Planting the Seed

June 13, 2011
Written by
It’s no secret that in today’s technology-driven society, people are spending less time digging in the dirt and more time in front of computer, television and cellphone screens. This means many children are growing up without knowing the satisfaction and pride that can come from watching a plant evolve from seed to blossom. This is where you come in. You have the power to educate and promote all things gardening to the younger generation and get them growing from the start. We talked to several garden centres to see what programs and workshops they have in place to plant the gardening seed.

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Children take part in a workshop held at the Al’s Garden Center location in Sherwood, Ore. The operation has become known for its successful kids gardening program.
 

For Canadale Nurseries in St. Thomas, Ont., the Kids Club is a relatively new addition. Co-owner Pauline Intven-Casier kicked off the club in May 2009, although prior to that, the centre hosted children’s activities on occasions like Christmas and Easter. The decision to create the club grew from a desire to provide entertaining and educational garden-related activities to the next generation of gardeners. “The baby boomers were great gardeners. We grew our own food in vegetable gardens and bragged about the variety of plants in the landscape. The next generation ran out of time and gardening became a lost art. Now that they are having children, they want to ‘get back to nature.’ We are helping to fill this need to giving kids a chance to learn about growing plants and how nature works,” says Intven-Casier. Through the program, Canadale Nurseries is also hoping to boost traffic to the garden centre and keep customers there longer, creating a destination for families.

The garden centre’s Kids Club provides a free garden-related activity every weekend and is based on a topic that coincides with the centre’s sales theme. For example, on Mother’s Day, the children planted a small herb plant in a four-inch pot with a card, a Mother’s Day pick and a small sample of herbal tea.

Intven-Casier says they work with the community, suppliers and staff to keep the Kids Club free and non-profit. To minimize costs, the garden centre sources volunteers from local high schools (Ontario students need a required amount of community service hours to graduate) and these students sometimes end up with a job at the garden centre because they are then familiar with the operation and how it works. Intven-Casier says they’ll also approach suppliers to donate things like starter plants, pots and picks, to the kids’ weekly activity. “In exchange, it builds good customer relations for them and we mention them in our Kids Club newsletter so the parents know they are involved,” she says. Whenever possible, Canadale Nurseries will include extras for the kids like face painting, a colouring table or free balloons. Parents stay informed of each week’s activities via the newsletter and this has helped encourage the steady growth of the club.

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“I think we’re a great believer that if they’re having fun then they don’t even know they’re learning,” says Tam Andersen of Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm in Bon Accord, Alta.
 
In just two years the garden centre has accumulated 1,500 families on the newsletter list, and on some weekends, Canadale will see 300 children over the course of two days. The centre’s customers have embraced the program. “It’s a weekend ritual for many families now. They come and have a coffee while the kids engage in the gardening activity. In our case, the Kids Club is in a high-traffic area so the other customers get to see the fun too. Many stop to watch for a while and enjoy the kids’ enthusiasm. It creates a sense of community,” says Intven-Casier.

Over in Bon Accord, Alta., Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm has developed its greenhouse and garden centre to the point where it’s become an agro-tourism destination. It’s more than just a garden centre – the business includes a petting farm, a strawberry U-Pick, a pumpkin patch and a seven-acre corn maze. Owner Tam Andersen says these activities play well to the younger set. “Even when they’re very young and their parents come out, they spend time having fun, learning about the animals and, of course, flowers.” The garden centre also offers inexpensive or free programs that educate children about a certain season or aspect of gardening. Andersen offers up a recent example of an Earth Day program that taught young attendees about the zero mile diet and how to grow a bean in their own backyard. During the businesses’ summer day camps, the children take a train tour of the farm and hear about how plants grow from the roots and up. Learning is an interactive experience – Andersen says the children can help transplant pumpkins, taste test edible weeds, pick peas or sample strawberries to enjoy a tactile learning experience. “I think we’re a great believer that if they’re having fun then they don’t even know they’re learning but they certainly are growing an appreciation for how food grows and where it comes from.”

Area schools also make an annual field trip to Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm – Andersen says that during the course of the year, the operation will see 9,000 children who come to learn about the centre’s spring planting program or take part in the fall harvest activities. “We’ve been doing it for over 10 years. It started small but each year we try and add a new element or feature to it so it becomes something that teachers will hold as a tradition in their field trip booking schedule,” says Andersen.

Having been an early pioneer in attracting children to Prairie Gardens, the garden centre is now seeing the kids program’s first recruits coming back with young families of their own. Occasionally staff will overhear parents sharing with their children their own experience at the garden centre many years ago. Some of the program’s attendees have even returned to the centre as employees.

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Adults usually accompany children during the workshops at Al’s Garden Center and even come to the sessions armed with gardening questions of their own.
 
Al’s Garden Center in the U.S. has three locations in Oregon and has been catering to young gardeners since the late ’90s. As with the other garden centres we spoke with, the company was concerned with a declining interest in gardening and felt that instilling the value of gardening in young people would be a great way to revive the hobby. Amy Bigej, the director of Al’s Garden Center’s educational program, says they kicked off the first kids program at the Woodburn operation and slowly expanded it to the other two locations once it took off. Through the program, kids meet once a month at the garden centre to do a fun activity. “In the beginning we maybe had 10 to 20 kids, and we were excited to have 20 kids, that was a big day,” says Bigej. Now the largest retail location attracts 100 to 150 kids alone and the three locations combined pull in 200 to 250 kids each month. Each month has a theme and the cost per class is $5 per child. No matter what the theme, the children always get something they can take home and grow on their own. In October, the company holds a free event called Kids Bulb Day where the young ones can come plant bulbs and learn about that particular plant.

Parents accompany children to the kids club and most often stay, although it’s not required. The kids range from three to 11 years old, with most falling between five and nine years old. “It’s been really neat to see the parents asking questions and learning along with the kids. It’s an atmosphere where they don’t feel uncomfortable and it doesn’t make them feel stupid if they don’t know the answer to something.”

The benefits of the program to Al’s Garden Center are numerous. “It’s really been a positive experience. One of the biggest things is the goodwill. I think it just nurtures that relationship with families. It’s amazing how many families come in with a camera and they take pictures of the kids,” says Bigej. The program is a big boon to the garden centre during slower months like January or February, when people might not necessarily come by the business if not for the club. “It brings people in and we definitely see a boost in our sales for about an hour to an hour and a half after our club,” she says. It’s also created a community-like feel for shoppers. “We’ve had people tell us before ‘I live close to another place where I can buy plants but we came to your store because we feel connected here,’ so it builds relationships for sure.”

While Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm, Canadale Nurseries and Al’s Garden Center have successfully expanded their clientele thanks to educational sessions and workshops, that’s not the only way to capture the youth market. Halifax Seed Company Inc. in Halifax recently brought in a children’s line of seeds from Sutton Seeds in the U.K. The company’s Emily Tregunno says the “fun to grow” line incorporates gardening tips with fun facts and even games on the packets. “The packaging is really designed to attract kids and is made kid- and parent-friendly by providing most of the supplies you need all in a kit together. The varieties that are chosen to be a part of the line are all quick to germinate and easy to grow. The vegetables chosen are ones that kids are used to eating.” Overall, the customer response to the Sutton line has been positive, although Tregunno feels it can be a bit of an impulse buy.

The media is another method that’s worked well for the Halifax Seed Company garden centre to promote this sector. Last year, Tregunno did a segment on the local television show “CTV’s ATV’s Live at 5 Garden Guide” on gardening with kids and she says it generated excitement with shoppers about this product line.

Each of these garden centres has proven that catering to young green thumbs can be more than worth your time and effort. Not only will you grow your current customer base by attracting parents of little shoppers, but also you will help sow the seeds for future garden lovers. 

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