01959 535195.

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