February 14, 2024
Building your team

Building your team

Where to find ideal candidates


Whether you work at or manage a garden centre or landscape business, we all share certain challenges. How often have you invested in hiring staff only to have them leave shortly thereafter, or find that they are not a good match for your needs? I hear comments about the lack of recruits, lack of commitment in showing up for interviews or even ghosting the first shift after someone was hired. These are real challenges. I would, however, suggest that as a business operator you also look at the big picture as to why you are having hiring issues. Of course our business is seasonal but it is also cyclical. You know well in advance that spring is coming, and planning for changing staffing levels needs to be continual.

It starts with you

First, take a look at your work culture. From every failed encounter or employee who quit, there are clues about your culture that can be insightful in how you can make improvements to prevent the same occurrence from happening again. Ask yourself what frustrates employees about working for you? It’s easy to feel defensive here, but I encourage you to have the courage and trust in your staff to ask them these questions and take their feedback on board.

Before you look too closely at candidates’ weaknesses, it is important to look at employee needs: what training, support, flexibility, teamwork and future opportunities for advancement exist in your business? You might have more success if you focus on building strengths.

The benefits of hiring student and second-career staff

For me, one of the biggest success strategies is drawing from different pools of candidates. I have always been a fan of hiring mature high-school-aged students with the expectation that they could have a three-year career with your business. It always impressed me how well returning staff were able to tackle many challenges and consistently match the desired service levels that were required. Having a mix of first, second and third year students also provides you with a good balance of young mentors for the new employees.

As an added bonus, you may even have a few of these employees who are willing to work while completing a post-secondary education, giving you even more seasons of employment. College and university students are an excellent pool to draw from as they tend to be finished exams by late April, which is when garden centres are starting to have maximum staffing needs. This approach to using students works well for garden centres large and small. With larger centres, I suggest aiming for 50 per cent new recruits and 50 per cent seasoned experienced student workers.

Give the returning employees opportunities to earn a higher wage, develop some leadership skills and expand their areas of responsibility to appeal directly to the type of employees you want to attract, nurture and keep.

Retention is better for business than hiring all new employees, regardless of the expectation that experienced employees deserve to be paid more (which I fully support). Productivity and quality increases as an outcome of having happy, engaged and motivated employees. Customers enjoy seeing familiar faces when they come into your garden centre whether they’re young or mature employees, so long as they’re friendly and helpful.

A second potential pool for great employees is the group of people who have retired from their career jobs and are looking to do something meaningful while they make a bit of extra money. When you find the right individuals in this group, I urge you to take care of them and hopefully you can keep them on your team for many years to come. This group often has flexible availability, and can be more accommodating when asked to stay late or leave early if business warrants that. They may also be seasoned expert gardeners who can add a huge amount of experience to your team. I have had many experiences where people like this have worked many years seasonally and are a pleasure to work with.

Welcoming new employees

After hiring the right employees, training and onboarding are the most important things to invest in. Matching employees with the right roles is critical. In this business, it is often difficult to get long-term commitments from staff, so the window between hiring and starting can be very short. This is compounded by the fact that garden centres go from being very slow in sales volume in winter to having peak yearly sales within a few intense weeks during the spring. That’s the nature of the business, as being able to maximize on enthusiastic home gardeners is a key to success.

When speaking about staff, we also need to talk about health and safety. Employee safety is one of the critical foundations that every business should be built on. I do not like to consider health and safety as an additional business expense. Health and safety fits within solid business operations, and means following legislation and providing a safe, supportive environment to do a job well.

Setting reasonable expectations

Success depends on having clear, honest expectations of what you as an employer can offer to employees. Sometimes young student employees need to work nearly full-time hours during spring and summer to support tuition and living expenses. If you can not offer that, you need to be upfront about it. Be clear about what you can offer as well as what the work environment is going to be like. Harsh weather, beautiful weather or a combination of both are normal in garden centre work.

Let’s also discuss the group of employees that simply love what they are doing. They may not want advancement, but they certainly want to know they are appreciated. Be sure to “catch” employees excelling and celebrate their contributions.

Building a good strong team does not happen by accident. Being prepared for unexpected change, having back-up plans, developing, supporting and providing opportunities to all levels of staff make a huge difference.

Whether your business already has a strong retention and employee training program or you feel it should be a priority for 2024, my suggestion would be to commit to improving what you have been doing but always be mindful of your resources and time. Sometimes a few small changes will tip the scale and make meaningful differences in retaining and developing a great team.        


Regardless of who you hire, it’s important to communicate the basic skills essential to having a successful career with your company. This short list includes skills that you can adapt for onboarding at your business — things you can encourage every employee to bring with them to a new job.
  • Show up on time for your shift (better yet, arrive early)
  • Have a positive attitude
  • Demonstrate a high level of energy in doing your job
  • Use positive body language and be aware of what that means for customers
  • Be inclined to do a little extra and show initiative
  • Be coachable and show respect to your co-workers and supervisors

art vanden enden
Art Vanden Enden loved every minute of his 44-year garden centre career with Weall and Cullen and Sheridan Nurseries. In retirement, Art enjoys giving back to the profession with Landscape Ontario’s Garden Centre Sector Group, and sharing his experience with Landscape Trades readers in the Art of Gardening column..