Water pressure

Departments - Retail Revival | Store improvement tips from the Garden Lady

Is your staff up to the challenge of keeping plants hydrated?

July 13, 2022

Equip employees with updated wands and create a thorough list of watering do’s and don’ts to eliminate mistakes.
photo © DragonImages | adobe stock

A friend of mine recently put up a Facebook post showing a rack of wilting to nearly dead plants. As a plant professional, he knew that these had arrived at the box store where he was shopping in great shape, and he cringed to see them dying for lack of water. “Oh, the humanity!” he wrote, referring back to a reporter’s comment during the crash of the Hindenburg. People’s lives weren’t being lost on that plant rack, but the sight of ruined plants does stress people out.

Independent garden centers often use the care of living stock as an example of how we differ from the big-box stores. “Our plants are healthier because we pay attention to the watering,” we tell our customers. This is true, but it doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Staff priorities, inexperienced employees, weather and the needs of different varieties can make the simple act of watering a challenge.

Set staff priorities

When I worked in the perennials section at my garden center, we had a sign nearby that listed priorities. It read:

  1. Customer service
  2. Watering
  3. Display
  4. Signage
  5. Plant cleanup

We recognized that keeping plants well hydrated keeps them looking their best, so this was placed just below serving our customers. Even with this clear reminder of the importance of watering, it was often hard to keep plant stock hydrated during the busy months.

Some garden centers hire people in their busiest season whose only duties are to go from one section to another with the hose. This works well if the plan is in place in advance and it’s clear who will be responsible for training those workers. If waterers are hired at the last minute in the heat of the spring or early summer rush, there may not be time to instruct them on how to do the job effectively.

Spell it out for new employees

Every IGC employee knows that keeping plants watered isn’t just a matter of placing a watering wand in someone’s hand. But we sometimes forget methods that come naturally to us aren’t always obvious to less experienced plant people. Those new to watering need to be taught the basics, from the handling of equipment to how to make sure a dry root ball is well saturated. Here are some suggestions to put on a Watering Basics training card.

  1. Move in an organized way from one section to the next. If you see a few plants that are starting to wilt in random areas, it’s fine to squirt those with water quickly to save their lives, but once those urgent cases are taken care of, go back and proceed area by area.
  2. Try to place the stream of water under the foliage, directly on the soil. This isn’t possible for all plants at all times, but avoiding spraying the foliage and flowers keeps most plants looking more attractive.
  3. Pay special attention to small pots or six-packs on the corners of flats. These often end up getting less water, so be sure not to miss those outer edges.
  4. Don’t rush. Water long enough to totally saturate the potting mix.
  5. You can check to see if you’ve watered thoroughly by occasionally going back to an area you’ve already done and tipping a plant out of the pot. Is the entire root ball soaked or is the bottom of the soil still dry?
  6. For larger plants such as perennials or shrubs, very dry soil will pull away from the pot. In these cases, the water runs out through that gap between root ball and container, leaving the inside still dry. Water very dry containers once to swell that root ball, and then go back and soak them again to be sure the entire pot is saturated. Yes, it takes twice as long, and yes, it’s worth it.
  7. Plants that have been kept too wet will wilt and look similar to dry plants. If plants are wilting, lift the pot to see if it’s heavy or feel the soil for moisture. A dry pot will be light and the potting mix will feel dry.
  8. If you’re called away from watering, be sure to place the watering wand where customers aren’t likely to trip on it. Don’t throw wands down to the ground — this is likely to break them.
  9. When watering is done, coil hoses neatly and make sure the water is turned off at the spigot. Avoid leaving hose connections in the road where cars might run over and smash them.

Watch the weather

Humans are often very inaccurate when it comes to measuring rainfall. If it was drizzly overnight and the plants have water on them in the morning, people may assume that the plants don’t need watering. Ask your employees to check to see if the plants have indeed gotten well soaked by rainfall. Tip plants out of their pots to make sure roots are completely saturated, or lift them to see if they’re still lightweight.

Even in a good rainfall, there may be plants that haven’t gotten soaked. Look for pots that are under benches or otherwise protected, and be sure that they are hand-watered after a rainfall.

Invest in your equipment

Nothing is more frustrating for employees than broken or missing tools. Far too much time is wasted on finding watering wands or repairing leaky equipment. Be sure that your staff has top-quality equipment that is kept in working order by whoever manages your facilities. Provide good quality hoses that are sturdy or don’t kink (my favorites are Dramm and Flexzilla) and supply watering wands with easy on/off switches. Make sure that those who need wands for hanging baskets have appropriate lengths and shapes for directing the water into the container, not out onto customers.

Now that it’s July and the spring rush is over, take some time to evaluate your equipment and the way your company approaches employee training about watering. In our business, investing in the right tools and educated employees is worth it. No one wants their business shown in a social media post about dead and dying plants.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at www.GardenLady.com