Staff up ... or else

Most IGCs need extra manpower to survive the spring rush, but it can be tough to find.


Jeff Webeler, owner and president of White Oak Gardens, says that like many in the industry, his IGC relies on a tremendous amount of seasonal help. “We couldn’t run our business without them,” he says. The Cincinnati, Ohio, garden center checked in at No. 89 on Garden Center magazine’s 2019 Top 100 list and employs a full-time, year-round staff of 14. At its peak time in May, the garden center balloons to 50 employees. Of those seasonal workers, between 15 and 20 are returnees from previous years. That’s crucial, Webeler says, because you’ve already trained them. You know what they can do, they typically show up when they’re needed and they generally meet expectations.

Pasquesi Home and Gardens has a similar situation, with about 12 full-timers and about 50 total employees at peak. The Illinois IGC, which was No. 34 on the 2019 Top 100 list, has a lot of what it calls “permanent part-time” employees.

“We have a pretty good pool of people that will work from April 1st until the middle of December, and then they’ll take the winter months off and come back for us,” says Mike Pasquesi, president and general manager.

They also have traditional seasonal help, but these permanent part-timers work two or three days a week in slower times of year but clock in for full work weeks when the spring rush hits. They’re often people on their second career or empty-nesters looking for a little income and a job they can enjoy.

Pasquesi Home and Gardens

There are a few traits to look for in a potential seasonal hire. Many seasonal workers share a few similarities. First, they’re not the main breadwinners for their household. They could be a teenager building work experience or a retiree looking for supplemental income, but it doesn’t bother them that they’re working three or four months a year. Second, they have a plant fixation they’re looking to feed.

Of course, seasonal workers in the retail area of your business are going to be face-to-face with customers at the busiest times of the year. So it helps to find out if a potential hire is a “people person.”

Country Mile Gardens, in Morristown, New Jersery, prides itself on a commitment to customer service, and a key part of that service model comes from the types of people they hire.

“We always try to start with people who are friendly and personable and who are quick learners,” co-owner Dan Gallo says. “It’s great to have people who enjoy plants and working outside. We just try to have a generally happy staff — because that comes across to customers.”

Mike Pasquesi of Pasquesi Home and Gardens agrees about attitude and doesn’t worry about the horticultural chops a potential employee has or doesn’t have.

“We don’t really go out and hire for knowledge,” he says. “We really just go out and hire good, nice people that have good attitudes that are passionate about what they do.”

Webeler suggests developing an outreach program to area high schools. He says they’re lucky to have a nearby vocational school with a horticulture program. Webeler talks with the students and encourages them to apply — even if they’re going into greenhouse production or landscape maintenance.

“Maybe they didn’t think about working in a garden center, but it’s a great opportunity to get some knowledge on plants and earn some money while getting some experience,” he says.

And a seasonal employee who excels has a foot in the door if the garden center does add full-time positions.

“They know us and we know them and we know their work habits,” Webeler says. “So we know they’ll make full good full-time people.”

White Oak Gardens boosts morale with employee luncheons and events like Christmas sweater day.
Many Pasquesi Home and Gardens employees work two to three days a week in slower times and more frequently in spring.


Once you’ve found a few good seasonal employees, retaining them is the next big challenge. White Oak Gardens developed a bonus program that plays off its seasonal workers’ plant fixations. Many of those employees were attracted to the job in the first place because they are interested in something about the garden center, whether it may be outdoor gardening, houseplants, vegetables, shrubs or perennials. So Webeler and his staff offer a 30% discount on all purchases at the garden center, which jumps to 50% for a two-week period around Mother’s Day when the store is fully stocked. All employees are eligible for the discount, no matter if they’re part-time or full-time.

Another perk that helps with retention is schedule flexibility.

Pasquesi and his staff do their best to offer a flexible schedule.

“If they need days off or they can only work certain days, we really try to honor their requests,” he says. “That’s a big deal for people working part-time.”

White Oak Gardens used to be stricter about its scheduling. Employees couldn’t book vacation at certain busy times of year and weren’t allowed weekends off in the spring. However, the Cincinnati IGC rewrote its employee handbook to relax those rules and allow more flexibility in when workers have to work. It’s made life more difficult for the scheduling manager, but it has made working at White Oak Gardens more attractive for seasonal employees.

Increasing your investment in equipment can help you retain seasonal help. A new forklift or improved liftgates on delivery trucks can go a long way toward making the job less strenuous for both seasonal and year-round staff.

“We’d make deliveries on trees where we used to have to send two people and now we can just send one with a cart and liftgate,” Webeler says. “So that’s saving labor hours, labor dollars and labor backs.”

Robin Roenker contributed to this article.

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