The retail lavender nursery: Nursery management

2015

Efficient staff

The role of efficient staff in administration, production and sales cannot be underestimated. It is critical that each department of the business knows what the other is doing. Experience dictates that team work among a core staff of dedicated and loyal individuals, in a relaxed atmosphere, creates the healthiest and most productive working environment.

The office is the centre of all aspects of nursery operations. Mismanagement here, can be costly elsewhere. The computer is the most productive tool in efficient office management, but only if staff are fully conversant with software.

The first task of nursery management is to prepare a budget and cash flow forecast for the coming year. Preferably on a rolling monthly basis. This will highlight what lavenders need to be ready to supply income at given times of the year. The principle selling season is the beginning of May to the end of July with August and September providing additional income rather than substantial income.

The consumer has yet to be convinced that autumn planting is in many ways better than spring planting. The wholesale lavender nursery would undoubtedly find the selling season brought forward by a few months.

Production scheduling

Production scheduling requires close scrutiny by the retail nursery, but is less precise than for the wholesale nursery, for which orders for plants will generally have been placed well in advance. Flower shows are the most predictable element of scheduling. The lavenders in an exhibit are more in demand, than those that are not exhibited and the short, hardy lavenders are especially sought after. Beyond this, the mail order and retail sales at the nursery are more imprecise. It can never be anticipated with complete confidence that certain species or cultivars are going to sell in quantity. A surge in demand for less common lavenders may occur due to unsolicited publicity. There are, however, some garden stalwarts which seem to have endless appeal.

The skill of good management is to try to prepare for the surprise and ensure stocks of all lavenders are available throughout the season, in the right quantities, without overproducing. The previous year’s sales are a reasonable guide to the forthcoming year, but should not solely be relied upon for forecasting. There is a need to approach the new season proactively. To feed consumer demand it seems always necessary to introduce a new lavender or look for a new angle on an existing lavender.

Once the lavenders to be marketed for the coming season are selected, it is necessary to put the production schedule into operation. Working back from the following year’s sale date provides the starting point for scheduling.

Flower shows

For flower shows falling between mid-May and the end of July a ten-week lead-in time is sufficient to get a lavender from a cutting to a saleable liner. This allows for six weeks in propagation and weaning and a further four weeks as a liner. Stock plants need to be ready at the start of this ten-week period and potted accordingly.

Mail order and retail nursery

Mail order and retail nursery liners need to be ready from March to October, which makes scheduling a little more complex. To ensure a finished liner is ready in March it is necessary to prepare stock plants in early August for cutting material in September.

Bottlenecks are always experienced at some point during the season. Principally this occurs in May when the season is at its height and lavenders need to be available for flower shows, mail order and at the retail nursery. Area apportionment when planning the years stock levels becomes paramount, to avoid the need to move plants. Space is at a premium in spring. The need to produce pristine lavenders to flower exactly at the right time for large flower show exhibits still requires considerable moving and juggling of those lavenders reserved for shows. For this purpose it is often necessary to force lavenders, but lavenders do not respond well to being forced. Very often they become willowy, with pale, uncharacteristic blooms. It is certainly the most challenging period of the entire year, made more so by the inherent unpredictability of the weather.

By May much of the watering can be done using overhead spraylines, except for exhibition plants. Keeping flower spikes dry is crucial to their appearance. Watering these plants at the base with a hose pipe and hand lance also ensures they are regularly inspected to assess progress and quality.

Administration problems

While the jobs in production are burgeoning, administration is equally reaching critical mass. Handling scheduling, enquiries, orders, accounts and the endless stream of predominantly inane paperwork requires good organisation and a good software package.

Computerised tracking system for plant stock

There are some extremely comprehensive stock control packages available to cope with all of the above, but they often come at considerable cost and with many irrelevant features. Developing a bespoke system in-house using a widely available database is far more effective and efficient. Tracking stock is an essential part of scheduling to make sure targets are being met.

Rooted cuttings enter the computer system once they reach weaning, by which time most will survive. Any shortfall can be rectified within the required time to ensure finished plants are still available on time. With this information it is possible to track plants from a rooted cutting to liners and 3 l, knowing the availability at each stage. Lavenders can then be reserved in confidence, sold and despatched to mail order customers. Each day on the retail nursery and each flower show, can be treated as a separate customer for the purpose of stock control. Entering lavenders in the system 10 weeks prior to a show ensures that the manager can assess progress and take action to correct any problems.

Accounts information can be integrated with stock control to provide a snapshot of business at any time. Keeping accounts up to date ensures that any deviation, positive or negative, from the business plan can be identified and if necessary, rectified.

Sales

At the same time as all these backroom dramas, sales may be reaching fever pitch. The specialist nursery should provide more than a vending machine approach to sales, striving to give the consumer an experience beyond just buying a plant. This takes a considerable amount of time and patience, but is part of the service that makes the specialist nursery a real gem.

Maintenance of garden and plants

Not all jobs on the nursery are specifically directed toward sales. Maintenance is a time consuming part of the business, best reserved for the winter months. Some jobs can, and need, to be done during the slight sales plateau of August, taking advantage of the good weather. In this respect labour too needs to be flexible throughout the year, to take advantage of weather windows.

National Plant Collection®

Maintaining a garden display of lavender in addition to the nursery, especially if the nursery has a National Plant Collection®, is an extra responsibility.

It is possible to apply for status as a National Plant Collection® from the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG), a charity established to conserve garden plants for future generations to enjoy and to maintain botanical diversity.

Several aspects are considered in granting a National Plant Collection®. These include, the range of species and cultivars within a genus and evidence that the prospective collection holder is serious about correctly identifying plants and researching their history and provenance. The work of the collection holder in maintaining a collection is largely a labour of love, but it does give the nursery a certain kudos, which is difficult to measure economically.

Correctly identifying and correctly naming plants is a very important aspect of the work of a National Plant Collection® holder as there is a complex and confusing history in the naming (nomenclature) and taxonomy (classification) of lavenders.