Keeping Things Fresh

June 13, 2011
Written by Michael Lascelle
There are five pillars to every retail nursery maintenance schedule – irrigation, air circulation, fertilization, routine cleaning and inventory rotation. All of these components are key to keeping your garden centre looking pristine at all times and not just during the spring rush, when most of the stock is fresh off the truck. Like any other business, first impressions are important and if your customers are confronted with bedraggled nursery stock for nine months out of the year they are likely to show as much interest in buying those plants at regular price as you show in maintaining them. In other words, you are devaluing your own product through simple and unnecessary neglect. Here are a few means of avoiding this:

cleaning plants  
Be sure to regularly dispose of spent or browned flowers.  
Irrigation – It only takes a week of overwatering or conversely, a few days without water to completely ruin a block of nursery stock, which is why irrigation is the most critical component of any maintenance program. While hand watering appears to be a very simple task at a casual glance, it is actually quite dynamic and changes constantly with temperature, precipitation and prevailing winds. Understanding the individual watering needs of specific plant groups is also critical, with succulents such as Sedum and Sempervivum requiring infrequent irrigation and others such as the sedge Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden’ requiring constant moisture. While automatic irrigation saves both time and money, it is not without a few pitfalls: valves seize, pipes get broken, timers crash and water spikes get removed by perusing customers. This means that someone has to keep an eye on things daily, making sure the automatic system is functioning properly and water spikes are replaced.

Air circulation – Many garden centres with cold frames or unheated greenhouses used for retail space make the mistake of keeping them closed-up for customer comfort. The resulting poor air circulation and raised ambient air temperatures often lead to soft plant growth, which is very prone to fungal infections. These shrubs and perennials are usually not hardened-off properly and they often suffer frost damage when planted early in the season. Proper spacing of flats and individual pots is also critical even when space is at a premium: crowded, wet conditions will only lead to extensive Botrytis and powdery mildew problems, which will in turn dampen those vital spring sales.

Plants such as Sempervivum have low irrigation needs and are easily over-watered.
Fertilization – Most containerized plants are grown in relatively small pots with a light, well-drained soil medium, which means that during warm weather they are watered continuously. This constant irrigation leaches nutrients from the soil very quickly and without some sort of additional fertilization (preferably through an in-line fertilizer injector) your stock is going to turn yellow pretty quickly. Hoses dispensing fertilized water will need to be clearly labelled as such (with multilingual signage) to prevent the assumption that the water is potable. Similarly, last year’s nursery stock will also need to be top-dressed in spring with a slow-release granular fertilizer or it is going to pale in comparison to the new stock, and once again become part of next year’s inventory.

Routine cleaning – Routine cleaning is probably the most labour-intensive aspect of nursery maintenance and it is certainly not inspiring to groom hundreds of plants for days on end, but it is absolutely necessary. Simple tasks such as picking up or deadheading faded blooms on shrubs such as camellias and roses are vital because no one is going to buy a plant laden with browned flowers or encircled in its own discarded blooms. This is also a good opportunity to spot check for pests and diseases that are often hidden, such as heuchera rust and minor aphid infestations, so you can deal with them before they become a serious problem.

labelling ephemerals  
Make sure ephemerals such as herbaceous peonies are well labelled to promote early sales.
Rotating those ephemerals – Ephemerals are those plants that have a fairly short blooming season, after which they go summer dormant or look rather poorly. I would include bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), herbaceous peonies, Aubrieta and perennial primulas among these. While they are usually top sellers when in flower, they often have little esthetic appeal afterwards and, unless sold at steep discounts, simply become part of your inventory for the following year. My advice is to stock these items well in advance of their prime blooming season and to make sure your product has attractive labels that show the plant in flower. Watch your numbers as the blooming season comes to a close so that you are left with as little remnant stock as possible.

Understanding that there are five pillars to nursery maintenance is critical but it is equally important to ensure that someone is responsible for each of these components. As the garden centre owner or manager, it is your duty to ensure that person understands and oversees them daily, especially when it comes down to staff vacations or the manager’s days off.
More in this category: « Herbal Delight  |  Planting the Seed »

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