Liberator, horticultural entrepreneur and garden centre visionary Edo Ansaloni dies
The extraordinary life of Edo Ansaloni, an Italian war veteran with an eclectic passion for nature and life

BOLOGNA, Italy: Garden centre founder and containerised nursery stock pioneer Edo Ansaloni died in Bologna, Italy on 31 January, aged 95.

The news of Edo Ansaloni’s death made headlines in Bologna and beyond. In most of the obituaries, people pay tribute to a great husband, family man, photographer and historian. Ansaloni, who fought as a partisan against the Italian fascists, the German occupation and the ruling elites during the Second World War is also known for his role in setting up a museum about the efforts of the Italian Resistance, the Museo Memoriale della Libertà in San Lazzaro di Savena.

Ansaloni was a true pioneer of Italian, European and global nursery stock growing; a legacy which continues to increase. He also thought about the joy our industry brings and established Europe’s first customer-centric garden centre, first in Rome and then Bologna. He was also a member of the European Commission proper of the nursery gardening, in Brussels, in the 1970s.

Recently in 2018, Patrizia Cardaci and Michele Tusi of Coplant in Canneto sull’ Oglio, a leading wholesale supplier of outdoor plants to garden centres at home and abroad, invited me as one of the keynote speakers during their Verdeggiando garden retail event to mark the company’s 25th anniversary. I shared my insights on Italian garden retail, and I had to dig deep into my country’s garden retail market past. Being a former owner and publisher of horticultural trade magazine Flortecnica I was of course not wholly unfamiliar with the subject. Curious to know more details I decided to give Edo a call, who very kindly, and with incredible detail, explained how he became the first horticultural entrepreneur in Italy to design and build a garden centre in Rome.

Ansaloni spoke about what drove him to make this decision to begin in Rome. It was the complicated politics of post-war Italy and the land reform risks posed by the governing communist party at the time which prompted him to leave his hometown of Emilia-Romagna and seek his fortune elsewhere. He said, in those days, investing in ‘Red Emilia’ was a risky undertaking which led him to focus his business activities in Rome.

Ansaloni bought a plot of land on the Via Pontina in 1952 with the idea to establish a plant nursery. But then, he says he read an American magazine article about Martin Viette who ran a garden centre shop in Long Island (NY). He was enthusiastic about it and travelled to the US to see the store with his own eyes. As soon as he got back to Italy, he applied for a building permit and opened his first modest store. In 1958 he decided to add to his business, and in January 1960, the then Minister Umberto Tupini officially opened what is said to be Europe’s first garden centre.

What followed next was an AIPH meeting in Genoa and Turin with Italian delegate Comm. Ermanno Sozzi. Soon the news about Ansaloni’s revolutionary garden centre reached AIPH members who flew to Rome to visit it. The story goes that when AIPH’s American representative congratulated Ansaloni with his smart marketing ideas, he replied with, “thank you very much indeed. But actually, I copied the whole idea from the US”, while handing him a business card with Martin Viette’s address.

He said: “Arturo, didn’t think that it was easy, back then. The situation was completely different than today, with a multitude of products for sale on retail shelves. Back then there was nothing … and everything had to be invented, to begin with, plant pots.”

In the late 1950s, potted plants were sold in earthenware pots, large shrubs and trees with root ball or in large tubs weighing several hundred kilos – clearly not suitable for self-service.
On another trip to the USA, Edo visited Monrovia Nursery and returned home with a solution. He designed a machine to make cans for growing garden plants and his company, Vivai del Circeo di Sabaudia, became a pioneer in the production of containerised outdoor plants. It was from this idea that a few years later the brothers Bonanomi and Spreafico, owners of Plastecnic in Perego Brianza, designed the first plant pot of polypropylene and in March 1970 Armando Cassera founded plastic pot manufacturer Arca in Curno.

In the 1970s, as the political situation normalised, Ansaloni invested further within the garden centre business in Bologna.

The loss of Ansaloni is a loss for the global ornamental horticulture industry. I am proud to call him, my friend. I send sincere heartfelt condolences to his children and his family, from his floriculture friends.