New Programs Require Staff Support

Head Grower of the Year finalist Victor Vasquez of Park Hill Plants

When we started the annuals program this year, we had 180,000 square feet and started growing bedding plants. We just decided to do it. An important part of getting started on a new program is to have the customer base. You have to have someone that is going to buy your bedding plants. And, of course, you have to have the buildings to grow the plants. Manpower is also very important in terms of having someone who knows how to do it. In this case, the staff here knows how to do woody ornamentals, perennials and so on, but they did not know much about bedding plants. That’s where I came in. As head grower, I like to teach people.

Explain The Why When Training

When I started with the annuals program, I was already here for a year. This gave me enough time to start learning who at this company really cares about the job. I knew who I had to talk to about the new business. I talked to these growers, and they wanted to work with me. They had the “I want to,” and once I had that, I told the growers what was involved.

I made the staff a part of my decision-making as well. When I go around the greenhouse, I walk with them. I explain what I am looking at and what I see. As we all walk around, if I see a problem, I tell them what I see and what it is. I also explain my reasons for thinking that. It’s all about sharing my train of thought with the other growers. From my perspective, the more everyone knows what I know, the better we are.

In order to teach the employees what to do, I gave them the ownership of the job. I told them what the program was about and what it required in a way that was clear. It was about teaching them what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and the reason why it needs to be done. I didn’t just tell them, “Do this, do that.” I always tell them the reason why we need to do it and why it needs to be done a certain way. This way, once they know the why, next time they can do the job themselves.

With the bedding plants, how to water is the most important thing. In my opinion, the person that controls the end of the hose is the person that controls your quality, your shrinkage — everything. You cannot just water the plants because it is sunny and warm outside. You have to see the soil and see how the plant looks. I had to explain how much water you put on an annual that was just planted versus a plant that has been in the greenhouse for a while. Each stage requires a different volume of water.

My big thing is not to water too much. I don’t want the soil wet. This is something people take for granted. It’s normal for people to see if the plant is dry, but if there is a person who knows absolutely nothing and the plant is wilted, and I tell them not to water it, this can be confusing. But the problem could be the roots. It could be too dry, or insects may be causing the issue. It could be a lot of things, and determining the problem isn’t something they learn on day one. If workers own that part of the job and they really want to learn, however, they start learning very quickly.

Use Appearance To Determine Plant Needs

I also wanted the staff to learn how to talk to the plants. I did not want to have a schedule where because it’s Monday or Tuesday, you come in and fill or spray the plants. I decided that was not how we were going to do things. I said, “We are going to talk to the plants. We are going to look at them, and the plants are going to tell us exactly what they need.” Everyone learned by watching the plants, seeing how they grow and what they look like. It is very simple. The plant is supposed to be green. If the plant is yellow, there is something wrong. You start teaching the growers that the yellow plant may need nitrogen or may be iron deficient. Once they started talking to the plants, they knew exactly what to give the plants in order to make them happy.

This process requires time, but my thinking is that if I start talking to people that way, they will start paying attention to the plants. They would come up to me and say, “Victor, the plant looks this way, and it used to look like this way.” They start talking to me about the plants, and to me, that’s what this process is all about.

Challenges Of Starting A New Program

It was a challenge to put in the new program. It was a big job, but everybody was willing to get involved. The biggest challenge was that we were putting in the plants while we were still building the greenhouses. I was wondering if my plants were going to be on time or if they were going to be late because of how we did the planting. Another challenge I had here in Oklahoma was that it was just too hot and dry. I don’t know how we overcame that, but we did a good job.

Overall, everything went very well. One thing that could have been a problem was that when we were planting, we didn’t have everything sold. I think our annuals sales were minimal at the time, but our owner is a very futuristic guy. He likes to do things in a big way, and I am the same way. I said, “Let’s go for it.”

Unique Products Stand Out At Retail

As I said before, you need to have a customer base when starting a new program, but this company has a lot of customers. Only a very small percentage of annuals was sold, but we knew we would succeed as long as we had the right quality and product that wasn’t competing with the guy growing 4-inch annuals around the corner. And that was true. We had specialty and unique items — combination baskets and big planters — that people wanted to buy. We started with the big products that people look for. Not many growers have 16- and 20-inch baskets and 16-inch planters that are full, colorful and look good. I think the quality and the uniqueness of the product got us into the market and helped us sell everything.

Last November, when we started to think about what to grow, one of our major customers came to us and asked us if we could grow big baskets. We said, “Absolutely.” We decided to do it because, in my experience, when you go to the box stores and the big chains, all they carry are 10-inch baskets. These stores all have the same one or two items. You go from store to store and everyone has the 6-inch annual. You aren’t going to find big combination baskets or big planters. That is how we came up with ideas.

In 2013, production will increase. The business is growing. We are growing new combinations and planting new items that we didn’t have this year. The operation is still focused on growing big items, so when a customer sees this item in the store, she buys it because it looks different than the other items available.

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