The spring rounds: 
Change, and staying the same


BY ROD McDONALD

I am writing this at the end of June; the spring rush is wrapping up. I have made my rounds of the independents and box stores. I have talked to the growers, the landscapers, the chain store clerks who know nothing about plants, the gardeners of average ability and the super gardeners. I never tire of talking to people from our industry. This trade is an addiction, one that I have had for many years. 

My wife complained, “You will spend three hours, walking through a nursery field with the grower but I can’t get you to spend 15 minutes in a shoe store!” Okay. She had her say and got that off of her chest, so what is her point? This is one of the few places where I can write or say something along these lines and be understood. 

The box stores continue to move a lot of product. They are good at that part of the business. They are not so good at looking after that product — but that is not a new story. 

All the box stores in my area were poorly run except for one. The one that was in good shape; you could tell, immediately, upon arrival. Three staff members in their 50s and 60s were watering. They were watering carefully, ensuring those plants needing attention received it and those that were fine were passed over. Why I even mention this is the traditional method of watering in ‘chain store city’ is to ignore everything for two or three days, then flood everything for the next few days. These staff members were being conscientious and I assume their manager was cut from the same cloth or he/she would not have hired them. I was as surprised as you are to find one store that was being decently operated. 

The independents had appearances ranging from excellent to embarrassing. I have no idea why an independent would allow dead or dying plants to remain on its benches. Customers do not buy sick plants. That is a dictum that needs to be posted in every greenhouse and in every employee’s handbook. I realize when busy times are upon us, those little details can be overlooked. However, little details such as removing the dead and the dying must be right up there with watering. A quality control officer needs to be appointed, even if the greenhouse only has one staff member. This is not optional. 

Some plants are not ready for prime time. They need a couple more weeks before being set out. These should always be in another greenhouse, not open to the public. If that is not possible, they should be at the back of the retail house signed ‘still growing’. Independent customers are more sophisticated than most. They understand if a plant is not ready, just yet, but they don’t understand when a small plant is being passed off as saleable. They expect poor quality plants to be on display at the box stores, but we are held to a higher standard, and rightly so.

I can share a story about higher standards. I carried out a major flower planting job for a homeowner. After finishing the job, a maintenance crew was supposed to take over. They were not doing a job equal to my standards. I spoke to their supervisor and he responded, “The customer said everything looks fine.” Being a little hot headed when it comes to plant maintenance, I shot back, “My standards are higher than the customer’s and those are the standards I want met.” I know why I am so insistent on high standards for plant maintenance. It is quite simple. If maintenance slips, it takes the planting bed time to recover. Meanwhile, the customer is noticing and rightfully complaining. I have always believed that we head off customer complaints in advance. I detest fighting a rear guard battle. 

Writing regarding maintenance, I am struck by the number of people, often students, who have a half-ton truck, a lawn mower and are now in the lawn care business. Or at least the truck sign reads ‘lawn care,’ even if all they do is mow. I am quite cognizant that our industry has always had the occasional mower and landscaper. Some of these operators do not even fertilize, let alone control weeds or work on shrub or flower beds. When asked, they have no idea what NPK is. 

Without regulation and licensing, there will always be these types. They exist from year to year as they low-ball their way through the market place. Some customers are quite satisfied with them, but they really do nothing to improve industry standards, let alone our reputation. 

The painting industry has the same problem. Every year, the market place is populated with house painters who have no idea what they are doing, but they do it quite cheaply. It shows in their work. My mail box is filled with flyers advertising their services.

Moving along, there is an adage “At times we have more brains in our feet than in our heads.” One of our local landscapers has relearned that lesson. The landscaper does excellent work and charges accordingly. Last year, he provided a quote to a homeowner. The homeowner didn’t want to pay for a first-rate job. He wanted something cheaper and for whatever reason, the quality landscaper agreed to carry out the lower priced job. This story writes itself. This spring, the customer is not happy. He wanted a much nicer looking yard. The landscaper’s side is, “You got what you paid for.” The argument is in full swing. 

As I am close to the landscaper, I had to tell him where he went wrong. He should have walked away from the job, never started it. This conflict was foreseeable and it is a costly lesson for any company. These bargain, low cost jobs have a nasty habit of coming back to bite you. My beloved mentor would often say, “If you charge enough up front, you never mind going back to fix a problem or to replace a plant.” In essence, I could, you could, write this story every season. It is not a new one. We need to use the brains in our feet.

I continue to be impressed with companies from the trade who operate good vehicles and quality equipment. A truck need not be new, but it does need to be clean, in good repair and well painted. A truck is a mobile advertising board seen by thousands of people, including potential customers. No one is impressed with machinery breakdowns on the job site or with junky trailers. There continue to be a few fellows in my city who operate vehicles with broken signal lights and other issues. The truck will often be riding low to the ground, as they insist on loading more material than the truck can handle. In their world, they believe they are saving money. They cannot explain the cost of blown tires and worn-out shocks, but it really does not matter as they seldom replace those parts anyway. Let them do what they do, as you continue to impress people with what you do. 

I was asked to share two stories from the old days during my spring visits. I was helping to train a young crew for a local company regarding maintenance. I told them the first and most important tool they need to load onto the truck is the broom (or leaf blower). They thought I was joking. I told them we are not in the landscaping business; rather, “We are in the beauty business. People pay us to make their residences look nice and that means cleaning up after ourselves.” I told them about the landscaper I knew, in the ‘70s, who bragged he didn’t own a broom. If a homeowner asked him about the dirt left from digging out their yard or installing the topsoil, he would bluntly say, “If you want it cleaned up then do it yourself.” I just cannot get my head around that attitude. 

The second story is from 1980. One of our local landscape supply yards asked me to tell their staff this one. Crusher dust is used in our area for the base under brick work and paths. It costs $46 per yard plus delivery. In 1980, few had heard of crusher dust. A man who operated a trucking company told me he used it in his yard, and it held up in all weather. “It’s a great product and the trucks pack it down and make it even harder. It is an all-weather surface.” He was sold on its use.

He gave me a phone number to call. Crusher dust, being a by-product of crushed rock, was considered a waste product. If you wanted it, you could have it for the cost of the hauling, which was three bucks a yard at the time. Thirty-six dollars got you a 12-yard gravel truck of crusher dust delivered anywhere in the city. As I am telling the younger staff this story, they are laughing. They are not certain if I am really old, making it up or if I am taking too much medication. What can I write? Nothing stays the same. 
Keep your vehicles clean, your equipment in good shape, your broom always close by and you will stay on the road to success.      

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.