Farm labourer who created garden centre

Published in the Herald, Tuesday 8 October 2013. Businessman and horticulturist;Born: January 28, 1937; Died: August 27, 2013. Eric Gallagher, who has died aged 76, was a former farm labourer who left school at the age of 12 and through years of dedication and hard work, built up a multi-million pound horticulture business. With his family, he ran Cardwell Garden Centre at Lunderston Bay on the outskirts of Gourock and was a passionate gardener at home and at work. The son of Irish immigrants who came to Scotland in the 1930s, Mr Gallagher believed in growing as much of his stock as possible locally and was convinced of the transforming power of gardening; it was, he said, a great social leveller.


“Even in the most deprived housing schemes,” he said, “we see some wonderful gardens. We call them urban oases. On the other hand, we have customers who are titled people. In our experience, people who enjoy gardening are generally good citizens.”

Despite his success – Cardwell was Scotland’s largest independent garden centre and employed around 120 people – Mr Gallagher lived a modest life, and was a generous donor to charity. He read The Herald every day as well as local papers and if he read in the paper of nearby gardens that had been damaged or vandalised, he would send workers from the Cardwell Group’s contracting business to fix the problem, sometimes causing disruption to the business’s carefully worked-out schedules.

Many of the schools as well as hospices and children’s charities in his local area were the beneficiaries of Mr Gallagher’s charitable giving which amounted to tens of thousands a year, and in recognition of this, Rotary International awarded him their Paul Harris Award.

Plants and gardening had always been the great passions of Mr Gallagher’s life. When not at work, he would relax by gardening at home. Holidays too were spent touring gardens of various kinds, although perhaps these trips were not always what his wife Isobel would have chosen.

He was also a conscientious and indefatigable judge as well as the principal sponsor of Inverclyde Council`s annual Gardenfest Competitions, with special sections for schools and youth groups, and a Floralfest for containers and hanging baskets.

Mr Gallagher also retained an ability to be delighted by the returning vibrancy of the plants he tended each spring. After a tough winter one year, he said: “Suddenly the buds have started to appear, the crocuses and daffodils have come out and it is amazing. It’s like the plants have been waiting to burst out. It’s reaffirming. Nature is a wonderful thing – and thankfully it’s the one thing we can’t control.”

Mr Gallagher, whose parents Charles and Annie Gallagher came to Scotland from Derry during the depression of the 30s, attended St Ninian’s Primary in Gourock. He did not go on to secondary school, but instead became a farm labourer before going off to do military service in Cyprus.

Returning to Scotland, he went into partnership with an Italian friend and sold ice cream all over the country, building experience and confidence in selling.

Next, with the help of family members in 1962 he took over a small piece of wasteland in Cardwell and started a market garden, before moving to the current site in 1970.

In a shrewd move, he saw the potential of creating one of the first garden centres in Scotland on the busy road to Largs, with views over Lunderston Bay and the Firth of Clyde, with the Argyll and Bute hills and the mountain peaks of the Isle of Arran.

Unusually, Mr Gallagher and his staff, who latterly included all of his three children Drew, Kieran and Stephanie, continued to grow most of what was sold in the garden centre.

Mr Gallagher saw cut-price stock imported from southern Europe as often inappropriate for the Scottish climate and wanted to carry on growing his own products as the best way to supply the hardy and healthy stock that enabled him to build a reputation of trust and reliability with customers over many years.

The garden centre, which is designed like a miniature park with more than 100,000 square feet of covered display areas and walkways, is now a popular stop-off point for visitors from all over Scotland and is a major tourist attraction in Inverclyde. Always in search of improvement, Mr Gallagher diversified into selling food and furniture products and opened the 300-seater Patio Restaurant, which was run by wife Isobel until her retirement.

Mr Gallagher’s commitment to quality produce was recognised with many awards including The Royal Caledonian Highland Society Certificate of Merit and a series of awards from the Chamber of Commerce. He was also a past president of the Garden Centres Association. Cardwell Garden Centre will continue as a family business.

Mr Gallagher is survived by his wife, three children and one grandchild.