Train Your Plant Technicians for Account Retention & Profitability

You may not believe this but somewhere out there right now, techs are watering plants and they don’t know a bloody thing about what they’re doing. Think it is because they’re stupid, lazy, or plainly don’t-give-a-damn? No…it’s because they haven’t been properly trained.

Whether you’re just starting as a ‘scaper and have hired your first technician or you’ve been in the business forever and have phalanxes of techs scattered around the countryside, if you don’t have the time to invest in training, you shouldn’t be in the business. And I don’t mean sending someone out with a new tech a couple of times to make sure they know where the accounts are located and where to find the water.

Week one & two: Introduction

When I first started [at John Mini Indoor Gardens], a new hire spent two weeks in the greenhouse learning plant names, aesthetics, and basics of installation. This is an excellent idea and a great way to start. It’s an even better idea when part of those first two weeks is spent at training sessions, watching videos on plant care, or studying one of the excellent short courses available, such as Johnson Fediw Associates or Interior Plantscape Reference and Study Manual by Fred Proscod. These are available for a range of costs; while others are available free online (e.g. The Ficus Wrangler channel).

Johnson Fediw Associates Training

Johnson Fediw Associates Training Material

I realize that not everyone has a large enough company to indulge in things like greenhouses and extended periods of video watching. However, if you’re training an inexperienced person, I believe it will pay great dividends down the road to spend at least an hour or two every day in the first couple of weeks familiarizing the tech trainee with an overview of the industry and his/her job by presenting the basics. The following need to be discussed before your new tech ever hits the field:

  • Names of plants and what they should look like
  • What constitutes as a beautiful plant and how to keep them that way
  • Warning signs of potential plant problems
  • What tools your tech will be working with such as water delivery systems
  • Moisture testing
  • Cleaning and grooming
  • Record keeping
  • Fertilizer
  • Pest and pathogen control
  • Safety regulations and good practices
  • Customer relations
  • Company policies

Week three: Watering

After these two weeks, your tech has been fully trained and is ready to go out and take care of your clients and their plants, right? Of course not! The training is just getting started. First the newbie needs to visit accounts with the trainer, begin to practice the basics that were introduced in the two weeks prior, and familiarize themselves with specifics of the accounts. For the first few days, the new tech can simply practice carrying water without spilling, pushing the water machine without getting in people’s way, or cleaning and trimming plants without leaving a mess behind. They should also be making notes on each of the accounts. This is the perfect time for them to listen to the trainer’s explanation of how to determine if plants need water and the amount of water to add. They should be watching how an experienced person works and completes the job in the time allotted. Here is where a new tech can truly begin to understand the concept of “beautiful plants” and feeling the soil for moisture.

Right here, if I may, I’m going to climb up on my personal soapbox and declare that in my opinion, “feeling the soil” is the single most important thing anyone who wants to care for plants can learn and that proper watering is at the root (pun intended) of good plant care. It doesn’t matter what kind of plants or watering setup is in place, whether it be ­drip irrigation, SWC’s, or good old watering cans,­ if you don’t stick fingers in the soil frequently and get the watering part right, there will be problems.

The trainer should go into a lot of detail about watering. Techs need to know things like how light affects water usage, pour water without spilling or splashing off of leaves, irrigate the complete root mass, keep records to understand how different plants are using water, etc. The more aspects of watering that can be taught to the new tech, rather than letting them figure it out for themselves, the more efficient and profitable your operation will be in the long run.

Here’s a nice little exercise for your tech that will clearly show the different soil moisture levels and clarify descriptive terms.

Start with a small handful of your usual potting mix, about 2 tablespoons. Make sure it is completely dry. You can microwave it for a few minutes if needed. Put the mix into a small container and pinch some up between your fingers. Feel it. Remember the scratchy texture. This is “completely dry.” Now start adding water 1/4 teaspoon at a time, mixing it in thoroughly and allowing it to soak for a few minutes between each addition. Pinch the soil after each addition and observe how it changes from almost dry, through damp, to fully saturated, and then mud.

Professional's Field Guide: Plant Pest ControlAlong with discussing water, experimenting with soil, grooming plants, and cleaning up the area, the trainer will be on the look out for pests and pathogens. If it hasn’t been done already, this would be an excellent place to hand out guidebooks to the bugs and diseases most likely to be encountered. Resources such as Professional’s Field Guide to Plant Pest Control by Suzanne Wainwright-Evans and the Troubleshooting Diseases of Foliage Plants ID Deck, among many others, would be good.

Remember, even though concepts and examples have already been presented in the beginning training materials, they need to be repeated as often as possible. An old advertising rule that claims “You need to repeat the message three times before it sticks,” is absolutely true. Since the newbie is being confronted with a host of unfamiliar messages, everything needs to be repeated more than three times. Persevere in this, even when they tell you they remember because they have a photographic memory. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard this, but I know I’ve yet to meet anyone with a truly eidetic memory.

Week Four & Five: Transition

After a week of close observation, the new tech is ready to start doing some watering, explaining aloud what they’re doing, and why they are doing it to the watchful and benevolent trainer. While the newbie is handling their new tasks, the trainer can begin trimming, inspecting for bugs, and cleaning all while pointing out what they’re doing and why. Ideally the entire fourth week should be dedicated to proper watering practices. At the very least, two or three days focused solely on watering is essential.

In addition, this is also a good time for the trainer to explain any accounts requiring special care and consideration ­such as, an atrium, outside plants, irrigation systems, special ladder work, green walls, unusual plants, etc.

By the fifth week, or the next stage in training, the newbie can start cleaning and trimming as well as watering. The trainer should stay close by to keep an eye on what’s going on, pointing out the forgotten plant rotation, the missed mealy bugs, the brown leaves, the water drops on the floor…and time management. The need to do all these things within the time allotted to the account is of paramount importance and has been the rock against which many interested and talented new tech has foundered.

As the new plant technician takes over more of the account work and gains confidence, it’s time to introduce the tasks that don’t happen daily, but are nevertheless part of regular maintenance such as,­ fertilizing, pruning, soil leaching, repotting, reworking, etc. This is also a good place to introduce a guide to the signs of chemical imbalance. It’s difficult to find a visual guide for foliage plants, but Ohio State University has a nice Plant Pathology Fact Sheet available. In addition, the American Phytopathological Society has published an informative article on Nutrient Disorders that I suggest having your new tech read and reference.

When the trainer and newbie have completed the routine together AT LEAST once, the new tech is ready to start off alone. Large or especially difficult accounts will benefit from having the trainer accompany the new tech for a couple more visits.

So now five weeks of training have gone by and your tech is fully trained now, right? Mmmm, not exactly.

WEek six: graduation

After the newbie tech has gone through the route alone once or twice, not long enough to seriously ruin anything,­ the trainer should accompany them to their accounts once more to make sure they’ve mastered the basics, reinforce weak points, and answer questions. Ideally, the trainer has also been checking in on the accounts shortly after the tech has completed their work to identify any problems immediately.

This is also an excellent time to administer a written test. Written tests have a way of legitimizing a job and reinforcing the idea that this is a real industry/craft with clearly defined knowledge and specific goals. Knowing that there will be an exam down the road will also help keep the learning better focused. The test should target the names and requirements of the plants the new employee will be working with, the importance of soil moisture and how to regulate it, proper grooming routines, signs and management of bugs, disease, and chemical imbalance, essentials of customer service, government regulations they will be expected to adhere to, familiarity with the routes, along with any other subjects you find appropriate. Many of the courses mentioned at the beginning of this article contain tests which can be adapted for your own use.

Now that your new tech has passed their written test they can officially graduate from newbie status to rookie…and FINALLY training is done, right? Again, not exactly.

Continuing Education

As the rookie progresses through the first six to eight weeks of the job, the trainer will want to visit accounts periodically. Checking an account the day before service to see the plants at their potentially lowest point and then again just after the tech has been there is a great way to evaluate the tech’s work. While checking these accounts is important, feedback is even more critical. The rookie needs to know that someone is watching what they’re doing and is there to help them even when they don’t recognize that they need help.

Most people who start as an interior horticulture technician have no inkling of the depth and complexity of the job. I know when I had been working for about six months, I genuinely thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about plant care. Three to four years later, I found I was still learning. Ten years after that, I realized there’d ALWAYS be something new to learn. And so there has been.

There’s so much ­to be learned about plants, problems, customer service, and the whole world of horticulture, you never really come to the end of it. There are dozens of books, articles, and videos that provide insight about everything from the science of living things and interesting facts about the plants we use, to aspects of psychology and communication that can be really useful. Good ideas for several posts, don’t you think?

Anyone with experience or ideas on beneficial study material, please a leave a comment below. The more ideas on the table, the better.

Marlie Graves, known as The Ficus Wrangler, has been keeping plants beautiful, training techs and relating to clients at half a dozen companies for 30 years. She studied creative writing and psychology in college and went on to start an independent film company with her first husband. She decided to focus on plants full time after completing the NYBG Horticulture School interior landscaping course. Marlie is retired, operates "The Ficus Wrangler" YouTube channel, contributes regularly to several houseplant forums, and is working on a plantcare book based on professional methods.

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  • Clem Cirelli

    Marlie, great article! I agree with most of what you put out there, especially the “taking notes” part. My old Latin teacher in high school, Mr. Howe, had a saying: “Repetition is the soul of scholarship”. We learned that listening while writing notes and reading our own notes as we wrote them was a triple-whammy method for memory retention that worked like a charm.

    I do have one question for you. I know you started at John Mini, which is a very large interiorscape company as our industry goes. So you probably had the luxury of backup staff when a tech left the company suddenly or with little advance notice for hiring/training a replacement. That’s always the nightmare scenario for a small firm like ours, where we’ve never had more than four techs working at any given time. What would you advise as a training regimen in an “emergency” situation such as that one?

    • the Ficus Wrangler

      Thanks Clem. I’ve worked for small companies too, and I know that sinking feeling you get when a call comes in first thing in the morning, “Hi guys, sorry, don’t think this business is for me, won’t be coming in anymore.” Of course, everyone ends up in a scramble, techs doubling up on work, the supervisor doing all service, even the owners getting out there. Actually, I do have an idea one might use as a training tool to prepare techs for these eventualities. After the tech has been at it around, say, three months, starting to feel pretty cocky, call them up one morning and say, “You need to finish your day’s route in half a day, I need you to do ********’s route this afternoon.” Don’t think of it as a lie, think of it as emergency training. If they pitch a fit, explain they’ll only need to do the vital stuff, and they really need to M-O-V-E!
      Kind of a similar thing happened to me at JMIG. I got a call in the morning, telling me to finish my day’s work in 3 hours, then do another tech’s route in 3 hours, cause they were going out to Queens to get a route done there, so we could all get home before a snowstorm closed down the city. I didn’t think it could be done, but I did do it, and I felt pretty darn good about it, too. As we all know, sometimes if you’re a plant tech, you need to go “pedal to the metal” overdrive; it’s nice to know you can do it if you have to.

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