Offering a potting service can help your garden center reach new customers — and turn them into annual clients.
Whether it’s the convenience factor or a desire for a professional touch, some shoppers simply prefer to outsource planting of their container gardens.
“I think [offering potting services] really helps us to be well-rounded as a garden center,” says Robert LaHoff, co-owner of Hall’s Garden Center & Florist in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, which has included potting services in its business model since opening 42 years ago. “We try to offer everything that anyone could ever ask for in our industry.”
At Barlow’s Garden Center in Sea Girt, New Jersey, which has been offering potting services for around 25 years, repeat customers bring anywhere from two to 30 pots to be replanted every spring, says Stephen Barlow, the company’s president.
“They come in for our signature look — a beautiful container that they feel they couldn’t recreate themselves,” he says.
Interest in potting services has been increasing steadily for the past five to six years at Rutgers Landscape & Nursery in Ringoes, New Jersey, says Jeff Dallesander, nursery manager. “We have returning clients every year who bring in pots and say, ‘I’d like to do the same as last year,’ or ‘I’d like to change it up this year,’” he says. “I think part of the attraction is the low maintenance [of container gardens]. People don’t have the time anymore to care for large annual and perennial gardens.”
Here are a few best practices for launching — or expanding — a potting service at your garden center to keep customers coming back for more.
1. Charge a flat fee.
Rather than trying to price out each individual plant, Dallesander and Barlow feel it’s far easier to charge a set fee based on the size of the pot. Rutgers charges $30 for a 10- to 15-inch pot, up to $145 for a 60-inch pot or $220 for a 60-inch urn, for example.
Alternatively, Hall’s charges a flat planting fee — over and above the cost of the plants themselves. There, customers are charged $1 for a 4-inch pot and up to $20 for a 20-inch pot, with anything over 20 inches charged at a rate of $1 per inch. At Hall’s, the flat fee includes the soil preparation, the soil mix, the drainage material, the fertilizer, the mulch, and the transplanting costs, LaHoff says.
2. Encourage customers to bring in empty pots.
Barlow’s charges more if customers bring in pots for replanting that are still filled with soil. “Disposal costs have gone through the roof,” Barlow says. “We charge an added fee if a customer does not bring their pot back in empty because it takes my guys time to cut out the root-bound soil, and we have to get a separate dumpster for debris.” To avoid those headaches, it’s good to incentivize clean container return.
3. Find staff with a keen eye for design.
Perhaps the biggest factor in ensuring your potting service’s success is finding plant-savvy employees with a knack for beautiful design. Finding this unique skill set can be hard. In fact, it’s the deciding factor in Barlow’s decision to not grow its potting services beyond a busy, eight-week spring and early summer season. “Our head designer is amazing. She’s set the bar really high and everyone wants her to do their pots,” Barlow says. “When we’ve tried to bring on new employees, it’s sometimes been difficult to train them and have them produce containers of the same quality.”
A staffer with a magic touch has also been key at Rutgers. “We have a designer who does all of our container gardening, and she has an amazing eye for color and what works together really well,” Dallesander says.
4. Stock a wide variety of pots in your inventory.
Rutgers has found its customers use its potting services when it stocks a wide variety of pot types on site — a dynamic that is boosted when their designer stages the containers with colorful and engaging plant combinations. “If we have a line of pottery, we try to plant one of them up for display so people can get an idea of what can be done,” Dallesander says.
5. Consider your client base before launching a potting division.
Be prepared for the possibility that clients in your area may not gravitate toward a potting service as quickly as you’d like. After working at a garden center in a high-income area of New Jersey that had a thriving potting division, Kristi Vince decided to launch the service at a garden center in Richmond, Virginia, where she now works. But the demand hasn’t been the same. “It’s totally due to demographics,” she says. “I’m still determined to make it work, but clients here haven’t seemed as receptive to the service.”
6. Provide year-round design services.
Rutgers and Hall’s both offer year-round potting services to help clients’ containers stay fresh throughout the seasons. It’s a way of increasing foot traffic and adds another layer of value to the overall potting service model. (Hall’s also has an active commercial client base for whom they offer on-site container planting and management throughout the year.)
At Rutgers, a typical progression might be an early spring mix with tulips or primrose, then summer annuals followed by fall grasses, cabbage and kale, and finally, Christmas greens and berries, Dallesander says.
Similarly, at Hall’s early spring pots might feature pansies, followed by a summer transition to tropical annuals or zinnias, then fall pumpkins flanked by cabbage or ornamental peppers, with Christmas greenery and pine cones going in for the winter, LaHoff says.
7. Let clients be hands-on (or hands-off) when selecting their plants.
You can either involve clients in the selection of the plants for their pots, or not. Both approaches work.
At Barlow’s, clients who opt for potting services don’t select their own plants; all the pots there are custom designed by staff. If a Barlow’s client wants to have an active role in plant selection, staffers instead direct them to available planting instruction sheets or offer assistance in helping them select plants they can install on their own.
On the other hand, Hall’s and Rutgers allow clients to have input in plant selection when using their potting services. At Hall’s, customers always select their own plant materials with the help of an associate. “We’re able to provide a personal touch, but we want them to have input also,” LaHoff says.
At Rutgers, clients have the choice to leave plant selections to staff or to help. “We have clients that we’ll walk through with,” Dallesander says. “They’ll select the items and the pottery and everything, but we’re able to offer direction on what plants will or won’t work together.”
8. Do house calls.
Hall’s Garden Center & Florist not only offers planting services for annual and perennial containers, but also tree, shrub and landscape planting at customers’ homes or businesses. For this service, LaHoff’s team charges a flat installation fee equal to the cost of the landscape material. So, installation of a $100 Japanese maple would cost the client an additional $100.
9. Use potting classes as a fundraising event.
At Rutgers, Dallesander’s team has found a winning formula by partnering with local school PTAs and other nonprofits to host “planting parties” as fundraising events.
“They’ve been very, very popular,” Dallesander says. “We offer them a few times a year. Participants can bring a pot or buy one of ours, and we offer instruction on how to select their items and put everything together.”
In addition to supporting a community cause, the planting parties have helped broaden Rutgers’ client base.
“It’s a way of bringing new people in, who maybe have never been in before,” Dallesander says. “And at the same time, going forward year after year, they’re going to think, ‘Oh, maybe I should go back and get my pot filled there.’”