How To Be a Great Plant Shop or Nursery Customer


There are so many articles listing tips on how to work in customer service jobs, but there really aren’t many covering how to get the best results when you shop for plants.

The customer is sadly not always right. We all know this, and while employees sometimes hear this, it’s become clearer that a minority of customers have taken advantage of this kind of interaction. It bothers me a great deal to see a friend who’s been harassed for no good reason by someone.

To work retail, you really need to have thick skin. It’s bad enough when coworkers take their issues out on you, but it’s even worse when you’re trying to help someone—honestly enjoying finding a solution for them—and they do it to you knowing you have to “take it” since you’re essentially paid to service them.

Happily this is not something that happens a lot, but it can really be upsetting and it doesn’t need to happen. Customers should find help, and employees should feel like they’ve been able to do their jobs to the best of their abilities while working within the limitations of the business model.

The good news is that nearly everyone is great. So long as you do your research and are patient and nice, you can find what you need on your own and maybe even help someone you find along your way who is just standing in an aisle looking confused.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Do you work here? I need help.” I just have that look I guess…

Clematis macropetala ‘Bluebird’. (Sadly this is one of the few plants that’s ever been stolen from my house.)

Since the start of the pandemic, anyone who works in customer service is aware of how much anxiety, fear, and anger has been needlessly directed at them. Since I stopped working the retail area at my job in Canby I’ve only heard about it from coworkers, what I’ve had happen mostly are folks just stopping in the greenhouse to chat with me while I’m working. Lots of folks have been lonely and have felt isolated so I’m sort of a captive audience as I work at my station.

Oh the random stories I could tell lol!

Rhododendron occidentale, or Western azalea.

1. Just be nice.

Selling live plant material means that we have to keep them alive while at the same time providing customer service. So much work goes into keeping things fresh and making displays. It really breaks your spirit to be physically exhausted and then overhear “witty” or snarky comments about how things look.

2. Practice patience.

If you send an email asking about availability to a nursery, please don’t call them in a few hours if you’ve not heard back yet. Try to be understanding that many workers are wearing many hats at once and there is likely a line of customers ahead of you in their mailbox. They’re absolutely doing their best to take care of customers as quickly as is possible.

3. Know which services are provided before you go.

Increasingly, we’re seeing a trend. One stop shopping and saving time is popular. If you want to have an area of your garden designed, some employees can help with this, but it’s not always the case. Not all nurseries have the number of staff to spend that kind of time helping you.

Please don’t get angry with the person assisting you if this is frustrating. Often, this means others have to wait and then they’re upset too. If you want design help, it is best to hire and shop with a designer, personal shopper, or garden coach. This person can help you and give you the direct attention you need. If you don’t know how to find one, look online or call a nursery and ask. I know that in Portland gardening is very popular so many advanced gardeners seek to make a living at it and these kinds of gigs are perfect and can provide a higher wage as well. (For folks like me this is great!)

I think this quote from someone who has worked large garden center retail for many years nails what many friends said to me when I asked about this topic. “They want me to be a top level horticulturist and their personal garden designer and shopper, and also to treat me like an imbecile. That doesn’t work for me.”

This field of work, for so many of us, is a labor of love and there really is just so much that we can do. Sadly, there are a lot of factors that can go into how busy we are at any time. Sometimes we’re more free to help you. Maybe call and ask when a slow time would be so that you could get that kind of special personal help.

Fremontodendron californicum, or flannel bush.

4. Please put tags back into the pots and don’t steal cuttings or plants.

Lots of folks pull tags out of things to read their names and their descriptions. Just try to put them back. I can’t tell you how much time and energy goes into making sure things are labeled and priced. Primping those plants can take so much out of us laborers.

5. “There’s no price tag on this so it’s free, right?

Jokes like this are not funny. If you get a weak laugh, don’t be surprised. Also, please don’t grab stock plants from areas that are roped off and tell us you want them. Don’t ask us to dig things up from display areas either. Those are also our stock plants.

What that means is that it’s how we make more crops. We divide stock plants and the crops begin small so we’re sorry if you don’t like that size, but if no one buys them, we pot them up, so maybe next time you might find a larger one. That’s just how a production nursery works. (Some stock plants are also just there for cuttings. We need to keep them too.)

You’d be surprised, but these are all frequent requests. Sadly, I’ve witnessed individuals arguing with nursery owners and trying to bully them into getting stock plants.

I’ll never forget one man saying, “My wife doesn’t want your tiny hosta plants. She deserves better than them.” He went on and on. It made me so upset, but instant gratification cannot always be satisfied in the garden.

7. Suspicion or discount seeking.

If a plant has a few yellow leaves it means the staff has been too busy to remove them. This is normal and so is the fluffing. Many plants you purchase don’t sit around looking pretty. Many hands have made sure that they look their best so that you’ll take them home.

When there are discounts or sales, you’ll notice signs. Its fine to ask if we have any specials, but there are people who complain a lot to retail employees about the prices and that’s not part of their job to fix, so if it’s a real issue, send an email to someone or do what I do. Go to the internet and chat to your friends about it.

Some nurseries will replace plants that you’ve killed, but most won’t. The only issue is when a plant is diseased or infested with bugs. Most nurseries will work to resolve that with you since it has to do with horticulture.

If you take plants home and deer eat them, the onus is not on the grower. This goes back to the start. Always do your research.

A Ceanothus cultivar, or California lilac.

8. Don’t be an ask-hole.

These moments are time wasters and can be really exhausting. They’re conversations that go nowhere in my opinion. No matter what you respond with, it’s not enough, or not what they want to hear. I think once I may have even said, “I’m so sorry but I appear not to be helping you at all. How can we get that spot planted for you?” It felt so heavy and like I was performing some kind of therapy for them. I think we all respond to this situation differently, but they’re conversations that go on and on and in general, we employees often have other tasks to be doing instead of answering A LOT of questions.

This is one reason that I’m happy we have Question Desks at a few nurseries. If you don’t have one in your area, it’s a great volunteer position for a Master Gardener volunteer in the area and a way they can do their service hours. I think a nursery with one of these set up will attract business too. If the volunteer is aware of the different areas of expertise at the nursery they can also better direct more advanced questions to the right people. I believe an employee usually oversees things so you have a dependable “hive mind” on duty.

Buddleja globosa, or orange ball tree.

9. Have fun and smile!

Folks struggle. We all get tired when we work hard physically all day. Imagine doing it a lot. Some of us do it all year, others are seasonal employees. If an employee seems snobby, just know that they really love plants. Please don’t take it personally. Set up a problem for them to solve, and I believe that they will do their best to help you. Nursery and plant work is a labor of love. It’s difficult to make a living at it, and many nursery workers are just passing through but really want to work at something hard that they love for a while. Choose kindness and you never know, garden love may shine down on you and your garden may grow.

Illicium floridanum, or anise tree.

Propagation and Plant Production: Cooking up Plants for Friends and Strangers During Covid-19


It’s late on a Thursday night in the month of October in 2020. For the last few weeks I’ve been feeding myself a steady stream of fantasy and horror films as I recover from a physical meltdown of sorts that’s common for myself, and seemingly unfathomable at times for others. I made it through the season, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic and for those of us that work with plants, this has felt like a never-ending season of what’s referred to as being “slammed” in a kitchen. Imagine months of this, at two nurseries, but I thankfully work behind the scenes, and this does make it easier for me mentally and emotionally.

We’re still waiting for the results of a final x-ray, but it’s clear I’m exhausted and damaged. While one spine issue improved, another disk protruded. Instead of swelling up with one hereditary angioedema attack, I had two simultaneously. My complement, immune, and nervous systems are all tired. I’ve been on a steady diet of anabolic steroids for just over a week now.

Yes, that’s right folks, I’m a doper! These are not illegal drugs, I have a prescription for them, but it’s surreal at times to really sit back and think about how hard I work to work so hard. I guess I’m passionate about what I do though, and plants inspire me to keep doing what I do.

I think it’s safe to say I potted up thousands of plants in 2020. Flat after flat after flat left my workspaces and were carted off to the public realm or else back into a greenhouse until they’re ready for their closeup. There’s a rush you feel at that moment much like the excitement of cooking in restaurant kitchen and you’re part of a performance and as the plates disappear out of your sight you breathe a sigh of relief and you feel more and more like a badass as the night goes on and you near the finish line.

When it comes to plants though, it is a bit different. The adrenaline rush is not quite as dramatic. I just perform the initial part of a performance. My part is to make the starter and to get it stable enough so that you can take it home and complete your task. Sometimes, I may even have been the one who sparked the seed into life. Once in the hands of the gardener, with the plant being planted, it completes its lifecycle. I’ve helped to supply so many gardeners with the supplies necessary to make their artwork, or else to create their calm and happy space. With each flat I complete I toss out my hopes and wishes and I let go of my control of them a little bit. They all cannot live. Some of the duds must be plucked out so as to retain some integrity to the batch. Plants must be edited as they are presented. I’m probably better at that nowadays than I am at editing on the page but it’s so much clearer when you see a flat of plants. I’m not seeking out misspellings or grammatical changes, I just need for them to be uniform, a baker’s perfect dozen.

Once a flat is processed I turn my back and forget about them and move on to whichever plugs or plants need to be up-potted, re-examined, assessed, and often I help to make plants look a bit more appealing with snips here and there. There is never a dull moment in production and propagation. It’s a hamster wheel with a blur of plant life forever in our midst.

Nursery work is hard and complicated. Sometimes the monotony of it is a challenge but you look for differences and subtle small things in your crops as you go. I think of this as the ideal time to use the boring repetitive moments as a teaching tool of some kind. It’s a moving meditation. For my physical therapist, she’s used this aspect of my jobs to help me work harder on my PT. We must all make the most of our daily lives, and this helps to define us, and give us meaning.

There is an art though to the juggling and rhythm of growing crops. Nature truly is the choreographer that we work with as we do our many dances through the seasons. It is the rhythm that we live by in the plant world that I live in and I’m sure that’s something others around the world share with me.

Folks have asked me a lot if I’ve missed my dinners this year and that’s been a tough topic for me. During my dinners I rarely spent time at the table with the guests. I was in the kitchen working hard and I don’t want to do that again. Taking back the space in my back garden this summer really helped me to get through everything. I spent quality time in the space I created from scratch. This let me consider the development of my own recipe. My distaste for some of the ingredients I’d included there. I gardened in this space and breathed in it. I made plans for changes, and thought through my missteps. Clearly, gardening and cooking conflated and I realized just how much I love propagation, plant production and kitchen work. I reached a kind of self-actualization in my hammock in the back garden in late summer, hanging right over the spot where my table usually sits and it felt so good. Eureka!

Potting up thousands of plants still makes me feel like I’m cooking for all of you though, and there is yet that space between us both, and I’m hurriedly working behind the scenes, so that you can feel pleasure. Maybe I’m an enabler after all. But this relationship feels even more complex and poignant than ever, during a year when we’re all living through a pandemic. We must continue to make the most of it.