June 15, 2009
By Stephanie Smith
Membership and chapters coordinator

Staff at Landscape Ontario are all very proud and happy to support our members. With that spirit, I chose to go on a quest that became a personal learning experience. I always love a challenge, so I joined the gang at Ontario’s largest garden centre, Humber Nurseries, to learn about plant material and get an inside view of working in this great industry.

I had no idea how great a challenge I had taken on, and more importantly how much I love what the members do to feed their family and their passion.

Running an operation the size of Humber Nurseries is like watching poetry in motion. Somehow, no matter how crazy it gets, everyone steps up to the plate and makes it work, all with a smile. The work environment is very fast-paced and labour intensive. I refuse to use a weigh scale, but I can tell you that I know I lost a significant number of pounds. I also now walk with a limp, and every muscle aches.

It’s a close-knit family at Humber. I went in knowing absolutely nothing about garden centres. I was thrown into the fire. I kept thinking that maybe I should have done some research, but I knew that annuals die and perennials return the next year. How complicated could it be? I also knew what worked and what didn’t work; that as a consumer, I would prefer to use one of our member garden centres because the box stores and parking lot vendors ended up costing more in the long run, leaving me to scramble around to find a garden centre that would have something left, because nothing I purchased was growing, or it had died. That was about the extent of my knowledge. I soon learned I know very little about plants. With the help and patience of the Humber staff and all of my mentors, I asked questions and made comments. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, and how much I learned.

The customers are also very well versed about plant material. They helped me along the way. I would tell them I didn’t know much about the flowers, but I knew I could locate them in the store. I would also take feedback from the customer as to what they thought worked and what didn’t.

Humber Nurseries has conveniently made lists of where the plant material is located. Those lists became my bible, and I worked with them all day long.

Customers adore Mrs. Peters

The other amazing resource at the garden centre is Mrs. Sibylla Peters. She was able to tell me everything I needed to know. Her wealth of information of plant material, the respect and adoration from the loyal customer base are truly admirable. One afternoon a lady came to me looking for Mrs. Peters, who at the time was on a break. This lady waited for over an hour to see Mrs. Peters in order to get an autograph on the tag of the rose bush she had bought as a gift for her husband. She had bought him the “Mrs. S. Peters, hybrid tea rose,” a rich pink that her sons Frans and Guy awarded to their mom on her 80th birthday. When I mentioned how cool I thought it was, Mrs. Peter’s response was one of surprise. She said that is the first time that ever happened.

At the age of 90, Mrs. Peters continues to work. She is as passionate as ever for the industry. Mr. Frans L. Peters visits the garden centre each day. His gardens are a testament to what works and what doesn’t. He is very proud of his gardens, which are a library of plants. He seemed impressed with my quest for knowledge, and invited me to walk through the gardens. Every plant is labeled so that I could have a visual knowledge of what the plant looks like growing in the garden. Peters continues to cultivate trial gardens on his property every season.

To watch everyone work with such passion, and realize how short the season is, made me understand that you have to make it happen quickly to keep the customer happy. I worked with Frans Peters, president of “things that are alive” at Humber, past president of Landscape Ontario and a current volunteer on the Membership Retention and Recruitment committee, as well as chair of the Toronto golf tournament. Frans laughed at my antics, more than I care to remember. I had my blonde moments, but he found this enjoyable and didn’t fire me. There were a lot of laughs and moments where he was “in the zone.” I was also surprised with the work he gave me. There was no special treatment here. I loaded and unloaded trucks, just like anyone else, along with merchandising and keeping on top of making it work at Humber. It is crazy!

On a number of occasions I mumbled aloud, wishing customers would be responsible and put things away. But at the same time, without them, I would not have learned what the plant  is and where it goes.

Green for Life decals are placed strategically around the centre, and they look great. Frans always made an effort to let everyone know about the Green for Life message. He is a very proud member of LO.

The knowledge I gained from the time spent working at the garden centre is invaluable. I think that the best way to understand plant material and the overall operation of garden centre is to go out and work hands on. It has been a pleasure to help the public, as well and listen to their stories and educate them about the industry. I also have a better grasp of how hard each member works to make things beautiful!

Landscape Ontario has the best group of people to work with and tremendous collection of members. They create passion for the job! You should all stand up and give yourselves a big round of applause.

Thanks to EVERYONE at Humber Nurseries for letting me have this learning experience. It has been my pleasure to work with you all.

In closing, I look for more part-time seasonal work next spring. I would be pleased to come and work with you. I even have a reference or two!

Caption: Stephanie Smith talks to Mrs. Sibylla Peters during a recent visit to Humber Nurseries