February 27, 2017

O Canada: To be Canadian


Rod McDonald I am Canadian. I love being a Canadian. I am proud to be Canadian. For 150 years, we, as a nation, have been struggling to define what it is that marks us as Canadian. In the ’50s and ’60s, so often, we defined ourselves as “not being American.” Not being something does not define us. It only tells us what we are not, but does not tell us who we are. In the ’70s, we began to recognize our cultural birthright. Writers emerged who gave a podium to the Canadian voice and identity. So did musicians, artists and performers. No longer was our arts community relegated to an inferior status. Stories began to be told describing who we were and where we had come from. A Canadian heritage became definable. 

Most importantly for myself, we recognized the oddities that set us apart, and we learned to laugh at those quirks. We Canadians laugh at ourselves, our sense of humility, politeness and our winters. We even laugh at Canadian jokes. “How do you get 50 Canadians to leave the swimming pool? You ask them.”

Pierre Berton spent much of his time writing about Canada, and through his stories, a portrait of the country emerged. One of my favourite Berton stories was set at about the end of the Second World War. I was yet to be born, but apparently some soldiers wanted to celebrate and the liquor stores were closed. The soldiers broke the front window of a liquor store and mayhem was the result. A Sergeant Major came along, ordered the men out of the liquor store, instructed them to form a line and allowed only three men to enter the store at a time. He imposed one other caveat. No wholesale looting. Each soldier was allowed only two bottles each. When we loot, we do so in a civilized manner. I laughed and laughed when I first heard that story. It is such a Canadian story. We loot in an organized and polite manner.

What inspired me to write this introduction was an email I received from the editor of this magazine, Lee Ann Knudsen. Lee Ann wrote, regarding another person’s letter, “This is exactly what I want Landscape Trades to do — connect our horticulture community and its personalities across Canada.”

Canada is a vast country, but I don’t have to tell you that. You already know how long it takes to drive across your province, let alone our land. Trying to bring together, unite if you please, business operators from this many geographic locations is a tough proposition. 

At one time, we could have started out by writing the one thing we have in common is plants — but that is no longer the strong statement it used to be. At one time, most of us were very much plant-focused. If not selling them, we were planting them, pruning them and maintaining them. While plants once dominated our business model, different products and approaches were added. Paving brick, vertical brick work, fencing, decking, xeriscape, water gardens and anything else that contributed to the landscape became our focus. We had entered into the ‘the outdoor living area’ age. We began to sell barbecues, awnings, deck furniture and fountains. Plants became less of a focus, to the point where I have met landscapers who know very little about ornamental horticulture and nothing about vegetable gardening. Their focus is ‘hard’ landscaping. Fair enough. 

The garden centres moved away from a strong emphasis on plants to embrace clothing, purses, jewelry and other fashion items. Again, fair enough. Each of us has to continually change in order to survive. The adage kicks in: If we do what we have always done, we have to expect that we are going to get, what we always got. Except today, if we do what we have always done, we have to expect that we are going to get a bit less every year. 

This past year, I have seen products selling, and selling quite well, at garden centres, that I never thought would sell. If only I could read the future a bit better, I would be at the race track, betting on the winning horses. Think of the money any of us could make for so little work, if only we could read the future with such certainty. 

Across the country, this trade of ours has adapted to change. Those who have not embraced change have often been left behind. When I started out in this business in 1977, there were more than a few greenhouse operators who would not grow in soilless mix or plastic trays. They grew in mud-filled brown maché trays. One operator in my area did not allow customers into his greenhouse until the Victoria Day weekend; he thought customers interfered with his growing. The goal of most greenhouses was to be sold out by June 1. If a customer wanted plants after that date, they were hard to find. Laugh if you must, but that was the way it was back then. 

Very few places are still operating in this manner and it is easy for the consumer to find garden plants into the fall. The season is now extended for most of us.
Another similarity that unites the trade across the land is customer service. The box stores and the chains have brought the need for customer service to the forefront. In every province, operators can tell stories of box-store customers calling for information regarding plants and products purchased from Home Depot, Rona, Superstore and Lowes. Gloria from Parkland in Red Deer told me, years ago, about receiving a fax from a woman who had purchased boxed roses at Home Depot. She needed to know how to plant them and she wanted the answer right away. You see, she wanted to plant the roses that afternoon so time was of the essence. Chop, chop. We laugh. We laugh because all of us have similar stories to share. 

Until the 1960s, parents usually taught their children how to plant flowers and vegetables in the garden. Gardens were family efforts. I can remember my mother teaching me to plant onion sets in the ’50s, but that proverbial ship has sailed. Today, many people arrive at our places of business and we are required to go back to the basics. Not everyone knows to water marigolds after planting. Not everyone knows to remove the plastic pot before planting their newly purchased apple tree, or to handle the root ball gently. Slamming a tree into its planting pit is not a good idea, but that must be explained. It is up to us to teach, to be a centre of learning. Those of us who do so regularly, tend to be more successful. Customer service is one of those tasks all of us have in common. 
Another shared experience for all of us is finding the right mix of staff. We need to find those people who can keep a set of books, those who can unload a truck, those who can deliver products and who can deal with customers. Most of us have learned that someone who is a good grower is not necessarily a good salesperson. Most of us have learned that we, ourselves, are not good at every task. One evening, I was in the greenhouse and a customer complained in the form of a question: “Why are your zinnias so small?” One of my staff, who had a very gentle touch to her voice, stepped in and replied, “This is the perfect size for transplanting. Any bigger and they will be set back for a week.” Just the answer to keep the customer happy, and yet I always find myself perplexed by those questions. 

All of us have learned the benefits of finding not only good staff, but staff with the right skill set for their job description. The frustration of dealing with banks and account managers, who either don’t take the time to get to know us or are incompetent, plagues our industry. Michel at High Q Greenhouse in Alberta had difficulties explaining to his lending institution that his greenhouse would grow plants that supplied other greenhouses, a plug operation. The bank just couldn’t fathom that concept. When I showed my account manager the blueprints for my retail store in 1989, his suggestion was that I have a large vehicle door installed at one end. “That way, if things don’t work out, you can store your vehicles inside for the winter.” Yep. Nothing says retail like a 20 x 12 ft. overhead door.

The commonality that unites us from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island (start singing ‘This Land is Your Land’) is the number of decent people we have, from the irrigation contractor to the nursery grower. At conferences, I am always impressed with the kindness of other operators. They are, for the most part, willing to share what has worked for them and what has not. We have a population of experienced and knowledgeable leaders in this industry. Of course, every region has that one particular person who grates on your nerves, but thank God it is not a room full of those types. In Saskatoon, a group of us were seated together, listening to a lecture on hanging baskets by a grower from Ohio. She was brilliant. Every time she said something, a smart assed remark would be forthcoming from a grower seated in front of us. One of us, who had much more tact than I possess, tapped the opinionated member on the shoulder and asked “Why don’t you let her speak without commenting on everything?” His response? “I would, if she knew what she was talking about.” How rude. How presumptive and how unlike the majority of wonderful people that populate our trade. As I wrote, every area has one of these and I try to avoid them. No doubt, you do, as well. 

From coast to coast, Canadian green trades people are so similar and Lee Ann’s magazine, Landscape Trades, helps keep us connected. Stay connected here and you will stay on the road to success. 
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.