Couple finds big business in mini garden parties

Business is blooming for entrepreneurial husband and wife Amy Kate and Bill Chinn. Last year the Southlake couple sprouted a home-based business called Amy Kate Gardens, planting the latest trend of miniature gardening with direct marketing in a social networking home party setting. Their cottage industry is taking root as word of the mini garden parties spreads across the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “I get four women at every party who raise their hands to have their own party,” Amy Kate Chinn said. “Not all of them turn out, of course. But people are really loving the parties and we’re getting a lot of demand.” Chinn, 44, had been working as a local sales representative for Stella & Dot, a San Francisco-based social selling company. She left to become a stay-at-home mom and then began looking for “something fun to do” professionally while rearing the couple’s five young children. The idea for Amy Kate Gardens started when she saw a gnome garden her sister had made. She Googled gnome gardens, found fairy gardens, and after extensive research decided that the business for tiny, fantasy-themed plots showed some promise. “It started in Manhattan where florists created them for people who don’t have big spaces for full-size gardens,” Chinn said. “I was invited to a Pampered Chef party and the idea clicked.” Pampered Chef is another popular in-home direct seller. “I’m not a gardener at all but I knew this was going to be a trend, especially with women and children,” she said. Chinn scoured the Internet to find small-scale accessories appropriate for mini gardens and began buying them, eventually hosting a free party for adults to test the concept. “Everyone had a blast. They all told her she should start a business,” said Bill Chinn. “We realized right away there was a market for this.” A former vice president of stores at GameStop Inc. for 20 years, Bill Chinn, 45, owns six Red Mango frozen yogurt and smoothie stores statewide and is managing partner at Ricardian Capital LLC. He wrote up a business plan for Amy Kate Gardens. Completely self-financed, the venture launched 18 months ago. Bookings are on the rise, say the couple, who have hired three sales representatives to keep up with demand. “We’ve never looked back,” Amy Kate said. “We thought we’d be doing mostly children’s birthday parties but interest is growing from women’s groups, garden clubs and schools. Adults are having just as much fun with this as the kids.”

How does your garden grow? An average party includes 10 to 12 guests and lasts about two hours. The Chinns take the guesswork out of the process by supplying everything needed to build a mini garden: containers, potting mix, plants, mini trees and accessories. Each guest selects a kit from 10 miniature gardening collections ranging in price from $20 to $60. Children’s kits are priced lower at $15, $20 and $25. Guests then pick from an assortment of doll-size furniture, stones and landscaping items, each tested by the Chinns for scale and sustainability. Fairy, elf and gnome figures have been a hit at little girls’ birthday parties, the couple said. Amy Kate guides the group while they create their miniature worlds. “Adults are always nervous that they won’t be creative,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the first time people have been creative for decades. Time stands still for them. They just go, go, go working on their garden and they get competitive with each other but in a fun way.” Live plants are critical to the success and longevity of a miniature garden, Bill said. A marketing class at Southern Methodist University, Bill’s alma mater, researched and studied individual plants to determine which ones are the hardiest, have the same growth rates and watering requirements, and that are most to scale for a mini garden. The Chinns contract with a grower in Lewisville to develop compatible plants. “You don’t have to have a green thumb to do this. We’ve done all the research so it’s easy,” Bill said. “The part I like to see is how neighbors and friends come together and help each other.” Amy Kate said adult guests enjoy creating a garden they remember from their childhood. Many of the mini gardeners return home and create tiny outdoor gardens with their families. “The energy, the wow is just amazing at the parties,” Amy Kate said. “It’s just not like a typical sales party. It’s an activity.”