Plant Sale Recap

Well, I did it: I survived three consecutive weekends of regional plant sales. It was not easy; actually, it was extremely stressful. I’m not sure if the people who come to these sales appreciate all the preparation and work nurseries do to make these things happen. I won’t say too much about that because it might sound like I am whining, when we are in fact glad to have the privilege of coming to these things. But someday I shall have to describe the process in full so that normal people can get an inside view of what it is like. Just not today.

So first, we have the Bloedel Reserve sale. This did not go as well for us as last year did, for a variety of reasons. I think the rain part of Saturday and most of Sunday certainly didn’t help – and it was very cold – nor did being in a corner rather than the middle of the sale. However I think the main problem was that there were several high-value items that sold “like hotcakes” (now there’s a worn-out expression) last year, that we simply did not have available this year. For example, last year we sold over $500 worth of Grevillea victoriae subsp. nivalis ‘Murray Valley Queen’ at this sale: this year we only have 4” pots of it which were scarcely noticed.

That non-availability of our most popular plants was our main problem, was confirmed in my mind when Hortlandia, the sale in Portland, was also down from last year. Although we brought a ton of cool stuff, much of it was apparently too obscure for shoppers to get excited about, and/or too small to look impressive. In general we have been kind of low on 1 gallon plants lately, which are generally our best value for those shopping on-site or at these plant sales. (Never fear though: we’ve been potting up all through the spring and many more will be in the pipeline soon!) Everyone else I talked to said they did about the same as last year or better, so there is no blaming sale attendees for our performance. Not that I ever would, of course!

The Rhododendron Species Foundation sale was also down for us, but up for everyone else. I had more competition this year than last from vendors offering similar items, and the weather was bad on the first day of the sale when the real plant nerds came out. Actually, I really liked the combination of vendors we had, since so many cool plants were available. But ultimately I had the same problem: I could not supply enough of the really “hot” plants people want.

We think our 4” pot size (and band pots) is certainly great for mail-order. They are easy to pack and ship in a box and we make sure they are well-rooted before they go out, so they will take right off once they are planted. The only problem is they just don’t make that much of an impression when you see a bunch of tiny little things on a table.

So what lesson, if any, have I learned? Well, two things. First of all, don’t try to build a greenhouse in the spring, which was what I did in 2012. Building a greenhouse while maintaining the rest of the nursery last spring was bad news, because it sucked so much time away from all the other work I needed to be doing – including, of course, potting up plants. That is probably the main reason we have been generally short on 1 gallon plants this spring. So I won’t let that happen again. The next greenhouse I build will be in the fall, which is what I always used to do anyway.

The other thing I have learned is that people definitely go for particular plants at these sales, and it does not always work so well to bring just anything. I guess that might seem like a no-brainer at first, but you have to keep in mind that all of our plants are cool. It is not like we are growing stuff that isn’t worth having. But some plants sell better simply because they are better known, or because they appeal to impulsive shoppers.

I have had the idea for a year or so that I ought to actually produce – as in, propagate and grow – a particular set of plants in advance just for each sale (or for a “cluster” of sales, such as the one I just survived). I wonder if any other nurseries ever do this. The standard practice, I think, is just to grab whatever looks good at the time and try to sell it as fast as possible. I’m starting to think it can’t hurt to be more calculated. A couple of caveats may be the potential for crop failures, and limitations of greenhouse space set aside for such plants. And how do I know months in advance what’s going to be hot? I’ll have to think on this for a while.

So, that was April. I’m glad for the opportunity to stay focused on the nursery at home for a while. The nursery is looking pretty good, and I think will only get better as open house time approaches. The hot weather is certainly causing things to burst into growth. It was 86 degrees yesterday in Sequim, which must be some kind of record for early May! On the other hand quite a bit of time is getting sucked away on watering and mowing when I need to be potting up. But we still have most of the plants under sprinklers so it’s not too bad. All in all, I’m feeling pretty good about this spring vs. last year. More later!

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Bloedel Sale – staying dry!

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Hordes of plant-crazed people at Hortlandia. Indoors, so not raining – yay.

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Rhododendron Species Foundation sale – cloudy, but no longer raining.

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Greenhouse full of manzanitas at Cistus Nursery. We are about 1/3 of the way towards our goal of having something like this here. LOL.

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dennis
    May 06, 2013 @ 20:01:48

    Hey Ian…..Dennis here from RSBG. I feel your pain, you can never know what is “hot” for any particular year. I’ve pulled out a lot of hair trying to figure that one. To answer your question wondering if anyone grows a set of plants for sales, yes, that is exactly what we shoot for. I grow large (hopefully large enough) numbers of a set of plants which are always in demand and bring a good supply of those, then augment the sale inventory with more unusual plants and things that look good to add to the customer’s shopping list. I think the key, for us at least, is to have 10 or 12 different crops of our popular sellers so if any failures occur, you at least have others to fall back on. My biggest problem recently is over selling because demand is so high. We have had several instances where we have sold into or even completely out of the following year’s crop and then we are stuck without any and miss a year of sales for that plant and have disappointed customers the following year.
    Sometimes though, the planets align and everything goes right! I like your blog a lot.
    db

    Reply

  2. Ian
    May 07, 2013 @ 22:10:28

    Hey Dennis. Glad you have enjoyed my blog. I suppose I have noticed you tend to have a whole lot of R. orbiculatum and R. williamsianum at pretty much any sale. You folks have probably been going at this much longer than I have, and have obviously come up with a plan that works. The strategy you have laid out sounds excellent to me – I may just have to try it starting with this fall’s cuttings. It will already be too late for spring 2014 sales, but we can look ahead to fall 2014/spring 2015! Take care.

    Reply

  3. Loree / danger garden
    May 08, 2013 @ 08:55:59

    Having had to pack up and do the road trip thing for a couple of vintage lighting trade shows I have a bit of an idea what a crazy ordeal preparing for a show can be, let alone back to back sales over three weekends, you deserve a vacation! Oh ya…not gonna happen in the spring.

    You do such a great job with your signage, seeing images of the mature plants has to help. I can’t remember if you also bring larger “nfs” specimens, so while you may not have gallon sizes available you can at least give people an idea of what those little guys will look like soon?

    Speaking of small plants I’m absolutely loving the Grevillea rivularis you gave me, it’s blooms are starting to open and it looks happy to be in the ground.

    Reply

  4. Peter/Outlaw
    May 08, 2013 @ 11:21:00

    I used to schlep my glass work to shows so I understand a little of what it takes to plan and set up for a show. It was tiring just attending two of the three shows (local field trip on the Hortlandia weekend) so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be at all three for the whole time! Your plants are always fabulous! Who knows what will be hot in a certain year? Enjoy your blog!

    Reply

  5. Ian
    May 10, 2013 @ 12:31:26

    Hi Loree… thanks for the reassurance about my signs; I figure they certainly can’t hurt! Yeah, I am very low on larger specimens… even if I had a lot of larger stuff to bring (NFS or otherwise) it would take up a lot of car space. OK, so I need something bigger to move plants in… I’m getting close to having that figured out too. You’ll love that Grevillea, I’m sure!

    Peter, I’m glad you have enjoyed my plants and blog. I hope it didn’t sound like I am whining! But, I know I didn’t have much of an idea back when I used to merely attend these things, how much work it was for the nurseries to make it happen. Not to mention all the volunteers and other persons associated with hosting each show.

    Reply

  6. Emm
    May 15, 2013 @ 00:32:01

    Wanna join in on trying to figure out this plant? This is a close up & there is a whole plant pic in the comments. I am new to the page & your blog but I really want to know what it might be….even though you’re in the NW, I thought you might be able to figure it out. (I live in NY in the Albany area.)
    I hope this link is ok.

    Reply

    • Emm
      May 15, 2013 @ 00:33:15

      Oops, my comment is confusing. The plant is located in high desert…not near me and it is someone else’s photo.

      Reply

  7. Ian
    May 17, 2013 @ 23:25:29

    Hi Emm. Sorry, the plant posted is not familiar to me. You might try posting it on the Facebook group called “Plant Idents” – there are some seriously expert folks there. Good luck.

    Reply

  8. Hannah
    May 20, 2013 @ 15:18:55

    I’ve tried some sales, It is so hard to predict what buyers will be interested in, but personally being on a limited budget I go for the smaller more affordable sizes generally. I also have to avoid plants that are a risk for not being hardy or long-lived, which eliminates a lot of zone denial type plants. Low water use plants are definitely appealing.;-)

    Reply

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