Landscape Technician grad thrives in growth industry

Chad Labbe, Shelmerdine Garden Centre

Red River College grad Chad Labbe just wanted to earn a little green when he went to work at Shelmerdine Garden Centre for the first time. It was the spring of 1990, and he was 14 years old when his mom suggested it would be a cool after-school job.

“You’ll like it,” he recalls her saying. “And I remember the first year I absolutely hated it. I was never coming back after the first year. They always made me water and sweep; I hated watering because you’d just get soaked and then you had to bike home after a long day of watering and you’re cold.”

When the job ended that June, Labbe thought he’d hung up his hose for the last time. But when spring rolled around again, he couldn’t resist the lure of a payday. Twenty-six years later, the 2000 Landscape Technician grad has taken root as Shelmerdine’s vice-president and co-owner.

“This business grows on you,” he says, no pun intended. “When you plant a crop and look back one week, two weeks, a month, six months later … the rewards are just right in front of you; the fruits of your labour, if you will.” (Pun intended that time.)

It took a while for Labbe to recognize that he has a green thumb, but he’s since come to realize he’s a natural-born gardener. His knack for greenhouse work came to light five years into his budding career, after he entered RRC’s four-year Landscape Technician apprenticeship program.

At the time, he intended to open his own business as a landscape contractor, but the program led him in a different direction.

“The beauty of the Landscape Technician course is that it was so well-rounded. It gave us views into the entire industry, and gave us glimpses at other positions available. I really was drawn to the growing aspect, the greenhouse aspect of it, after I enrolled,” he says.

“It opened other windows within the company for me. After the course, I moved into the growing position.”

Labbe recalls the program consisted of four months of course work and eight months of hands-on apprenticeship experience at Shelmerdine each year. Along with greenhouse training, the design, construction and business elements appealed to him, and they provided practical training for his current role. He bought a portion of the company six years ago along with fellow co-owner Nicole Bent, when another partner decided to sell.

They’ve since rebranded and branched out. Last fall, they bought interior plant maintenance and design firm Arboria (formerly Southern Tropic of Plants), which serves more than 200 business and residential clients, including Grant Park and Cityplace malls.

Over the past 15 years, the company has sponsored at least 12 students in RRC’s Landscape Horticulturalist or Greenspace Horticulture (formerly Greenspace Management) programs, and Labbe is still involved with the College as a member of the Greenspace Horticulture advisory committee.

While the garden business is seasonal, Labbe and Bent have successfully extended their operation well beyond the traditionally busy months of April, May and June. They’ve introduced a host of interactive promotions and expanded their product line to defeat the summer doldrums and cultivate winter business until the centre closes for January and February.

The on-site Secret Garden Café is a welcoming oasis, and gift and fashion offshoots are thriving, accounting for half their sales. During the holidays, the centre is a destination for shoppers who can wrap up everything from apparel and accessories to kitchenware and funky furniture. And customers can sign up for holiday greenery courses, bring the kids in for photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and make a selection from a forest of Christmas trees.

“We’ve built a tradition here for them, so people expect us to have all of the bells and whistles and pull out all the stops for Christmas. December is probably our third-busiest month of the year, just aside from May and June.”

It’s also the month when Labbe is enjoying the most hard-won reward of the year – 12,000 pots of poinsettias. The longest-growing crop at the greenhouse, poinsettias arrive in July and require five months of care to reach the right height, shape and flower count — and they have to flower just in time for the holidays.

“That’s what gives us the most challenges; it’s probably my favourite crop to grow as well,” Labbe says. “It’s a chess game with them because it’s so long — there’s so much control you’ve got over that crop.”

These days, Labbe’s job is a family affair. His mom Dodie has found out first-hand that it is, in fact, a cool place to work, and so has his dad, Ron.

“I hired them both after they retired from their regular jobs, their career jobs,” Labbe says. “They both love it and we respect their time, too. We hire a lot of retirees and I definitely acknowledge that this isn’t supposed to be work for them; this is supposed to be what they’re doing after they’re done work.

“We try to keep their schedules light and work around whatever else they aspire to do as well. So my dad for instance only works the May and June months and then is back in December for the poinsettia deliveries, and my mom works from February till the end of May and then she’s done for the year.”

Dodie is part of the growing team in the commercial greenhouse and Ron is the centre’s water gardening specialist, largely thanks to the pond Labbe installed for him while he was a student at RRC.

Labbe and his wife Jaime’s four-year-old son Lincoln is a frequent visitor as well. And Lincoln loves digging for worms in their garden at home, where Labbe grows peppers, onions and tons of tomatoes in his “salsa garden,” along with potatoes for home-made French fries.

Indoors, he has a healthy collection of plants that thrive thanks to constant care — and attention to everything from subtle changes in colour hue, the appearance of sap on foliage and whether the fuzz on leaves is horizontal or vertical.

“That’s just part of having a green thumb. You notice things,” he says. “I love taking care of them — it’s easy, it’s not work for me.”

— Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)