August 4, 2021
Time to say goodbye
BY ROD McDONALD
THERE COMES A TIME when each of us must call it a day, say our goodbyes and chart a new course. The time to say goodbye to On the Road to Success has arrived.
My reason for leaving is two-fold. First, I am concerned that I am repeating myself, as I have been writing this column for 14 years. There are only so many ways I can phrase the basic concept that by taking care of your customers, your staff and your business affairs, everything will work out.
Second, I have no desire to become a caricature of the old guy standing around saying, for all to hear, “in my day, we did it this way.” If I leave now, there is room for someone younger, with a different vision and viewpoint.
In this column, I have often mentioned the small, family-owned greenhouse, two miles outside of Regina, where I work part time. When that family started out, they needed me to tell them where to buy products, as well as how to plant, sell, display and price plants. I was there to help them get up and running. I stepped back from the day-to-day operation of the greenhouse a couple of years ago and I am proud to say they are doing very well.
Their hanging baskets are great and they have become very good growers. They don’t need me hanging around giving out advice. My role has changed and rightly so, as it should, with time. My job, now, is to clap and cheer and say “well done.”
This is my 45th year in the trade, having started in 1977. I fell into the landscaping business, by happenstance, not by any plan of my own. I installed a new back lawn at my house, then one for my mother and then another for her neighbour. It was just me putzing around. However, after ordering sod for the third time, the supplier asked me if I would consider installing sod for his customers. I thought “why not,” and that was the beginning.
In my second year, a customer asked me to pick up a tree from a local nursery and to plant it for him. After that introduction to the world of plants, I began asking other lawn customers if they wanted me to plant shrubs or trees for them. To my surprise, many people did. I began setting aside the money that I made from selling trees and shrubs. At the end of the season, I had earned enough to buy a new fridge and stove. I was on Easy Street.
I soon outgrew my backyard and opened a retail operation on rented land. My plan was to sell only trees and shrubs, no bedding plants. But a friend told me, “You have to sell bedding plants! That is what people will be coming to buy.” I took his word for it, and found a company that sold me a 36 by 20 foot cold frame, telling me that I could set it up in two or three hours (hah!). My friend was right. People were buying bedding plants from my single poly, cold frame.
I started doing things that others in my locale were not doing. The local greenhouses allowed customers to buy their plants. There was little service offered and I believed that needed to change. Also, the local merchants would sell out by the end of May. I wondered where people would get their plants for the cottage or to fill in empty spots?
I decided to stay open all summer. And it worked. There was a market for bedding plants well into June, July and even some customers into August. The first year or two, the garden centre owners laughed at me. But their laughter didn’t last long as they watched their market share diminish.
I kept expanding every year. I bought my own acreage and built more greenhouses as well as a store. There were good people, well established in this trade, who helped me along my own road to success. I found a lifelong mentor in Dieter Martin of Langham, Sask., and I never regretted that relationship. Bud Boughen from Nipawin, Sask., was another source of good advice. Wade Harwell, based out of Calgary, Alta., pointed me in the right direction many times, and he would also warn me about people to avoid, which came in handy on more than one occasion.
The best thing I ever did was to find solid advisers. Even more importantly, I was willing to truly listen. Being teachable is important at any stage in a career.
Over my years in this trade of ours, I have seen many changes. When I started, nurseries sold bare root plants to their customers, both retail and wholesale. Garden centres had to pot up their bare root plants to extend their season. Container growing was relatively new to the trade, and the widely held belief was that container growing would never happen in the Prairies.
The second change was the expanded season approach to include year-round garden centres. People were convinced there was no season beyond May, and they would sell off stock at half price to clear out by the end of the month.
I never believed in half price sales or wrapping up the season early and I took a lot of heat from customers who had come to expect big sales in late spring.
The third change has been in the greenhouse part of the trade. At one time, all bedding plants were sold in papier mâché trays of 12 plants. There were few hanging baskets available, and the regular size for those was a six-inch pot, while a large size measured eight inches. Very few gardening aids were sold. If you were lucky, a hand-filled, plastic bag of plant food could be purchased. Today, garden centres sell an incredible number of products throughout the year.
Landscapers have evolved to include fencing, decks, all types of brick work as well as water features, and today’s landscaping jobs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The skills of today’s landscapers are amazing. I am impressed. Forty years ago, most landscapers did soil work, grading and sod installation. Very few carried out timber work and even fewer installed plants.
What has not changed is the incredible and wonderful people in the green trades. People such as Kelvin Vanderveen, Hans de Jong, Rob Van Zanten, Gerry Aubin, John Byland, Bill Van Belle, Wilbert Ronald, Casey Van Vloten, Karl Stennson, Michel Touchette and others. All are honest, hard working people, who have always supported their customers. This business of ours is one of the last that runs on a handshake, where your word and your reputation are everything. I have thoroughly enjoyed my life in this trade.
Thank you to all of the readers who have taken the time to write letters and notes of appreciation for this column. The positive feedback has always been appreciated. I was fortunate to have had three wonderful editors in Sarah Willis, Lee Ann Knudsen and Scott Barber. Writing for Landscape Trades has been a privilege.
I leave with one last message to readers. Heather Lowe and I have worked together in this trade for 41 years. Heather asked me a few years ago what would I do differently if I were to start again. My answer was simple: In my younger days, I saw everything in black and white, and I was too hot headed. I burnt bridges when I should have been building them.
I hope you all 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.