Just like indoor décor, outdoor ornament trends continue to evolve. Way back in 1995, we reported that concrete or stone geese were heating up, but 25 years later, things are certainly different in the market. Just five years ago, glass globes were seeing an uptick at IGCs, as were fairy gardens. We dug into the numbers of online options from Amazon and Etsy to see what’s been selling well in 2021.
Those who work at Watters Garden Center know it’s more than just a job. It’s a family, a community and a mission to make the Prescott, Arizona, area a better place to live.
Watters Garden Center has cultivated its brand around fun, positivity, community and giving back. The husband-and-wife team of Ken Lain and Lisa Watters-Lain has spent years reaching far beyond the world of gardening to touch the lives of employees, customers and the community at large. Lisa, general manager and owner, has been in the family business since she was old enough to hold a hose, while Ken, whom she met in college, has spent decades growing in the highlands of Arizona.
Together, their goal is to not only beautify the city of Prescott but to bring joy, hope and positivity to their community. And it all starts with living their core mission.
“So many companies have a mission statement that they put together 10 years ago but nobody else knows what the mission statement is,” Lisa says. “The employees don’t know; the community doesn’t know. I think we make it a point to live out the mission statement. So the things that we support — our staff, our community — we’ve got to live out our mission statement.”
The most integral part of the IGC is the strong beliefs that stand behind its purpose, as well as a sense of community, camaraderie and genuine passion for the work they do every day.
To that end, the entire garden center staff is in the midst of a campaign to craft “We believe” statements they stand behind. Those statements can be anything from movie quotes to sayings from favorite authors as long as they’re sentiments the staff feels strongly about. They run the gamut from “We believe in rising early, working hard and fruits of our labor” to “We believe in integrity, respect and love for one another.”
“So these are things we stand for and believe,” Ken says. “We believe that things should be natural, safe and organic. We believe that so we’ve got products that accommodate that. Our plants are natural; they’re safe and they’re organic.”
Watters makes those belief statements a part of their advertising, their website and their company culture. The Watters social media presence is always “positive, happy and uplifting,” Ken says. And that positive messaging helps attract both customers and employees.
“We can stand for things and be very positive and uplifting and make a difference in our community — not just our staff, but our community,” Ken says.
“A company that’s really engaged should carry the light for their town and make it a better place to live.”
Finding the right fit
When it comes to hiring criteria, Watters Garden Center is looking for motivated individuals who enjoy working with others and encouraging those around them. “Our best employees are people who have been customers,” Lisa says. “They see how we treat people and they’re ambassadors.”
The garden center doesn’t require a specific level of plant knowledge or a horticultural background. Instead, they hire for personality and rely on the signage around the store that helps both staff and customers stay informed. “Even I don’t remember every detail about a plant all the time,” Ken says with a laugh.
Prescott, like many surrounding cities in Arizona, has a large population of newly retired residents, many of whom are interested in taking on some part-time or seasonal work to get connected with the community, stay active and meet new people. It was named the fourth-best city for retirement by Money magazine and the second-best place to retire by Smart Money, so that population will likely continue to grow.
On the other end of the spectrum, many seasonal employees are high school or college-aged students home for the summer. Many stick with the garden center throughout their studies. “When they come back home, they want to work for us. It’s more than just pay. It’s got to be a fun place, an energizing place, a respectful place,” Ken says. “For employers to think it’s just about pay — that’s so 1970s.”
With a strong returning seasonal workforce, Watters Garden Center has not had many difficulties finding employees. Nearly half of the 27-person staff is permanent, while the other 11 are seasonal. This year, the IGC only had to hire three employees.
“All of our seasonal staff came back because they like working here,” Ken says. “And so they may not want to work in the winter but in spring they love the energy, the style, the culture, the family and their colleagues. We look after each other so we don’t have to hire very much.”
With that kind of retention, it’s not easy to get hired at Watters. The company requires a four-page online application designed to weed through applicants and eliminate those who are not a good fit. The form includes everything from schedule availability to math calculations to a checklist determining what an applicant is and isn’t willing to do on the job like maintain a positive attitude and work well with teammates.
Once completed, applicants must print out the form and bring it to the garden center. When staff members meet an applicant, they’re encouraged to give their own feedback. If an employee writes ‘no’ on an application, management eliminates the applicant from the pool.
“We’re not even going to take time to read it,” Ken says. “They get authority at the cashier level to say yes or no. So we’ve got many, many hurdles that keep you from coming through.”
The company doesn’t do any traditional media advertising for open positions, relying instead on social media because, as Ken says, they want to hire people who are “social.”
“We want people that, like us, that share the positive and do their homework on Watters Garden Center before they come in, so it goes both ways. We’re looking to find the right staff that fits.”
Once the IGC finds a good candidate who meets the criteria, an average of three or four staff members take part in the interview process to make sure the candidate is a good fit. Including staff also helps create a sense of camaraderie, Ken says.
Watters very rarely has to fire an employee, thanks to meticulous hiring and management. But when conflicts do arise at Watters, the garden center’s philosophy is to talk through problems before they start to fester, whether it’s an issue with one employee or several. The management team finds that most problems can be fixed with a simple apology or a simple conversation.
“The other thing I really, really push a lot is having grace and mercy for each other because we all have days where maybe we’re cranky or we say something wrong,” Lisa says. “It’s just telling team members that we all have to be here together.”
Watters also tries to get out ahead of potential problems in their weekly manager meetings in which the top managers come together to discuss potential issues. The full staff also meets every other week to stay connected and get out ahead of conflicts, encourage growth and foster a better understanding of the business.
“Virtually every meeting we start we tell them, ‘We want you, when you leave Watters Garden Center, to feel that you are a better person when you leave than when you started. So you know more about business. Not just business, but plain skills,” Ken says.
That includes understanding gross margins, sales units and more. The company shares all numbers with every team member from cashiers to watering staff to salespeople to managers.
It’s part of the motivational process as well. Each team has its own scoreboard and weekly accomplishments to fulfill. Teams share their progress, and in turn, the company shares overall numbers and goals. It helps create camaraderie and gives teams the tools to track their performance independently. When big goals are met, the team is recognized, whether it’s a party or a bonus or just a shout-out.
“So they feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves because they are,” Ken says. “And when they leave this place, I truly think they’ll find a difficult time finding a better place to work for. They might leave for more pay or, you know, they finally graduated from college and now they’re off to their real job that they trained for. But you’ll never find a better place to work than Watters Garden Center.”
With nearly 60 years in business, the garden center is a community staple, thanks in large part to its outreach and volunteer efforts. The garden center frequently partners with the local Rotary clubs and just last month, hosted a donation drive for the local food bank in partnership with a local high school club.
But the garden center chooses its partners wisely. “We’re trying to selectively choose the nonprofits that have the same values as Watters Garden Center and not only give them donations, but give them our resources, our writing talents, our advertising, our mentoring program,” Ken says.
The goal is to simply make the community better by pooling resources, and the garden center has plenty of knowledge to share through speaking engagements, The Mountain Gardener Radio Show, magazine columns and classes as well as social media and their website.
“It’s tough to garden here in Arizona. So if you can make it easier for people to garden and give them that inspiration to be out there working in their yards and making it prettier and better out there, we truly believe that many of the world’s issues would be solved if more people would garden,” Lisa says. “And that’s what’s happened in the past year.”
Before COVID hit, Lisa estimates that 50 to 100 people would show up to classes at the garden center with 10 to 30 joining online. Now, they have 30 or so in a class but 200 more joining online via Facebook or YouTube.
And those classes really bring customers in. Lisa says the garden center sees sales of products mentioned during the classes, sometimes on the same day. The IGC’s podcast is performing well too, growing from hundreds of downloads to thousands. “I don’t know what this means for the future, but it’s definitely changing under our feet,” she says. “It’s changing as we speak how people are interacting with our content.”
Getting through tough times
Last year, when COVID hit and garden centers were uncertain if they would be able to stay open, the Watters management team made it clear that they would all get through the pandemic as a family. They told staff that no one would be facing layoffs, even if the owners had to go without pay.
Watters Garden Center also created a community food bank to help employees going through a tough time. Ken cleared out a closet in his office and gave a team of employees a $1,000 budget to stock it. Every morning, team members would go out to different grocery stores and search for whatever staff needed from toilet paper to flour to salt.
“I just created a team and they started helping each other instead of being isolated, looking outwards. We created ways to help the team help each other,” Ken says.
Anyone on staff could take whatever they wanted with no questions asked, either for themselves or for others in the community who were in need. And, of course, any donations were also accepted. Now, more than a year later, the closet is still packed with food items.
But it didn’t take a pandemic to pull the Watters team together. When a coworker was dealing with a heart issue, staff pulled together to take groceries to his house and check in on him during his recovery.
“This is what Watters Garden Center is,” Ken says. “We’re not a church. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re not a business. We’re an organization that looks after each other and wants the best for all. I think that’s how you define us, but it’s way beyond business. It’s something deeper as a community.”
As the sun slowly rises in the early morning mist, a family of four begins their day: a hot mug of coffee, a steeped cup of tea, a few whipped-cream hot chocolates and the fresh air of excitement about their unfolding day ahead.
They step down the creaky, splintered wooden stairs, bundled in flannel and denim, and head toward the red rustic barn to check on the goats, pigs and chickens. The two daughters are extra excited about the chickens this morning — since their breakfast depends on the chickens’ productivity.
The farm family first visits the gated corral where two horses and a pony patiently stand with their nostrils exhaling the morning air … ready to greet the new young farmhands with a small whinny and snort of “good morning.”
The latest farm hands toss fresh slices of hay over the fence as the sunlight begins to summit the foothills about a mile or so down the way. They move across the yard to fill up the water buckets for the goats, check for eggs from the hens and breathe in the distinctively pungent smell of the pigpen. Next up, grabbing a pitchfork and cleaning the last stall of three they began the day before, yet didn’t finish.
The minimum wage for this work is not paid in dollars and cents…it’s earned with a sense of accomplishment and knowing you can say “job well done.”
Tenure at this job only lasts two days though, since the kids need to get back to Wi-Fi to continue their virtual schooling, and mom and dad are due back to their respective jobs — teacher and accountant.
It’s a three-hour drive back to the ‘burbs and Emily (daughter number two) has some last-minute homework due on Monday morning, and Maddy wants to get home to write in her journal (she unfortunately forgot it in her bedroom...right where she left it…on her dresser…ugh!). Mom has been creating a photo essay to introduce to her students during their next second grade class project — “Where does my food come from?” And dad wanted to relive some of the experiences he had growing up as a kid in Indiana.
That’s the Agritourism Life. And the farm stay industry, as one example, has never been better.
You may now be asking, “Why is there an article about agritourism in Garden Center magazine?”
The answer is that agritourism is the future of the garden center industry…and the future is now.
The example above is one of the young and growing scores of millions of millennial families who find both joy and value in something that has been around for generations — agritourism.
Gui Costin of Forbes states, “Millennials consider social responsibility and environmental friendliness when considering their purchases, so brands face Millennials’ significant expectations in terms of shopping and investment dollars.” Other values center on local sourcing, ethical production, and giving back to society as purchasing decisions.
Farms, wineries and garden centers in the age of COVID
As COVID-19 coated the world with fear, concern and family tragedy, there have been a few silver linings that have risen from the wreckage. One of these is a growing need to get outside and reinvest in the things that matter most: family, relationships, safety, wellness and wholesome entertainment. Gardening and garden centers have enjoyed much of the audience and attention (and revenue) that has come from this tragic time. Wineries and farmers markets have experienced much the same as younger, conscientious consumers seek a few common experiences that emphasize family, fresh air, downtime, reconnecting with nature, shopping locally and friendly experiences.
So, if you have a generation that represents the largest single buying base for the foreseeable future, and they value what the green industry offers, the future of garden centers, wineries and farms is looking both “green” and great…and these parallel roads are beginning to intersect.
Dogwood Hills Guest Farm in Harriet, Arkansas, is a lovely example of agritourism, and Ruth Pepler and her daughter Grace can attest to the increased awareness and need for the above-mentioned outcomes of this emerging industry. “Last year was our best year yet with farm stays,” says Ruth, “and the exclusive one-on-one attention to the family visitor and their needs is what is bringing more and more families to the Buffalo River Region.”
As a consultant and strategist within the agriculture industry (farms, garden centers and wineries), these three roads have been arcing toward each other over the last decade, whether you are aware of it or not. More and more garden centers have embraced the farmers market concept, and for some, it was the saving grace for being “essential” in 2020! Weddings, music venues, craft beer joints and after-hours events are extending the garden center hours into the evening where an IGC can become a gathering place for the community.
Let’s take a tour of a few of the garden center success stories as “early adopters” of the agritourism trend. They combine aspects of the three arcing roads into one successful and profitable business model.
Reston Farm Garden Market, in my backyard of Reston, Virginia, is a perfect example of this hybrid model. The Weinstein family has a wonderful farmers market, petting zoo, garden center and Fall Festival that attracts families from communities near and far. Their branded products, freshly-baked pies and fresh produce offer a perfect experience to the folks who value locally sourced, family-owned businesses. Their vision is “Locally rooted in family, faith and friendships” and that vision goes well beyond the stand-alone garden center model.
Lowell and Bonita (with their sons Khalil and Isaiah) have noticed a younger family trend occurring over the last few years and are poised to continue to serve that new client base with memories, traditions and safe outdoor fun into the future. That younger generation values conscience consumerism and travels further (and pays more) for that value proposition.
Lowell Weinstein adds, “Although our garden center is the cornerstone of our business, and the ‘rooted’ products carry us in the spring and fall, we have always felt that we needed to offer more to our customers. With the addition of fresh produce being delivered daily (COVID drove that ‘essential’ change) and our Reston Farm Garden Market branded items that are all the rave in the neighborhood, our farmer’s market has really become a second cornerstone! We are planning even more innovative ideas as we continue to expand our offering beyond agriculture and blend in agritourism into the future. Our sons are a big proud part of that journey!”
Bedner’s Farm and Greenhouse in McDonald, Pennsylvania, takes the Agritourism Life to a whole new level by blending a growing nursery, farmers market, corn maze and garden center into their beautiful slice of heaven on earth. My wife and I had a chance to visit this farm and quickly became one of our very favorite trips in our “home away from home” RV.
Russ, Melanie, Ruth and Hope (along with Dusty the horse) added even more to the experience with their wholesome down-to-earth approach and warm hospitality. Russ even introduced us to his new project, Passiflora Springs Winery. The Bedners’ quintessential agritourism model is the trifecta of the industry: family farm experience, garden center expertise and winery extraordinaire!
As Melanie Bedner says, “Besides preserving our farming roots, a huge driver of putting the time, money and resources into growing our agritourism has been to flatten the curve of the huge spring sales peak, getting our customer count up during the slow months and offering our staff more work hours.
July and August can be especially slow at Bedner’s Farm and Greenhouse, so their goal has been to expand beyond their plant, product and service offerings to focus on creating experiences for customers.
“It’s been a joy to see families, couples and groups of friends visit us to take a hayride, pick some fresh vegetables or cut flowers, enjoy a good meal that is prepared with our homegrown produce and herbs, and sample the small-batch wines that Russ makes” she says.
Other benefits for the garden center come from customers browsing their plant and product selection in the garden center during times of the year when they otherwise wouldn’t have visited. “We’ve also seen a great number of new customers come to us for the first time because of an agritourism event. At that point, we do our best to get their information into our system and encourage them to visit us in the spring for their gardening needs,” Melanie says. “We value our farmland and enjoy sharing it with our community. As we see more and more farms being sold and disappearing, we believe it is even more important to keep our farming heritage alive.”
At the end of the day, Melanie puts it best when she says when describing their mission:
“Our vision is to be a beacon to our community by inspiring creative and sustainable plant care and design practices, while also providing refreshment to mind, body and spirit.”
These both have done a remarkable job of evolving and innovating while staying true to their family roots.
Another great example of Agritourism Life comes from Dogwood Hills Guest Farm, on which the opening story of this article is loosely based.
Fad or trend?
So, is this a “fad” or is this a “trend?” After all, fads fade but trends transcend.
Suzi Spahr, executive director of NAFDMA Agritourism Association states that the next five years of the agritourism industry are set to gain great traction based on the last five years.
“Within our membership, we see many farms also looking to cross over into the beauty and artistry brought by garden centers and wineries/cideries,” she says. “From Blooms & Berries Farm Market in Loveland, Ohio, growing their own mums to the tulip fields of Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm & Vineyard, farms see the diversification potential of horticulture products as a way to reach a new audience. Sunflowers, lavender, cosmos and zinnias are all are highly “Instagrammable” (free advertising!) and beautiful ways to expand the growing season, broaden the farm customer base and add new products to farm markets both on and off the farm. Through our communications with the Garden Center Group, we encourage the collaboration and new ideas for everyone.”
As the world continues to change under our feet, and the effects of COVID are felt well into the future, the new trend (not fad) in the garden center industry is the intersection of three roads: Conscience consumerism (locally sourced, family-owned, environmentally friendly), safe family experiences, and plants that enhance our lives and homes, inside and out. Many garden centers have embraced this growing trend. They are innovators and early adopters to the changing demographics and demands of the new generation of conscious consumers.
Agritourism is the future of garden centers, and the future is now!
John Kennedy is a strategist, author, and consultant to the garden center and farm industries. He is a service provider to The Garden Center Group and co-founder of Agritourism. Life with his wife, Souny. John and Souny reside in Centreville, Virginia, or wherever they boondock with Life’s Detour.
In 2017, when Ellen Zachos and I started our podcast, Plantrama, we included an occasional feature called Your Outdoor Office. We knew that given “the gig economy,” more people were working freelance, and many of them were doing so from home. It made sense to encourage them to spend part of their workday where they could feel the breeze, look at beautiful plants and be away from their normal indoor surroundings. Little did we know that in 2020 millions of people would be working this way because of the pandemic and many are likely to continue to do so.
Because of COVID, work-from-anywhere jobs have become almost commonplace, and this signals a trend that our industry should be jumping on. In addition to helping our customers plant vegetable gardens and furnish their outdoor living spaces, we can assist them to create outdoor workstations. The Outdoor Office is here, and IGCs can provide what home-workers need to enhance their routines.
An outdoor office can be simple or elaborate. Basically, what most people need is a wireless signal, a place to put the laptop, a surface to hold a phone and a beverage, and some shade so that they can easily see their screen. My front farmer’s porch is an example of a space that contains the essentials of an outdoor work area. There is a roof overhead for shade and comfortable Adirondack chairs to sit in. The wide arms on these seats hold my iced coffee and phone, the computer is on my lap and I’m using the Wi-Fi signal from the house.
You might already be offering your customers the necessities for an outdoor office. Perhaps your IGC sells awnings or lathes that can be used to create some shade. If furniture is part of your inventory, look at your stock and evaluate which pieces would be appropriate for an outdoor workstation. Shady arbors are not only inviting for meals or cocktails, but can be promoted as work areas as well.
Most homeowners don’t have endless space to set up an office as well as outdoor living areas, so we need to show them how to have both in a small area. High tables can serve as a standing desk during the day and a bar in the evening. Regular tables can be used for meals or as a place to put the laptop. And a sturdy, short table can be placed next to a chair to hold accessories or in front of a seat to serve as an ottoman. Displays that show how the products you sell can be used either for work or entertaining purposes will spark ideas and open options for your customers.
Structures and outbuildings
Just as furniture can do double duty, so can outdoor structures such as gazebos, screened porches and garden sheds. These can become workspaces in addition to functioning for entertainment or storage. A shed that is large enough could be divided into part office, part tool and pot stowing, for example. Flexible-use furniture could fill a gazebo. Talk to your clients about the advantages of installing ceiling fans for ventilation or screens on shed windows.
This is the fun part for garden centers: We can talk about what particular plants bring to the outdoor office. We might tell the tale about looking up from your computer screen and watching the wind create a ballet in the ornamental grasses or the King Tut papyrus. We can tell them about the pleasures of seeing hummingbirds come to the Cuphea that’s in a pot only a few feet from the computer. We could remind people that a container of lemon verbena will provide aromatherapy when their Zoom meeting goes on for a just bit too long. And we can encourage them to grow a Meyer lemon in a pot for the fragrant flowers and cocktail ingredients at the end of the day. The outdoor office is a workspace with life-affirming benefits.
Sharing the vision
Although we easily picture the ways people can create outdoor work spaces, it’s up to us to communicate that to our customers. Here are a few suggestions:
• Use #YourOutdoorOffice in social media posts, along with photos of furniture or plants.
• Write about outside work areas in your blog or newsletter. (And please, feel free to share the ideas in this article!)
• Post #YourOutdoorOffice on signage that’s attached to appropriate plants and products.
• Write a press release about this trend and send it to your local media outlets.
• Put up periodic posts about this movement on local gardening Facebook groups, and ask others to take photos of their outdoor work areas.
• Schedule a talk — virtual if necessary — on the topic, and explain how your business can help make remote work more enjoyable.
There are opportunities for IGCs in this your-office-can-be-anywhere age. Let’s get to work.
No matter what a business sells, reputation is everything. Whether it’s reputation with customers, suppliers, investors or the general public, it shapes perceptions before visitors even walk through the door.
As much as reputation matters to potential customers, it matters to employees as well. Running a business with a reputation as a great place to work brings in the right candidates to fit your company. That’s what Watters Garden Center in Prescott, Arizona, has found over decades in business. The IGC focuses on the positive in its marketing, branding, community outreach and company culture.
Watters has an impressive retention rate thanks in large part to the environment they’ve cultivated. In fact, they only had to hire three employees this spring. Many of their employees are former customers who love the IGC so much they decided to work there and continue to come back season after season.
Husband-and-wife team Lisa Watters Lain and Ken Lain lead a team that’s carefully chosen, trained and appreciated. Focused on having fun, staying positive and taking care of each other, Watters strives to make every team member feel valued.
They celebrate employee accomplishments from weekly sales goals to completed degrees to anniversaries, support employees going through hard times and build camaraderie through constant communication.
That’s a big part of why Watters Garden Center is one of the 2021 Best Horticulture Companies to Work For. Created in partnership with Best Companies Group, the 2021 Best Horticulture Companies to Work For were carefully chosen for their dedication to their employees, hiring and training practices, and the benefits they offer from healthcare to continuing education.
Through an extensive survey of employees and consideration of benefits, Watters came out on top of our submissions from IGCs all over the country.
On behalf of everyone at Garden Center magazine, I’d like to congratulate Watters on this outstanding achievement, and for the work they put into the garden center every day to create a healthy, happy workplace for their team.
To learn more about Watters Garden Center, flip to page 18. And stay tuned for coverage of more wonderful places to work in future issues.