As part of a spring event, Hyannis Country Garden created a display with flower pots that were each labeled with an astrological sign. In those pots were slips of paper that described characteristics that are commonly associated with each sign, as well as the plants that would be a good match for a person with those traits. Many customers found it so entertaining that they took home gifts for friends.

“Where are the perennials?” a shopper will ask. In answer, you point to the sign that is in front of that customer, a mere 6 feet away. It reads, in large, capital letters, “PERENNIALS.” We’ve all been there. And truth be told, in other stores it’s likely that we’ve been the ones who haven’t noticed signage. Yet for every person who doesn’t see our labeling, there are dozens of others who do. With some thought and planning, we can be creative and instructive with signs in order to help ourselves and our customers. Signs can inform, entertain and sell.

Shopping in our customers’ shoes

When evaluating your existing signage or determining what is needed, walk into your store with “new eyes.” Try and put aside your knowledge of where things are and come in through the main entrance as if you are unaware of the location of plants and products. Notice if the signage is current for what people are looking for. In early spring, for example, customers might be shopping for shrubs, while in the late spring the majority are looking for vegetables and annuals. I remember entering a nursery in April and seeing a large sign that said “Mums.” It was an attractive, eye-catching sign, but it was hung over a group of junipers. I’m sure that this signage was appropriate the previous September when the chrysanthemums were in this area, but no one had thought to change it since.

Walking in the customers’ shoes can be an interesting exercise for all of your employees. Ask your staff to pick a random plant or product out of a hat, and then walk into your IGC as if they were a new customer who was looking for that item. Have them either report back about their experience individually, or do it in a group meeting that includes brainstorming about improvements. One employee might draw the slip saying they were shopping for “a tree to plant to honor my mom who just passed,” while others might draw slips that say “tomato plants,” “a birdbath” or “a groundcover for shade.” Ask each employee for suggestions for signage that might have helped for those times when there’s no staff nearby to assist.

Unpacking plant terms

Those of us in the plant business use terms and jargon that much of the public isn’t familiar with. Existing signage should be evaluated with that in mind. For example, if a customer is looking for a tree, is there signage that indicates where you’ll find them? Perhaps there is a sign that says “Nursery,” but people with little plant knowledge might assume this is the place where babies are cared for. Might it be better to have the “Perennials” sign paired with a subtitle that reads “plants that return each year” or “these usually live through the winter?” Should your sign that directs people toward the “Greenhouse” say “Houseplants” instead?

Making signage fun

Once the spring rush starts to slow down, consider having fun with some of your signage. Customers remember when they are surprised in a delightful way, or when an ordinary shopping trip gives them an opportunity to laugh. These days, such surprises are often captured on smartphone cameras and passed on through social media, making your customer a marketer on your behalf. So give them something that’s delightful and unanticipated to share.

One idea for unexpected signage is to label a few random plants with personality traits commonly thought of for people. So, for example, a group of plants that grow large and well might be signed as “Over-Achievers” while those with purple leaves and flashy flowers would be labeled as “Drama Queens.” A plant with brilliant foliage might bear an “Extrovert” sign, while something that is slow to grow or spread could be called “Bashful.”

Another thought is to compare a plant to a well-known celebrity. I frequently call our native oaks “the Rodney Dangerfield of trees” because they get no respect. Which plant would you call the Miley Cyrus of perennials or the Michael Jordan of shrubs? Perhaps the plants that are known for their reliability might be compared with Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington or Betty White. Or maybe you can match a plant with one of the Muppets. A thin conifer could be the Kermit of plants because “It’s not easy being green,” and a shrub with large, bright pink flowers can be displayed nearby and labeled as Miss Piggy.

Thank you, Burma-Shave

Those who were children in the 1950s and early ‘60s might remember the joy of reading Burma-Shave signs along two-lane highways. These were a series of five or six signs spaced a good distance apart that created a funny poem and ended with the name of the shaving cream. An example is: Shaving brushes/You’ll soon see ‘em/On the shelf/ In some museum/Burma-Shave.

Should you have an employee who’s good at rhyming, create your own versions of these and periodically switch them out. These can be especially useful in large garden centers where people might have to walk some distance to shop for the plants they want. Just as Burma-Shave made long car trips more fun, your spaced signage can make a long walk enjoyable. Three suggestions to get you started:

• For shade and flowers/birds and bees/you can’t go wrong/by planting trees/Your Garden Center.

• She didn’t water/ the plants got fried/they don’t survive/when roots are dried/Your Garden Center.

• Feeling down?/Well, it’s a start/to plant flowers/that lift your heart/Your Garden Center

Five stars

A faster and perhaps easier way to draw attention to selected plants and products is to have some five-star signs made. These could be “An Employee Five-Star Pick” or use the name of your garden center’s name, such as “Green Gardens’ Five-Star Pick.” In a world where most things get rated by stars online, our customers notice those reviews and rankings, and studies show that they influence buying habits. Have employees choose plants and products that they know are reliable in your area and sign them with five gold stars.

As the season ramps up, look at your signs and use them to guide, instruct, amuse and sell.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at