We need each other

BY ROD McDONALD

Another guest joined me at the breakfast table in my favourite Saskatoon bed and breakfast. Put two men together at any table, in any city, and sooner or later the conversation will include, “So, what do you do?” Men are like that, me included.

My tablemate was a family doctor in a small town. The image of the country doctor, which is often portrayed in movies, came to mind. He quickly contradicted my concept, explaining his practice was anything but a Hollywood movie. He clarified that on any given day, approximately 20 percent of his patients had appointments because they were lonely, not for medical attention. His practice was overwhelming and when he went out, people would expect a roadside diagnosis from him. There was no time off. 

I had no idea. He told me isolation and loneliness are major problems in the farming community and he could not address those problems from a medical perspective. I asked him if there was anyone with which he could share these experiences; he said he did talk with other doctors in surrounding communities.

All of us have a strong need to unload or to share with others, who understand our situation. There are always going to be people who understand how we feel, and others who do not. I, most definitely, do not find fault with those people who do not comprehend what we, in this trade of ours, experience at so many different levels. How can we expect most people to understand our situation when we do not understand what they are going through? I had no idea what it was like to be a small town doctor until that morning.

I likewise have no idea what someone who works on a Ford factory assembly line experiences. I have never worked on an assembly line, just as I have never worked in a funeral parlour or an abattoir. I have no idea what most people go through in their jobs and professions.
 
I do have an idea, a very strong idea, of what it is to work in a greenhouse, a garden centre and a landscaping crew. I am grateful that I can call up Jan Pederson, my friend at Byland’s Nursery, or Garfield Marshall who used to own Advance Orchards or Les Vanderveen in Carman, Man., and a few dozen others from the trade. I can yell, scream, complain, share and most of all, laugh, when we get together. We have a strong need to bounce ideas off of each other or just verify we are not going crazy. 

Thank God, when I was young and starting out, I could share my experiences with older, experienced people within the trade. I would have a new experience, at least new to me, and I needed to find out if what I had just witnessed was normal. Could I expect this again or was this a one-off situation? I would get on the phone to these people and describe what had transpired. Often, they would chuckle, telling me what I had just gone through was normal and I should expect these things to happen again. And they were right. Very few experiences, and this is my 40th year, were solo events. Yes, the woman who told me she wanted to “die in Israel because it seems like a nice place to die” was a one-off, but the customers who asked, “Why are your prices so high?” were not. 

I had to learn how to deal with customers and the questions they would ask. What should I say to the customer who would be negotiating, telling me the place down the street is a lot cheaper? My friend Jimmy Moore owned the neighbourhood Dairy Queen. He laughed when I told him, many years ago, comments like that threw me. Jimmy taught me those comments are made in every business, including his. He had customers wanting D.Q. Royal Treats for the price of a McDonald’s sundae. Michael Touchette, at Jeffries Nursery, advised the return comment to be, “That’s an excellent price,” and then to shut up, putting the ball back into their court. 

It is so important that we have people who understand us and what we do. We cannot share with most people what we share with those from the trade. 

As I got older and more experienced, I started getting calls from younger people starting out. They would do what I had done 30 years prior; tell me a landscape customer had told them if they matched another company’s quote, they could have the job. My advice has always been that lowering a legit quote is a very bad habit. They would tell me about the ‘know it all’ customer who disagreed with everything they had to say. How do you handle that one? I would tell them to take a chapter from Dieter Martin’s book and respond, “Is that so? You learn something new every day.” We have all had that type of customer.
 
When I first started out, a man walked into my garden centre to tell me, “I have planted more trees than you have ever sold.” What could I say to that except, “That is impressive. By the way, did you drive down here to tell me that or is there another reason you are here?” Nope. That was indeed the purpose of his visit. You do learn something new every day.

My friends from school and my neighbours would visit my greenhouse in the spring to purchase bedding plants. A greenhouse is a wonderful place to be, indeed. They would be in a happy mood. Sometimes, they would say something along the lines of, “When I retire, I want to open a little place, just like your place.”

How nice. My ‘little place’ had 75 employees in the spring, thousands of customers needing personal attention and when I slept, which was not often in May and June, my wife said I talked greenhouse talk in my sleep. One night I sat up in bed and shouted, “Water those geraniums!” and then fell back asleep. She said she didn’t know if she should comfort me or get dressed, drive down to the greenhouse and carry out my instructions. You see? I can share that story with you, the reader, but not everyone else.

Most people from outside the trade think we spend our time either smelling the roses or looking at pretty pictures of flowers as we place our orders. I would try to explain, with futility, that what the customer thought we did was actually only one per cent of our working time. We are so busy moving plants, setting up displays, calling in reorders, answering the same question for the 20th time that day, and everything else it is we do, that we don’t smell the roses. Perhaps we should, but as any greenhouse father tells his children, “Smelling roses is for July and August, not for May and June.” 

I was not born into this trade; I arrived from the outside. I am from a newspaper family. I grew up thinking that all fathers carried around red pencils for editing. I thought that six men, sitting around our kitchen table, drinking rye whiskey, chain smoking and telling stories about prominent politicians, was a normal situation. 

My family never joined me in the trade. Readers from the trade can understand how many years it took to convince my family I could not participate in a Mothers Day Brunch. “I can’t be there. I have to be here,” I would try to explain. After 20 or so years, the family would come down after brunch for a small visit with me. I was no longer the errant son. Mom would wander around the greenhouse telling complete strangers, beaming with pride, “My boy owns this place.” I was back in her good graces.

May and June birthdays were celebrated in later months. Valentine’s was celebrated in March. Our staff Christmas party was held the first week of November. And yet, all of us grow weary of that crack, “So what do you do, spend most of the winter in Hawaii?” Yeah. That’s where we recover our greenhouses, order our plants, start our seeds, transplant our plugs, pinch our geraniums and answer the phone, on the beach or in a Mai Tai bar. 

I have to be careful I don’t write as if I have not had a wonderful life in the trade. I have. I have had blessings and many of them, but, and it is a big but (pun intended) I have a need to share ... which is a euphemism for letting off steam. I am, by nature and choice, a positive person, so grant me this one indulgence and I promise to get back on track next edition.

We need each other to maintain our focus. Those who try to go it alone are often lost — and quickly. Stay connected in every form that benefits you, and the road to success will be much smoother.      
 
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.