|Professional advice is more important in cottage country than elsewhere simply because the climate and terrain are less forgiving.
“The challenges faced by gardening in cottage country are many and varied. The main differences are different weather, sunlight exposures due to heavy forest cover, heavy snow load, extreme temperature swings, a shorter growing season, and the presence of wildlife,” explains Jacki Hart, president of Water’s Edge Landscaping in Muskoka, Ont., and an Industry Certified Landscape Manager. “There’s a different set of rules here, but you can have a successful garden.”
Don’t let the lengthy list of obstacles deter you or your customers. There are ways to overcome these natural shortcomings and enjoy a beautiful cottage garden. You have to show them how.
Of utmost important for a successful cottage garden is plant selection. Most people assume that means nothing more than taking a glance at a climate zone map and picking plants that fit the hardiness, but this simply isn’t the case. It goes far deeper than that.
“I took me two or three seasons of working in a nursery and garden maintenance crew to understand how some plants perform differently here than elsewhere. Retailers and contractors need to educate the consumer/home owner of the differences. It’s not as simple as picking plants from the Internet or a magazine,” explains Hart. “Additionally, there are extreme micro-climates as well, which results in nuances between properties. It might be as simple as one property being exposed to open lake and another being sheltered by dense forest coverage.”
Consequently, professional advice is more important in cottage country than elsewhere for the simple reason that climate and terrain are less forgiving. Garden centre owners want customers to succeed, so they don’t want to inventory finicky plants or ones that are borderline zone hardy. Instead, they should focus on plants that offer the greatest chance for success.
“Forget boxwood, yews, and those beautiful echinaceas with funky colours,” says Hart, laughing.
Plants native to the area are a logical choice to carry. In addition, plants that are largely maintenance free are strong sellers. Think perennial geraniums, lupins, hardy hydrangea varieties and hostas (low in maintenance and great in shade). Plants that are drought tolerant are important to consider as well, as often times property owners may be absent for a week or longer at a time.
“Containers are extra important in cottage country. Cottage-area garden centres need to focus more on containers than would otherwise be the case because the soil is so poor. There’s a great opportunity there for garden centres to meet the needs of customers,” explains Hans Van Klink, owner of Muskoka Lakes Gardens and More. “Additionally, we always say if you garden in cottage country you need to bring your own soil. Soils and soil amendments are important selling features.”
For in-ground gardens a raised bed is the best way to ensure plants get the good quality soil they need to thrive. If a property-owner chooses not to use a raised bed, they’ll have to work harder to improve the health of the soil by tilling or turning in large amounts of good-quality topsoil and manure into their existing soil.
Another opportunity for sales that’s unique to cottage country is in the area of animal repellant products, according to Van Klink. “Deer can send people around the bend and can be tremendously frustrating to a gardener, but there are all kinds of other critters that can treat your garden as a buffet. A whole range of repellants and preventative measures can sell well.”
Most wildlife are sensitive to odours, so you can often frighten them away with smell. Blood meal and chemical repellants – harmless but distasteful – will discourage mice, rabbits, deer and other animals for months. Chicken wire and tree guards are also effective in protecting plants.
Cottage gardens require some work and special consideration. So too does operating a garden centre in cottage country.
“Garden centres in cottage country need to be more sensitive to bad weather than those in other areas simply because in situations of bad weather people won’t go to their weekend property. In other places, on a rainy day people might go to a garden centre just for fun. That doesn’t happen here. As a result, you need to be careful about managing inventory and keeping fresh stock,” says Van Klink.
The good news is if someone is a gardener at their home they’ll almost certainly want a cottage garden as well. That represents a sizable pool of potential customers that, with effort, can be reached.
“I’ve been here 17 years and only did a bit of marketing to reach customers in the first few years. I found it really wasn’t necessary. If someone has the gardening bug they’ll come looking for you,” says Van Klink. “The important thing is to build a good relationship with your customers and spend the extra time with them to educate and ensure they pick plants ideal for their situation.”
That relationship is important because you’re competing not only with other centres in your area, but also those operating in a cottagers’ community of primary residence. Ensure that all of your staff goes out of their way to provide outstanding customer service, but more importantly, stress the unique, specialized knowledge only you can provide.
Additionally, those garden centres that offer landscape maintenance – even if it’s just as simple as watering, weeding and season-opening and -closing cleaning – will stand out because these services free property owners of the need to fill their weekends with labour and ensures their gardens thrive even when they are absent.
“The standard rules don’t apply here. It takes time to learn what works and what doesn’t,” says Hart. “But by selecting the proper plants you can have a successful garden. It’s our job to help them.”