Teaching Green

The entire planet seems to be on a shift toward “green” living. Because of the fairly recent change in the zeitgeist, many garden center retailers have been taking the opportunity to look at what they’re selling and ask, “Is this what my customers are looking for?”

But to carry new lines of products that are either certified organic, natural or sustainable, the challenge becomes training the employees in the benefits of said products to pass that along to the customers. We asked a few retailers who have been in the business of selling earth-friendly products to provide some helpful hints on how to get employees up to speed.

Straight From The Source

Many retailers have brought in specialists or representatives from earth-friendly product manufacturers to provide detailed information about these types of products. One example is Rockledge Gardens in Rockledge, Fla., which brought in Suzanne Wainwright-Evans of Buglady Consulting, a well-known, industry specialist in natural pest control.

“Our philosophy is for the safest and most earth-friendly options for nutrition and pest control,” says Theresa Riley, co-owner of Rockledge Gardens. “We believe in integrated pest management, which includes respect and appreciation for the natural order of things. We try to train our staff and customers that most insects are actually beneficial, or at the very least, benign.

“One thing that Suzanne did for us when she was here was to categorize all of the products that we sell for nutrition and pest control. She then charted them according to what they control from friendliest to the environment to most harmful. There are very few symptoms that require the stronger controls. We have shared this chart with all employees.”

Merrideth Jiles, garden center manager of The Great Outdoors in South Austin, Texas, uses written material from Grow Green, a city organization that promotes organic and natural methods of pest control and fertilization. He, too, brings in industry members and company representatives to speak to employees about the products they will sell.

Hiring From The Start

Though it’s not necessary to hire someone with an extensive background in organic or natural products, several retailers say they state their philosophy upfront and find many times the hiree feels the same way.

“We seem to be attracting many folks to our business who already share our philosophy, and when they express it during our job fairs or an interview, it certainly gives that applicant a leg up,” says Skip Shorb, owner of American Plant Food Co. in Bethesda, Md. “But we really are looking for ‘people’ people, and most of them adapt quickly to our philosophy.”

John Dromgoole, owner of The Natural Gardener in Austin, Texas, agrees. “They don’t have to know everything to be hired here, but we find out they have a basic knowledge of what we’re doing here.”

As long as they have an interest and a desire to learn, he says, they can’t go wrong.

“Many have no clue when they get here and they leave as ambassadors.”

Once Shorb hires, much of the employee orientation program is built around the decision seven years ago to sell natural and organic products and be a beacon for green living.

“Once a year we close for a day (in January) and present Earthwise University,” he adds.” This is an all-day program around organics, sustainability and customer service.”

Do As I Do

Several of these garden centers also train employees simply by living what they preach. Dromgoole has a garden master named Roger Igo, who takes care of the many display gardens on the 8-acre retail site. The display gardens are all managed organically and naturally, so employees spend time with Roger to watch how he uses certain products and what the effect is on the plants.

“He explains stuff as he’s working, and they’re sponges,” Dromgoole says of the employees. “Pretty soon they have real-life experience.”
Riley says Rockledge Gardens allows employees to take natural and organic products home to use. That way they, too, can see first-hand how effective the product is.

Shorb sent more than half his staff to a three-day seminar on earth-friendly alternatives and de-toxifying and feeding the soil. He also sent one employee to a three-day seminar on how to make compost.

Why It’s Vital To Train

Retailers who begin to delve into the world of organic, natural and sustainable products must keep employees knowledgeable to ensure the products are being used properly. Dromgoole says if employees tell customers incorrect information, it can mean an unsuccessful gardening experience, and not only will they stop gardening organically, but they’ll stop shopping at your garden center.

Customer success is imperative, and Jiles says a well-trained employee absolutely equates to better sales.

“You have to believe in what you sell,” he says. “I encourage employees to use these products themselves, give away samples to them, and use most of what we sell around the nursery when necessary. If they see it work, then they can be confident recommending it to others.”


Defining Green

Several terms get thrown about when talking about the green movement in horticulture. We asked several retailers what they thought the following three terms meant. Here are some of the answers:

This one is more cut-and-dried than the rest. Several retailers said organic is a product that is certified either by a state or a body like OMRI. Also, another retailer said organic refers to a carbon-based product.

This one is a bit trickier. In fact, one retailer said the word ‘natural’ gets abused because it doesn’t have a true definition when applied to horticulture products. Several said it refers to ingredients that are naturally occurring in the environment with little or no human processing. Two of the retailers make their own products and label them natural, even though they could be certified organic. They both said the expense to have them certified would only translate to a higher price on the product, and wouldn’t increase sales or make the product any better.

This term relates to the product’s ability to renew or carry on, says one retailer. Another says the sustainability movement is about creating a “softer” living or growing space. And finally, one retailer says sustainability means the practice can continue without exhausting the resources the Earth has to offer. He quoted Gandhi in his response: “The Earth has enough for man’s need, but not enough for man’s greed.”


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