Dare to try

Departments - Industry Outlooks

Supporting staff initiatives will strengthen your garden center and help it grow in ways you might not expect.

November 3, 2022

Photo courtesy of Rockledge Gardens

At the southwest corner of our annuals and perennials department, a gorgeous and unusual tree tantalizes guests with its silvery purple foliage and lilac-colored blossoms. It’s an Arabian Lilac (Vitex trifolia) and until a year ago, it tantalized in vain because we didn’t have any to sell. As much as our visitors loved them and wanted them, our growers were not growing them and this tree, though beautiful, was often a source of frustration.

Fortunately, a knight in shining armor came in the form of a new grower committed to growing those hard-to-find plants we know our customers are dying for. That grower is Rhodes Roots, owned and operated by one of our very own team members, Staff + Customer Service Manager Seth Rhodes.

“I was inspired to start a growing operation due to the high demand and low supply of certain plants,” Rhodes says. “I brought my idea and dreams to Kevin and Theresa, the former owners of Rockledge Gardens, and they were supportive. There was an unused plot of land across the street from RG that they’ve allowed me to use, and they have also acted as mentors throughout the process."

The tradition of trying new things is not new here. In fact, it’s truly at the root of our organization. Rockledge Gardens founder Harry Witte was never content to sit still; he was always asking, “What’s next?” His daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Kevin Riley, followed his philosophy, constantly trying new things to make the business better.

When I came to work at Rockledge Gardens fresh out of graduate school with a degree in performing arts administration, Kevin and Theresa were supportive when I brought my passion for events to the Gardens. Events have now become a new revenue stream and a critical part of our marketing strategy.

And though I loved exercising my creativity in events and marketing, it’s nothing compared with what my successor, Events and Marketing Director Jessica Castillo, has achieved.

Jessica Castillo, director of events and marketing
Photos courtesy of Rockledge Gardens
Liz Lark-Riley, managing director

“I try to be of the mindset that we don't know until we try, so why not just give it a try?” Castillo says. “Why can't we have a seminar about veggie gardening one day and then a yoga class the next day? Or a spring container garden workshop on Saturday and a watercolor painting class on Sunday?”

Castillo says events open up invitations to people in the community who might not have come to the garden center otherwise. To help spread the word, Rockledge Gardens partners with local artists and teachers who cross-promote to their own followers to bring in new faces.

“For inspiration, I look at events happening in other cities to see what we could bring to our community, like our annual nighttime Halloween event,” she says. “We’re located about an hour and a half from Orlando where hordes of people (including myself) travel every year to go to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios. So, I thought, ‘How can we bring this to our community?’ and that's how our Ghouls in the Gardens event was created."

The event involves live music, a projector showing classic scary movies on a big screen, tarot card readers, food/dessert trucks, booze and a haunted greenhouse scare zone.

“None of this is what you would expect from your local garden center, but we decided to do the unexpected and people loved it! The lead-up to the first time trying out a new event like this can feel a little nerve-wracking, but as long as you give it your best shot and lean on your team for support, you can take a leap of faith,” Castillo says.

Even proposing a new idea to a manager can feel like a leap of faith, and it’s my job to ensure that we create the kind of open communication culture that encourages bravery. Or, more accurately, it’s my job to create the kind of safety in our organization where acts of bravery are normalized, so team members might not even notice they are being brave.

I remember when former Annuals and Perennials Sales Area Leader Victoria Woods came to me to tell me she wanted to stop carrying tropical milkweed in favor of native varieties only. Vic knew the numbers, she saw how much tropical milkweed we sold and she knew we would be losing money by switching to native only. But she was passionate, she knew a lot more about the environmental implications than I did, and she knew we would listen. We supported her decision and asked her to write a special email to our Garden Bugs explaining the change. The response from our community was overwhelmingly positive and we’ve never looked back.

Another act of bravery I will always remember came from one of our cashiers, Mykayla Hagaman, who approached me after just three months of working with us to propose reinvigorating our Little Bugs Club children’s programming with a summer nature-themed book club for kids. She took the idea and ran with it, and now Little Bugs Club has evolved to include monthly events and a monthly newsletter with an exclusive downloadable family activity guide. She’s even working on a self-guided field trip program for schools.

Mykayla executes the Little Bugs programming flawlessly. During slow times at the register, she always had an open tab working on her newsletters or curriculum, making use of every spare minute she had.

When our team is empowered to voice and try their own ideas, it is amazing how hard they will work to ensure they are successful. How can you empower your team? I dare you to try.

Liz Lark-Riley is a writer, speaker and leader who is passionate about growth (for plants and humans). She's having a blast helping her team create unforgettable community experiences at Rockledge Gardens in Florida. Learn more at rockledgegardens.com