How to Support Long-Term Staff Success

Jeff Jones, Owner & Manager, Great Gardens

Great Gardens in Torrington, Wyo. is a retail garden center largely serving eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. We have been under the current ownership for 11 years and the business has operated in this location for 50 years. We are open year-round, necessitating several full-time employees for the entire year. There are usually around 14 each year, both part-time and seasonal full-time. Many long-term employees have been here for my tenure or preceded my ownership.

Being a small independent garden center (IGC), there is not a lot of room for employee advancement; however, responsibilities do change and grow from year to year as the business dictates and employees grow within their roles. Normally they go from working in smaller greenhouses with fewer and less difficult plants to larger greenhouses with a wide variety of plants that must be treated differently every single day. Yes, they are given a lot of responsibility to keep all of these thousands of plants alive, growing and thriving!

I am not a micromanager, but when a new employee begins, they will generally shadow a senior employee just to see how to position plants and most importantly, water. As we all know, watering is usually the most important job in our business. I have several articles regarding our most important tasks, which I have collected over the years, and have every employee read them each year. One such article is “Water Management” from the October 2009 issue of Grower Talks Magazine.

Having employees with 15-plus years of experience is a great resource to any newbie and a deep well of knowledge about daily tasks to be completed. Although new employees are often turned over to those with more experience, it is always important for me to monitor their progress to make sure they are completing tasks the right way and especially in the proper time allowed for such tasks. While everyone works at different speeds, it is certainly advantageous to the employer to make sure employees know what kind of timeline is expected, as in “this is about a 30-minute job,” just to set expectations.

So much training is done on the job, but I am also a firm believer in additional outside training for all employees. This can be the local Master Gardener class, paid for by the employer. I try to get every new employee to go through this to gain knowledge, but also to expand their circle of friends in the area. Each new person they meet could be a potential customer.

A great resource to all of us is ProGreen EXPO. Held early in the year, it is a great event for new and experienced employees. I always have newer employees attend as many Certified Greenhouse Grower classes as possible. These provide great knowledge from the very beginning of the process to the end. They cover propagation, disease management, plant growing requirements, heating and cooling, and just about everything needed in the business.

I also take every employee on a field trip to our suppliers: plug growers to see where the plants come from and how vast those operations can be, houseplant suppliers to see the beauty and wide varieties offered, and hard goods suppliers where many growing materials can be seen. Finally, towards the end of the year are CNGA barbeques and industry get-togethers. We usually combine these with several visits to other IGCs and the CSU Trial Gardens. Mingling with others in the industry, seeing how other operations work, and scoping out the hundreds of new varieties usually provides the employee with a new burst of enthusiasm and new ideas to bring into the next year. It also brings a laundry list of ideas for improvements to our operation and a plethora of new plants we should be selling.

We are a heavy user of Facebook for advertising and getting our story out. We try to post every day all year long. Having a new employee is a great opportunity to post a picture and a welcome-to-our-team post, which can help us gain new customers through new contacts, as well as new followers for our page.

Every employee in our business is asked to do just about every job imaginable in the facility so they must be trained to do many different tasks. This is especially true when life happens and work schedules become interrupted unexpectedly. Although everyone tries to do their jobs as best they can, little issues happen from time to time. Rarely can an employee make a mistake that endangers or causes widespread damage to an entire greenhouse worth of plants; I leave those kind of problems to me. So, I also make it clear to everyone that even though they are entrusted with a lot of responsibility, any issues which happen are fairly minor.

Generally, we hire just about anyone who may fit into these positions. With proper training, adequate pay, defined expectations, occasional praise, and a fairly fun work environment, just about anyone can be successful in our industry.