Photo courtesy of George Didden Greenhousese

When landscapers are still planting fall mums, Dan Ruch is working to confirm their spring orders.

Landscapers purchase 50% of annual bedding plants from ageratum and cosmos to violas and zinnias grown at George Didden Greenhouses. Planning ahead allows Ruch, co-owner and sales manager of the Hatfield, Pennsylvania, wholesale greenhouse, to ensure that enough plant material — and the right varieties of bedding plants — are available when landscapers arrive to purchase annuals for their projects.

“In our business, we need to work three to six months ahead,” says Ruch, a fourth-generation grower.

Ruch explains that the business has changed since his great-grandfather and grandfather operated the greenhouse, which was founded in 1914. Back then, the focus was on selling cut mums via wholesale channels. Even when the growers transitioned to a diversified mix of annual bedding plants, most of the seed was produced in-house, allowing for more control over supplies.

As George Didden Greenhouses grew, operations became more specialized. Ruch oversees 6 acres of greenhouses spread across 50 acres of land, selling plant materials to a wholesale client mix split 50/50 between landscapers and garden centers. Like other local greenhouses, George Didden Greenhouses operate as global businesses: Ruch sources cuttings from as far afield as Israel and South America.

“Most of our suppliers like plug producers are not doing as much speculative work as before,” he says. “They are trying to get orders earlier as well [because] no one wants to have leftover inventory; our whole industry is pushed.”

The problem is, landscapers who account for half of the business at George Didden Greenhouses, are often still in the process of negotiating contracts with their commercial and residential clients when Ruch needs to start planning for their spring plant orders. As a result, advance orders are rare. However, while Ruch estimates that just 10% of landscapers pre-order their bedding plants, they account for up to 80% of his sales to landscapers.

Understanding landscaper needs

Serving the rest of the landscapers who depend on George Didden Greenhouses for high-quality, locally-grown plant material requires some guesswork and a commitment to understanding their unique needs.

Small landscapers, Ruch says, often need more handholding and depend on the sales team for suggestions regarding bedding plants for specific growing conditions, like annuals that will thrive in full sun or tolerate drought. In addition to offering advice, Ruch often points landscapers to the George Didden Greenhouses website where a plant calculator and searchable database makes it easier to determine plant material to purchase and which annuals are the best fit for a site — as well as those to avoid.

“We might have a landscaper that looks at a seed catalog and says, “Snapdragons are amazing,” because the pictures are amazing but I know that in our area, snapdragons are not going to provide full season color, so it’s fine to use them but avoid planting a whole bed of them,” Ruch says. “In our area, begonias are strong, vinca rosea are strong, SunPatiens are strong … we have the top plants that we’d recommend to use in our area.”

Large landscapers are often awarded contracts with commercial clients like malls, developers and homeowners associations based on price. Their main concern is the bottom line and George Didden Greenhouses also aims to offer competitive pricing to draw business from large landscapers.

Whether a small landscaper is purchasing 40 flats of bedding plants or larger landscape companies order a few thousand, Ruch believes in providing top-notch customer service, explaining, “We value everybody. The small guy in a pickup truck might be starting out but he could become a guy that runs a big landscaping business; we always respect people and treat them right.”

George Didden Greenhouses offers a plant calculator and searchable database to landscapers.

Cultivating client loyalty

Working with landscapers can be challenging but a commitment to customer service and creative thinking allows Ruch to meet their needs.

When a landscaper called to request 876 flats of four-and-a-half-inch vinca — a total of 10,000 plants — Ruch knew he could not deliver the order by the mid-May deadline. He needed at least 12 weeks to source and grow the plant material but the landscaper placed the order four weeks too late.

“The color he wants, we have it growing in the greenhouse but, if I sell him everything, I have nothing for the smaller landscapers who depend on me for material,” he says. “If I didn’t have a relationship with this guy, if it was his first time trying to place an order, I would have said, ‘We can’t do it; we don’t have enough time,’ but he’s a good customer so I want to figure out how we can get him what he needs.”

Instead of declining the order, Ruch plans to fill it in stages, providing some plants (from seedlings growing in the greenhouse) on the deadline and planting additional plugs that will be available a few weeks after the requested deadline. He’s also communicating the importance of placing pre-orders to ensure guaranteed delivery of plant material next season.

“We try to accommodate our landscapers as best we can because we know a lot of them don’t have signed contracts months in advance,” he says. “I try to encourage him and, if they don’t have contracts yet, we look at booking about half of what they did last year so at least we have something in the works.”

The service doesn’t end once plants leave the greenhouse. Ruch has helped with soil samples and pest and disease identification to ensure the annuals thrive in the landscape. Going the extra mile, he says, is all part of relationship-building.

“You want to be educated and help educate your customers. I’m looking at the relationships. I want to deal [with landscapers] for years and years.”

In fact, Ruch credits his focus on building relationships as the key reason George Didden Greenhouses has built a reputation for serving the needs of local landscapers. His values — and his advice to other growers who want to start working with landscapers or increase the business generated through landscaper sales: be honest and don’t over-sell.

“If someone wants to order 10,000 flats and you don’t have the capacity, be honest,” he says. “Tell them, ‘I feel like that might be a stretch for me; I can do half.’ Or, if you don’t think something is going to perform well, don’t suggest it to a customer because you have 50 flats in the greenhouse that you need to move. It’ll come back to bite you. You build relationships by doing right by your customers.”

The author spent a decade working for a greenhouse grower before becoming a freelance journalist. She is a frequent contributor to Greenhouse Management magazine and other GIE Media publications, including Garden Center magazine.