Horticulture has seen massive challenges but it is an industry which has also seen a rise in interest and a realisation that gardening is ‘good for you.’ My husband, Paul, and I run a plant nursery, farm shop and garden centre near Ipswich in Suffolk.
We are part of our community. So, when lockdown happened, we set about organising vegetable boxes for local residents. We had no idea how much in demand we would be. It required 14 hour days, re-organisation of staffing and shop space and volunteers to help us out. To be honest, although we were exhausted physically, it was good to be able to feel that we were ‘doing our bit’.
As lockdown progressed the press and celebrity endorsement of how important opening up garden centres was much appreciated. To take the trip to our local supermarket, gloved and masked up and discover trollies full of plants for sale at their door was heartbreaking. We survived by offering plants and garden products over the phone. It added yet more workload but our outside staff came back from furlough to save the day. Like most garden centres we had never seen such demand for plants and compost.
Now that things are changing again and we move to winter, I wonder how other people feel? For me I still feel sadness, shock, resilience, personal growth and, strangely, gratitude. This whole time has forced us as business, managers, and individuals to really assess how effective we are and whether we are moving in the right direction.
Here are some of the areas where I think that we have developed.
Sorting out the wheat from the chaff.
The day after Boris announced lockdown my husband and I woke at 5am in the morning, both of us worrying. Early the next morning we put a message on our private work facebook group explaining that we wanted to run the food service from our farmshop and that there was work for those who would be prepared to help us. Five people from the nursery, coffee shop and farmshop, including our apprentice, all turned up ready for work at 8.30am. Never have I felt so much pride and gratitude. We will always be grateful for those people who were behind us at that moment. Never before has life demonstrated who among our staff are most committed and believe in our ethos.
Which parts of the business are fit for purpose?
It wasn’t just the people who showed their true colours. New demands and ways of operating exposed what was working and what needed improvement in other sectors of our business. For us two areas which we needed to develop were phone lines and website.
It was lucky that we had finally installed a landline phone earlier in the year. Until that time Paul and I had answered all calls on our mobiles. Once lockdown started we were having hundreds of calls a day. At least one member of staff (often me) was permanently on the landline and then our team were having to ring customers back to take payment on our mobiles. It enabled us to survive but we have had to investigate upgrading our phone systems so that we can have more work mobiles and a divert on our landline. That way, not only can we deal with higher demand, it is easier to use and, if staff are self isolating they can still continue to work and answer the phone at home.
The next thing that came under scrutiny was our website. We realised just how heavily everyone was relying on the internet during that time. Once we were allowed to sell garden items I found myself, by default, offering a telephone advice line about plants. However, phone calls have massive limitations.
People tend to spend a very long time asking for a flower they want, sometimes unsure of the name, often unaware of the seasonality of that plant. Sometimes a phone customer would simply ask for advice on what grows in a certain environment (ie shade) but then not recognise any of the plants I suggested (ie Vinca, Aucuba). I found myself starting the conversation by saying “Are you sitting near Google?” This was frustrating and long winded and so we are now spending a significant amount of time re-writing our website. We aim to give our customers a better idea of what we sell and how those plants grow at different times and different places in the garden. It is a work in progress!
Being brave on social media
Before the pandemic our social media was a fun and seasonal way to engage with our customers and, hopefully find new ones. All of a sudden it became our main means of daily communication. We were sharing availability of food, looking good plants, when compost was due in and when our bedding would be ready.
We posted a picture of Paul and I asking customers to keep their ‘knobs and knockers’ sanitised ready for deliveries and posed with butternut squash and a courgette as a joke and we had a crazy (but luckily amused) response. If only I had known just how many people would see that picture – I might have thought more carefully about posting it!
A garden centre with a bouncer
The next big learning curve was all about toughening up. I still do not think I have managed this aspect but I have definitely had to develop a thicker skin in order to survive. I would never have thought that a nursery would need a bouncer! But employ one we did. As nursery workers and a family business in a small town we are part of the community. Our customers are our friends and neighbours. We see them regularly, help them out with gardening advice and listen to what is going on in their lives. Our personalities, attitudes and skills did not prepare us for what was to come.
We are not used to dealing with angry, anonymous people shouting obscenities at us because we would not let them in the nursery or had not picked up the phone quickly enough (the longest the phone went without ringing was 7 seconds). We had one or two incidents a day and a particularly nasty one had taken its toll so one of our youngest and kindest employees had gone home to recover. With only a skeleton staff, diminished even further, we simply could not offer the food service any longer.
I always try to stay upbeat on social media but that day I put out on Facebook how the service was jeopardised by this aggressive person and we have never experienced such an overwhelming surge of support. Alex, 30, was volunteered by his dad, who was a town councillor. He is tall, slim, unassuming with a friendly smile but for some reason you just wouldn’t mess with him! He laughed when I said he was my bouncer. He stayed on the ‘safe collection’ gate meaning my staff could get on with what needed to be done inside the farmshop and nursery and the young man who had to go home was soon back helping us out again.
Using analytical thinking
Lots of our adaptions forced by the virus have been instinctive and reactive. However, some of the challenges required that I had to engage the mathematical part of my brain. We suddenly had a new type of business.
We had telephone customers rather than face to face. We had restrictions and risk assessments to control our distance from one another and customers and rigorous routines for keeping surfaces clean. I likened myself to Henry Ford. I had to break down the process into tasks; vegetables coming in and being prepped, phone orders taken, orders picked, vegetables weighed and priced, call customers back and then safe collection from an outside gate. Suddenly I was forced to analyse timings for how many calls were coming in per hour, how many people could be phoned back to take payments and how many payments could be processed through our till. Given those constraints I had to work out how many members of staff were available to work on each day then allocate a safe work station and job. It forced us as a business to truly analyse how effectively we were working. In our general, everyday work we have never had to be so precise. It has certainly kept us on our toes and trained us to adapt to new situations quickly, effectively and appropriately.
A time to be grateful
So, yes, this time has been stressful and unhappy but there have been some strong learning points. We have found out who are committed staff are, we have been shown where we need to adapt our business and means of communications with our customers, we have had to develop personally to cope with the extra pressures, we have had to become more analytical about our business and how it works. Most of all we have repeatedly been reminded to be grateful. Over the years our nursery has become more successful because of loyal customers and we are grateful to them. During lockdown we were able to take our turn to look after them. We did our best. It was sometimes messy and not perfect but never before have we received so many hand written thank you notes, comments on Google and even boxes of chocolates. It was terribly stressful to lift the phone and hear sobbing but we were able to reassure people that we would get food to them or their loved ones. It was crazy that someone would shout us because we had not managed to phone them back about their four tomato plants within three hours. Yet we had families who wanted summer bedding plants to brighten their elderly parents containers on the patio. Then there were just so many people who said how glad they were to be getting outside and working in the garden using our plants and compost. To be part of a community is personally rewarding. To be part of an industry that encourages people to garden and enjoy nature, especially in times of hardship, has inspired us.
Ruth and Paul Goudy run Kiln Farm Nursery www.kilnfarm.com. Ruth writes about the joy of working with plants and flowers www.ruthgoudy.com