A lot of new ideas at Wallace’s Garden Center come not only from staff, but from visiting other garden centers.

January 2024
Cultivating innovation in the garden center By Teresa McPherson

Four garden center pros share some of their greatest successes.

Boost your gift offerings

Garden centers have to increasingly compete with the big-box stores — not only for garden products, but also for seasonal and gift items. The panelists said they have to curate their assortment to be more locally sourced and unique.

In her 1,500-square-foot gift shop at Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter, Edna Kane said she’s shied away from seasonal offerings to provide more of an evergreen selection of items.

“Incense is a big seller for me that I put in a few years ago on a whim,” she said. “Another big seller for me are butterfly supplies, like habitats and caterpillars that we get from a local breeder.”

She also said garden flags are still big. “Every time I think I’ve ordered enough garden flags, I’m like, ‘What happened? Where’d they go?’”

Kate Terrell, general manager at Wallace’s Garden Center,  said she stocks flags for both of the high schools in her town. 

“You cannot buy those anywhere else. Especially during football season and going into basketball season, people will buy the high school flags and they’ll buy the garden flags, too.”

Kane agreed. “You have to be a flag snob. Only order the flags that you know your customers can’t buy down the road.”

Locally sourced products also remain top sellers for the garden centers’ gift shops. Jake Scott, general manager, said Piedmont Feed and Garden Center has curated its gift section to focus on local items, with soaps and candles being top sellers.

“We found a local candle maker whose soy candles we like, and they give us a good price on them. We’ve developed an exclusive scent with them called Greenhouse; we worked with them to tailor a scent you can only purchase at our store, which is kind of fun.”

He said by branding gift items like candles, Piedmont is being introduced to people who might not have visited in the past.

Terrell said Wallace’s best-selling candles are the ones made in Iowa because people like that local connection. She’s also expanded their gourmet foods assortment to include “a lot of honey. We have a local honey supplier, as well as Savannah Bee, which is out of Georgia. We do a lot of Terrapin Ridge dips and salad dressings. We do a local dessert sauce called Sunday Night [Foods] that’s made in Des Moines, Iowa. And their CEO is from Bettendorf.”

She said Wallace’s doesn’t private label anything right now but promotes the products that are locally made in Iowa or have an Iowa connection.

“We are looking at private labeling a coffee because we’ve had a lot of customers ask for coffee,” she said. “We don’t sell coffee right now, but we are looking at a private label coffee.”

Greeting cards are also popular for all three of these garden centers.

“We sell a ton of cards,” Terrell said. “We’ve convinced my gift buyer to add two more lines because we are selling so many cards. The key is to find unique ones and ones that are not very expensive.”

She said Wallace’s carries cards from Compendium, Hester & Cook, Apartment 2 Cards and Shadywood Designs — which are all laser cut. She described them more like pieces of art. 

Kane noted that Pumpernickel Press is a top-seller in her gift shop. “I sell them all day. They retail for $4.99 and cost about $2 per card. They’re beautiful, made from recycled material, made in the U.S. — just a gorgeous line.”

It’s no secret innovation is key to staying relevant in garden retail. Lawn & Garden Retailer explored hot retail topics in a recent roundtable webinar with several recipients of its Innovator Awards: Edna Kane, Butterfly Encounter manager, and Alex Luscombe, horticultural and assistant sales manager, at Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter in Oviedo, Florida; Jake Scott, general manager at Piedmont Feed and Garden Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Kate Terrell, general manager at Wallace’s Garden Center in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Keeping things fresh and welcoming new ideas and perspectives was a key theme throughout the roundtable. According to Terrell, a lot of new ideas come not only from staff but also from visiting other garden centers. She says she often shares photos with her team from visits to other garden centers as examples of things they could do differently.

“Visual representation really helps them get on board and get excited,” she said.

Scott said new ideas are often a collaborative process between him and the owner of Piedmont.  

“If we both feel like it’s something that we see potential in, then we will start to bring in some other folks and kind of get feelers out.”

What if not everyone on his team is on board? In those cases, he said sometimes you just have to show them by doing it.

“We’ve tried things that we don’t think anybody’s ever going to get behind, and it blows out of the water as one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Scott said.

He said while a lot of it comes top-down from management, he encourages all his staff to come to him with ideas and new thoughts. “When we get new plants in, I’ll tell them to display them like they think they should be, and then come get me and I’ll give you my critique on it. It’s taken some tailoring to learn why something might not work, or that this probably doesn’t go together, but once they take that in it, they can fly solo on some of their ideas.”

Luscombe said, “We push all of our team members to be innovative and come up with their own ideas of what they think might be good for the nursery or good for the Butterfly Encounter. We definitely strive to have everybody do their own thing, and when they do come up with that great idea, we’ll have management see how well it’s going to work. It’s definitely a lot of trial and error, but it is a lot of fun, and I think our team loves to be able to be part of the nursery, doing their own ideas and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

Seasonal Events Draw Crowds

Holding seasonal events tends to attract many customers — and get them to spend more time and money. Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter hosted its 38th annual fall festival in 2023, which began as a free event but has evolved into a paid festival.

“We see about 6,000 people on the weekend for Saturday and Sunday,” Kane said. “We have food trucks and bounce houses, corn kernel pits, face painting, pumpkin painting, pot painting. … It’s held in the pumpkin patch and it’s very successful for us.”

Terrell said Wallace’s Garden Center also hosts an annual fall festival. “We have our train, we hire a DJ to come and DJ out in the nursery, we have the corn pit. We have a lot of games. We rent a whole bunch of inflatable games and have a really fun fall atmosphere.

“It’s always really well attended,” she said. “This year, our sales that weekend were significantly higher than any of the weekends prior or after. So that was definitely successful.”

Terrell said the garden center is ramping up its number of events — and increasing its staff to support them — now that COVID is in the rearview mirror.

“We started bringing back our cooking events, which are really successful for us. We have a local chef we partner with — Chef Steph — and this year we did a “Cooking for Fall” event, where she used apples from our apple orchard tree. We used to get attendance of over 100 people, which is too many for our room. So this year we started charging for it — I believe, $15 — and this year we sold out at 70 spots, which was a much more manageable size for us. We sold a couple extra tickets at the door, and that was a really huge success for us.

“And because we have a large kitchen section where we sell cooking utensils, gourmet foods, a lot of kitchen stuff, it ties in really well with the cooking events. They’re always really well attended for us and unique, at least to our area. No one else is doing anything like that.”

Scott said Piedmont Feed and Garden Center’s biggest event started as an employee’s idea — one that he didn’t think would be popular. 

“When we first talked about doing wreath workshops, it all started with an employee who moved down from New York. She said that in New York, wreath workshops are a big thing, that people want to make their own wreaths and decorate them. And I was like, ‘No, you can buy them pre-made, they’re ready to go.’ But we tried it, and it took off!”

A make-and-take mixed container  day at Piedmont Feed and Garden Center draws a crowd. Photo courtesy of Piedmont Feed and Garden Center.
A make-and-take mixed container day at Piedmont Feed and Garden Center draws a crowd. Photo courtesy of Piedmont Feed and Garden Center.

He said they have customers now who only come in for the wreath workshops, but “if it gets them in the door one time a year, that’s still better than none.”

He said garden centers should consider looking at hosting simple events that you might not think would succeed, but your customers might love. “In the spring, a make-and-take mixed container day [for us] still blows it out of the water. It’s something that we in the industry think it’s nothing — but customers get excited over the littlest things and you can make some good money for doing something so simple on a Saturday.” 

Natives Top Green Goods

When it comes to plant material, natives’ popularity remains strong in all the panelists’ regions.

Luscombe and Kane said the native plants section at Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter is a bestseller, as well as natural and organic.

“We’ve got a humongous selection of fruit trees, and we at Lucas really push for organic and natural growing — less use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, insecticides, and whatnot,” Luscombe said. “I think that’s a really big growing market right now, too.”

Kane said Lukas has one of the largest assortments of butterfly plants in central Florida, “which is key to a lot of the butterfly gardens because you can’t use any pesticide on any of the host plants, and certain pesticides on the nectar plants are bad for the bees and the butterflies.”

Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter has a 1,500-square-foot gift shop with a broad selection of items. Photo courtesy of Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter.
Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter has a 1,500-square-foot gift shop with a broad selection of items. Photo courtesy of Lukas Nursery and Butterfly Encounter.

Scott said Piedmont is also known for its natives and perennials that attract butterflies and pollinators, while Terrell said Wallace’s created a separate natives section in 2023 and all their plant categories continued to grow. Heat- and drought-tolerance are also becoming more important to customers in their Upper Midwest region. 

“We’re in Iowa. We had several weeks this year that were over 100° F. We’re starting to see higher temps for longer and less rain. So heat-tolerance is a big one for us.”

New Hire Strategies

Cross-training staff in departments throughout the garden center is a good way to not only familiarize new hires with all facets of the store but also helps to instill an understanding of what each department’s staff is facing.

Kane said all the new hires at Lukas have to work in each department, so they can see how each department operates. “Then they can’t say they didn’t know where a plant came from because they helped unload it off the truck. It helps them get familiar with the plants because now they know what an azalea looks like, what a pentas looks like.” 

“It keeps everyone happy,” Scott agreed. “When you put that person who’s out in the yard in the role of cashier or with a cashier for a day or two, they see the things that the cashier is dealing with that they can help the cashier with.”

Terrell said Wallace’s encourages working across departments. “As the business gets more and more year-round, the greenhouse people have to deal with houseplants on a daily basis now, not just in the spring. A lot of times, when my nursery is not busy, they’re helping the greenhouse people fill the pots with dirt. They’re learning how to run the register in case we get huge lines. And then when the trucks come in from Florida, full of houseplants or full of tropicals in the spring, everybody gets to learn how to unload a truck.

“Like Edna said, getting everybody working across departments and not feeling like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not my job,’ or, ‘That’s not my place, I’m not in charge of that.’ Because when the customers come in, they’re not going to a specific department, or they might have needs in three different departments, and we don’t want to continually hand them off from one person to the next.

“I make a point as the owner to meet all of the new hires, hopefully on their first day if I’m here, or for sure on their second day. I worked in a garden center a long time ago where I didn’t meet the owner for at least a week after I started there. I like them to know who they’re working for and that it’s a family, and they’re part of the team.”

For an enhanced reading experience, view this article in our digital edition.

Teresa McPherson

Teresa McPherson is the managing editor of Lawn & Garden Retailer. Contact her at [email protected].