From a dazzling array of gifts to bustling restaurants offering delectable seasonal food, garden centres are becoming increasingly diverse in their offer. "Garden retail is not just about selling plants," Garden Centre Association (GCA) chief executive Iain Wylie confirms. However, plants remain their point of difference, he adds. "They may have diversified to become 12- months-a-year businesses but the horticulture element is just as important as it ever was."
Given plants' importance in these types of businesses, garden centres continue to need staff with horticultural knowledge, adds Wylie. But they also require people who are retail-savvy too. "Historically, those two things have been mutually exclusive, which is why it's been hard finding people with both of those skills," he says.
"The GCA is 50 years old this year and the industry is a similar age, so because it's not a mature industry there still isn't a clearly defined path into it. It's changed so rapidly over time it's been difficult to find people with the right skills. It's an area where a lot of work still needs to done."
He explains that because there is such a big need for retail horticulturists, the sector offers great opportunities for the right people. Those opportunities include being a planteria manager, a horticulture team leader, the manager of a store, an area sales manager or a buyer for a store.
Strong focus on training
Wylie advises that those who are keen to get into garden retail can simply start off by getting some work experience on the shop floor. "School leavers, for instance, can get some part-time work and see what it's like," he suggests.
"It's not necessarily about being a salesperson. You just have to be able to relate to customers and enjoy serving them - and you have to be interested in horticulture and other product ranges in garden centres."
He adds that an increasing number of companies in the sector are setting up their own apprenticeship schemes for new starters. Wyevale Garden Centres, which operates more than 150 centres in England and Wales, has worked with Worcestershire-based Pershore College to create an apprenticeship programme that has a strong focus on horticulture.
Meanwhile, Surrey-based Longacres, winner of this year's Garden Centre of the Year award, has also just set up its own apprenticeship scheme. Moreover, the Homebase Garden Academy, set up three years ago by award-winning garden designer Adam Frost, continues to go from strength to strength as last year it doubled its intake to 40 students.
There is also an increasing number of other initiatives being set up by the sector for staff to enhance their knowledge and skills. Sharon Fennell, head of talent and development at Wyevale Garden Centres, reveals that the company has just set up a new scheme called Shooting for Growth. "It started at the end of February so it's very new," she explains.
"We've got four programmes running at the moment with 60 people taking part in total and another 60 people starting later in the year. They are only on their second module and they've been given a folder full of horticultural tips and advice because it's about growing our own horticultural knowledge within the business.
"We have created our own training programme because trying to buy in horticultural expertise is really difficult - it's an industry-wide issue and we have really struggled with this for a while. So we decided last year to pull everything together to upskill our staff. One of our talent priorities has been to take really strong, commercially-focused retail leaders who do not necessarily have a horticultural knowledge. So we are helping them to run that part of the business and support their horticultural managers.
"We are also focusing on those who want their career path to be in that (horticultural) remit - people who want to move from an entry-level position to a team leader of a planteria or horticultural manager. We've worked with MorePeople, which is delivering the training through horticulturists who have worked in all sorts of arenas. Also, it links up nicely with our e-learning approach, so it's not just about going on a workshop. The learning is carried out in the garden centres, in the planterias and online - it's blended learning."
Wylie adds that the GCA's Garden Retail Online Workshops (GROW), introduced three years ago, continue to grow in popularity. The programme aims to give people who are starting a career in garden retail a basic knowledge of plants and the other skills needed in the sector.
"We have 10,000 users registered now," he says. "That's around 90 registered garden centres using it. That's a real milestone."
Wylie reveals that this year GROW has launched the first five of a series of modules on customer service. "We've launched these modules because the vast majority of our customers need help and advice. How we deliver that is important. It's not just knowing, for example, that rhododendrons require ericaceous compost. It's about being able to explain that fact to customers. The principles of understanding customer service and customer relationships are very important. We plan to develop 30 modules in total, with 15-20 being rolled out this year."
- To search for apprenticeship schemes in your area, visit www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk.
Case Study - Longacres Garden Centre
Longacres, the UK's number one garden centre by turnover for the past seven years, has taken on seven apprentices during the past 18 months.
Human resources manager Donna Fionda is driving and mentoring the scheme. She explains that the apprentices are a mix of horticulture, floristry and retail students who are all working towards, or have recently completed, intermediate level 2 apprenticeship qualifications.
"When I started here three years ago Longacres did not have an apprenticeship scheme in place, so I started it up," says Fionda. "We've been working with local colleges such as Merrist Wood as the apprentices spend one day a week at college. The floristry apprentices also have a training day every Thursday as well as their day at college because floristry is huge here.
"Meanwhile, two of our apprentices (Jamie Smith (23) and Bradley Poole (17)) are studying horticulture and we are looking for our third horticultural one as I speak. Their supervisors help them with their tasks plus we have a landscape department so we utilise their help as well."
Case study - The Homebase Garden Academy
Emma Tustin (35) worked as an admin assistant in the NHS for nine years before joining the Homebase Garden Academy. "I'm really enjoying the academy so far," she says.
"When we're not training, all the students are working full-time at their local Homebase store. I'm really enjoying this part of the programme as I get to put what I've learnt into practice by helping customers with gardening problems and making the most of their outside space."
Tustin is one of 40 students who, over the past six months, have been working with top garden suppliers developing detailed product knowledge including planting and landscaping, and learning practical horticultural skills to earn them an RHS level 1 award qualification at the end of the programme.
Their mentor, Adam Frost, who set up the academy three years ago as a way of encouraging more people to enter the gardening sector, says: "It can be challenging for our industry to attract people into gardening and show them that it can be an exciting career, but over the last three years I have watched the academy grow and it's really proof that gardening is becoming a more popular career choice."