July 31, 2012

Where have all the young ones gone


I was talking to Ron Boughen recently. Ron is the third generation of his family to head up a 100-year-old, prairie institution, Boughen Nurseries in Valley River, Man. Our topic was: What will happen if we do not train young people to become plant people/horticulturists? There was a time when a father handed over the nursery business to his children, as Ron’s father, Russ, did for him. Perpetuation of the trade was almost guaranteed.

Today in western Canada, there are several outstanding plant people who know the nursery trade inside out. Names that come easily to mind include Jan Pederson, Garfield Marshall, Wilbert Ronald, David Vanstone, Michel Touchette, Ken Riske, Frank Van Noort and Han de Jong. That is the good news. The not so good news is that all of us are in our 50s and 60s. Something has happened, other than us getting older.

There is a crop of younger landscapers in their 20s and 30s. Their stonework, timber construction, grading and other related ‘hard’ landscaping is impeccable. They have honed their skills to a degree that was only dreamed of 30 years ago. What is missing from their skill set is the knowledge of the plant world. I suspect that over the last few years, both the homeowner and the contractor have viewed trees, shrubs and perennials as decoration, instead of the backbone of the garden. In essence, the plants have become the throw pillows of a landscaping project.

I get it. When there is a $100,000 project on the table, the plants are often only one or two per cent of the money being spent. I have actually heard both parties say something such as, “I suppose we can put some type of a tree over here, in the corner.” In my design process, the tree is never an afterthought. It is the anchor of the space. The careful selection of the plants is what sets a beautiful yard apart from a bland one.
STORY TIME: In 1979 or ’80, I was hired to landscape a new home. The original owner still resides there and she asked me to rebuild her garden this summer. The backbone of her garden is three trees including a green ash, a ‘Thunderchild’ and a ‘Hopa’ flowering crab. The trees were planted 32 years ago and were in dire need of pruning. The ‘Thunderchild’ was a five-foot, two-year-old when planted. The price was $19.95, on sale. When I climbed inside the ‘Thunderchild’ this spring, I said to the tree, “You don’t know me, but I am your daddy.” Corny to some, but every nurseryperson I tell this story to understands my sentiment.

Michel Touchette of Jeffries Nurseries in Portage la Prairie and I have spent a similar amount of time in the nursery business. Michel is a great guy and gives much thought to any topic. I corresponded with him recently and asked him for his take on the absence of new people in the trade. Here is his answer: “How do we attract young people to our greenhouse and garden centre? As a production manager, who works with ten Mexican men due to the shortage of Canadian workers, the question takes on an urgent matter.

“As a father of four adult children I realize I might be the biggest stumbling block for my children to follow in my horticultural footsteps. Young adults have different values and approach to a work life. Working 12 hours a day for six and seven days a week does not interest them. What we saw as a duty, they simply see as crazy.”

Michel’s take on the long hours is accurate. This factor was also a deterrent for my children. I have three adult children and at one point, I asked if any one of them had an interest in taking over the garden centre. My oldest one put it bluntly, “You work too hard for your money.” That is one side of the coin. Here is my sales pitch to any young person who is considering this industry. It is difficult not to write this as a love story to the trade.

I have spent the bulk of my adult life in this trade. I could write thousands of words, but I can also sum up by simply saying, “I have enjoyed it thoroughly.” It has never been a career or a job. It has always been a life, my life. My suppliers have always been my friends, never my enemies. When Les Vanderveen calls from his greenhouse in Carman, Man., it is always a welcomed call. He is as fine a fellow as one can meet.

Our trade is populated with good people, both men and women. Jenny Huisman was a tough businesswoman at her nursery in Rosedale, B.C. She needed to be tough. She had to deal with bullheaded truckers who didn’t want to listen to her instructions because she was a woman. She had to make them listen. Everyone in the trade knew you didn’t cross Jenny, yet there was a fairness to Jenny that ran deep.

Jan Pederson operated Shelmerdine’s in Winnipeg for many years and now he reps for Bylands Nurseries out of Kelowna, B.C. He sent an email to all of his customers telling them he was available around the clock through the Victoria Day weekend. Jan knows from years of retail that garden centre operators, whether large or small, need assistance with reorders during their busiest time. He was there for them. It is what we do for each other.

Frank Van Noort out of Langley, B.C., will sit down with people just starting out in the green industry and teach them how to be successful, if they are willing to learn. Certainly, part of Frank’s sales pitch on being a winner includes buying nursery bulbs from him, but that’s how he makes his living. He gives something back to our trade besides tulips.

All of the people within the trade, from plug tray growers to the caliper tree farmers, understand that the more successful we make our customers, the more successful we become ourselves. To throw out a fancy word, we are involved in a ‘symbiotic’ relationship.

So, where does this lead? This is an industry that is still alive. It still has vibrancy to it. It still holds opportunity for those who have the passion. It is also one of the last trades where your handshake means much more than signing any legal document. In our business, your word is everything. It is your most valuable asset.

I have never minded the long hours or the weather driven drama of this trade. It is all a part of the process.
STORY TIME: In 1980, I had just met my wife. She knew nothing about the trade. One May morning at four o’clock, Paul Fowler called from Carrot River, Sask. Paul had a greenhouse and he was coming to Regina shortly. He had room for two racks of bedding plants and he wanted to know if I needed anything. I sat up in bed, cleared the fog from my head, and told him what I could use. We discussed the colours of petunias he had and the varieties of tomatoes that looked good. He said he would be at my place by 9 a.m. I thanked him and closed my eyes for another hour of sleep. To my way of thinking, Paul did me a favour by waking me up. To my wife’s thinking, Paul was crazy and I was even more insane for accommodating him. “It’s just the way we do business,” I explained. She is a nurse. You would think she would understand that just as a hospital runs 24/7, so does a greenhouse. Why she has stayed with me all these years is a good question. I assume it is for the free bedding plants and because I take out the garbage without having to be asked.

We all want to live a life of interest. Why would anyone choose a life that is boring? As entrepreneurial horticulturists, we are not cut from the bureaucrat’s cloth. God made us special because this trade needs special people. Not everyone can be one of us.

 I think we need to be recruiting (if that is the right word) young people to the greenhouse and garden centre and nursery part of the trade. We need to mentor them so that they become successful. We can’t sugarcoat the life, but we can and should point out the positives. There is much joy in planting a small tree and seeing what it has become 30 years later. There is happiness in placing seven plugs into a hanging basket and then watching it walk out the door 10 weeks later, lush and lovely, with its new, proud owner.

Chains dominated the restaurant business for many years. The independents were not doing well. In the last 10 years, a new generation of chefs has taken on the challenge and is opening new cafes and bistros across the country. These chefs are being creative, cooking up a storm. They have followed their passion and now they have a supportive audience for their dishes. Chefs in their 20s and 30s are now making a good living following their dreams. We can do the same thing in our trade.

Ours is an unusual business and we often have difficulty with balance. Our lives do not run evenly. This is not a nine to five job, but then again, we are not nine to five people. We are life affirming in what we do. You see it in our eyes. You hear it when we speak. We never lose the passion for our plants. Many nursery people live well into their 90s. They enjoy a full and blessed life. Our roots lie in the positive energy of this trade. We need another generation of plant people for all of us to stay on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.