Herbal Delight

June 13, 2011
Written by Andrew Hind
A touch of thyme, a leaf of rosemary, a pinch of parsley – any cook will tell you that adding herbs to your favourite dishes will make them come alive with taste and texture in ways you’ve never imagined. Herbs make all the difference between a good meal and a spectacular culinary experience. The rule with herbs is “the fresher, the better.” And what could be fresher, or more rewarding, than cultivating herbs on your own? Even a small garden or pot adds a dash of beauty and aroma, and because they don’t require a lot of space they can be grown almost anywhere.

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Herbs are traditionally a very small part of a garden centre business, but they also represent opportunities to make a profit and to connect with customers by filling a little-served niche. After all, the culinary arts are hugely popular on television and in print, leading to a wave of people interested in natural flavours and fresh, homegrown ingredients. As a result, the practice of growing herbs is enjoying a renaissance of late.

Just as the public at large is embracing herbs, so too should garden centres. Here’s how:

Tender loving care
Selling herbs successfully begins with proper care. Ill-tended herbs are unsightly and unpalatable, and therefore unlikely to draw customers’ attention.

“Product maintenance at the garden centre, to have the product presentable to the consumer, is one of the most important keys to selling herbs,” stresses Andy Whelan, sales manager at Freeman Herbs, Canada’s largest herb grower.

Watering: Herbs like to be a little on the dry side. Doing so forces the roots to stay at the bottom of the pot, looking for moisture. This promotes vigorous roots and healthy strong plants. Water only when the herbs need it and water thoroughly. The best time to water herbs is in the morning so that they have a chance to dry out by nightfall; an herb that sits in water develops less vigorous roots.

“Remember that the front and back rows of your plant displays will dry out first, so they may require a second watering,” says Whelan.

Fertilizing: Herb nurseries fertilize their plants daily, so it’s important that they are still fed after arriving at garden centres. Use 20-20-20 at 200-300 ppm (two tablespoons per gallon) twice a week. If you fertilize every two weeks (as opposed to twice a week) the concentration of fertilizer will be too high for the plant especially if you do not water thoroughly. This will result in the fertilizer building up in the soil and burning the roots due to high salt concentration.

Cutting: Pruning herbs will promote a vigorous plant with lots of side growth in the form of branches and leaves, meaning a greater “harvest” for the kitchen. The most important tip to remember when pruning your herbs is to leave a growing tip. This means that you can cut back to where there is growth on the sides of the stem.

Properly tending to herbs will increase their visual appeal to customers and reduce loss. In addition, staff educated in herb care will be able to converse intelligently on the subject with customers and pass along their knowledge.

Showcasing the product
How one displays herbs goes a long way to determining whether the plants will sell.
First, they should be placed in a location with a consistent temperature of 18-20 C (65-70 F), full sun, low humidity and excellent air circulation. If possible, establish a daytime environment 24 hours a day. Ideal growing conditions ensure the plants will be vibrant and healthy. 

“Rotate the plants on your display bench as the plants in the middle of the display bench always receive more water than those in the front and back. Always push the pots together and keep the flats filled, as this eliminates the possibility of the plants being underwatered,” recommends Whelan. “When a single plant sits exposed, it dries out faster and does not have the benefits of a cooling environment.”

All too often herbs are stuck in some corner of the greenhouse or nursery, off on their own and overlooked. You need to do more to draw attention to herbs. Invest in colourful signage that identifies the type of herb and how to care for it, show the possibilities by planting containers with aromatic and attractive herbs, and place these planters with both the herb plant and container sections. Consider incorporating herbs into ornamental garden displays alongside annuals and perennials, a strategy that will serve to inspire customers. Offer pre-planted herb containers, featuring the herbs most commonly used in kitchens, for sale – these may become high profit-margin items.

Remember that herbs can be grown indoors year round for culinary use. If your garden centre is open throughout the year, consider keeping a permanent kitchen herb display.
Pave your way to bigger sales by displaying accessories near your herb department. Show the plants with soil amendments, fertilizers, herb pots and so forth. Post checklists of relevant herb supplies.

Making sales suggestions
Salespeople and even cashiers should be trained to offer suggestions for add-on sales that can drive up the value of the purchase. These could include:
  • Herb pots (or even strawberry pots). While herbs can be grown in any clay pot, these are ideal because they maximize space and are attractive patio décor.
  • Soil-less planter mix
  • Pea gravel or crushed stone. When growing herbs in a pot, it’s best to include a central core of pea gravel or crushed stone to allow water to seep down to the depths. To do this, place a paper towel roll or piece of piping in the centre of the pot and fill the area around it with soil. Fill the roll or pipe with gravel, then remove.
  • 20-20-20 all-purpose fertilizer
  • Herb-themed books
  • Pruners
 
Tips for driving sales
There are a range of ways a garden centre can drive sales of herbs. Offer recipes that highlight the value of herbs on your website or as looseleaf handouts. Naturalistic remedies are becoming increasingly of interest, so consider including information on uses for herbs beyond the kitchen. Parsley, for example, is a great source of vitamin C, while sage can be made into a tea to soothe sore throats, tansy repels flies and lavender can be made into potpourri to freshen any room. Be sure to mention herbs in e-newsletters and advertisements as well.

Indeed, Whelan believes that consumer access to information on how to plant and care for herbs, and on their many uses, is a vital step towards people embracing herbs. Freeman Herbs (as well as other growers) has addressed that in a unique way that makes use of modern technology: “Our tags have a QR code on them so consumers can scan them with their smartphone and get instant access to information on our website for herb care, culinary uses, and so forth,” explains Whelan. 

To further broaden interest, consider offering classes about herb gardening with an aim towards making the sale of everything customers will need right then. Invite a master gardener to the store to host a seminar about herbs and their varied uses. Maybe even discuss the possibility of having a chef from a local restaurant come on site to host a cooking class that focuses on herbs; it can be a seminar or a barbecue demonstration.

“Variety is important. It’s past the days of your basic five to 10 herb offerings. Freeman offers close to 100 varieties of herbs, so you need to broaden the selection,” Whelan says. “One way to narrow down the varieties you’ll carry is to know your customer demographics so you can cater your offering of herbs to the area. No garden centre will carry 100 varieties but you can service your customer wants by identifying the demographics of your customers. For example, an Italian neighborhood would demand different herbs than an Asian one.”

Herbs are traditionally an overlooked segment of the garden centre trade, but interest is growing as people increasingly turn to fresh, locally grown food and passion for cooking reaches an all-time high. There is great potential to profit by herbs if you embrace them and move quickly to become the first garden centre in your area to focus on this market segment.

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