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History of Poplar Nurseries

Poplar Nurseries is a family run business now spanning three generations...


First generation

In 1938 Poplar Nurseries was born.  Eric Cowan, the father of Martin Cowan, bought three acres of land at the entrance to Great Tey Lane.  There he started growing annual flower plants outside, and cucumber and melons under glass, all for seed production.   Eric was always improving growing techniques and in 1958 was one of the first people to grow 60 tons of tomatoes to the acre.

By 1965 Eric Cowan had developed the three acre site with glass houses for tomato, chrysanthemum and bulb production.

When the Second World War ended in 1945 Eric Cowan wanted to expand his seed growing, so in 1946 he purchased 13 acres of land for the sum of £500.  This is the land where the nursery is situated today. He continued to grow carpets of alyssum, lobelia, nemesia, antirrhinum and other bedding plants as well as seven miles of sweet peas, all for seed production for Carters and Suttons seeds.

Second generation

Born 1943, Martin Cowan helped his father around the nursery from a very early age.   Suffering badly with asthma as a boy, Martin infrequently attended school, with his parents and nursery work providing him with much of his education.

At the age of just 22 Martin Cowan became a director of Poplar Nurseries.  When his father retired in 1974 Martin started to specialise in growing chrysanthemums for cut flower sales  and in 1981 began retailing from a ‘help yourself’ stall by the roadside, selling a sleeve of cut flowers for a pound note.

Whilst growing chrysanthemums under glass enabled ‘All Year Round’ production, foreign imports were starting to have a financial effect on the business. 

In 1983, following a visit to nurseries in Florida, America, Martin realised the potential of hanging baskets and embarked on a change in direction for Poplar Nurseries.  From a mere 50 hanging baskets in 1983, Poplar progressed to producing several thousand a year by 1985, supplying companies such as Trust House Forte, Greene King, Chef & Brewer, as well as shopping precincts.

In 1980 Martin built his first retail shop.  This proved such a success that three years later it was replaced with a new, larger aluminium shop.

1988 saw the introduction of a new business.  Jointly run by Martin and his sister, Christine, Poplar Landscapes was born which specialised in restoring and designing gardens.

To help with seasonal fluctuations Martin started to introduce year round interest to the site through his first aquatic franchise business in 1989.  This success was followed with the building of a new barn in 1991 for the Grasshopper garden machinery franchise.

In 1990 Poplar Nurseries also opened the Pavilion Tea rooms to offer home cooked food, which in later years became the Thyme Out Restaurant.

By 1995 Poplar Nurseries had grown substantially, with glass houses extending over 1.75 acres, and with the early development of the landscaped gardens.

Third Generation

The third generation of the business now lies in the hands of Matthew Cowan, who was appointed Managing Director in 2009.

Born in 1971, Matthew, the youngest of Martin's two sons, joined the business in 1998 together with his wife Mandy upon returning to England following seven years of travelling.

Matthew started life at Poplar Nurseries as a shop assistant, operating tills and stocking shelves, but his years of experience in retail with the public soon shone through and he progressed up through the company.  He recognized the strengths of the business and, together with a loyal team of staff, has put time and energy into making Poplar Nurseries the success it is today.

Matthew has overseen the expansion of the restaurant together with the huge growth to the gift and Christmas departments, as well as the latest introduction of the Poplar Farm Shop. This latest venture opened in March 2010 and run by Matthew's wife, Mandy, has been very successful and well received by the local residents and surrounding community.  Mandy’s passion for food and cooking have given the farm shop a massive boost and there are hopes to expand in the future.

We are very proud of our family-run business, and with a fourth generation in the wings ‘who knows’.

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