It’s time once again for more of a rant-style post. And this is going to be a long one, as in loooooong with lots of extra o’s. But it’s more than just a rant: it’s also a splendid collection of astute observations, ending with a challenge. And I had better mention that I’m not doing this just because I think it’s fun or like to be negative. It’s more that I think I am asking some very important questions that people ought to stop and think about.
A few posts back, concerning trends in nursery business models and marketing, I posed the question, “is the past the key to the future?” I noted very briefly a number of subjects surrounding this question where the game has changed considerably in the past 50 years; and, not surprisingly, there is much more to be said about how nurseries have responded to these changes, or in some cases failed to respond to them. Most importantly, as we look to the future, one has to assess “what we should do” as a business to succeed and remain relevant and competitive into the future. So having said that, I had better preface this post with an important point. I recognize that everyone has to find their own path to success (or at least try!). So it sounds like I’m trying to tell everyone how to do things, but I realize it would be pretentious of me to assume such a position; especially with my business only in its very early stages, with little going for it that may appear decisively “successful” from the outside. The disclaimer, then, is that these ideas are just that, ideas; and they are my ideas, which means I allow plenty of room for disagreement. Fire away! So, here we go.
Back in high school, when I first began taking an interest in plants, one of my favorite nurseries was a place called Olympia Greenhouses. (I would be thrilled, by the way, to hear that any of my readers remembers this place in its original form!) Olympia Greenhouses was among the last of a dying breed of nursery: the kind that propagated and produced plants on site, and sold them directly to the local community. When I walked into this place, it would be in varying degrees of disarray, with way too many of certain plants than could possibly sell, hundreds of giant houseplants, and a nursery yard going so far back you could get lost in it, with no possible hope of keeping it all tidy and under control. But that was all just part of the fun. You could go in there once a week and find something new—tucked away in a corner, or brought out of production—with each visit. And by something new, I really mean something old. Not the latest and greatest plants, but the one’s we’ve increasingly forgotten, in some cases for the better but often to our own loss.
In about 1996 (I think) this nursery was bought out by an owner (or group?) who was apparently totally incompetent and quickly ran the business into the ground. It soon closed, the greenhouses collapsed and became overgrown with blackberries and eventually alder trees, in which condition it has remained the last time I checked. Oh well.
Today I can count on one hand the number of these old-fashioned production retail nurseries in western Washington that have survived more or less in their original form (that I am aware of!). By far the best known is Flower World in Maltby. Another example (and I haven’t been there in years, so I hope they’re still around) is The Brothers Greenhouses, which is found along Highway 3 between Belfair and Gorst. I stepped in there and almost thought I was back in Olympia Greenhouses—although the selection wasn’t as interesting, the place had the same sort of feel. (They said they also did some wholesale, but it was really tough to tell who their market was—certainly not any of the local retail nurseries I have ever visited in the area.)
To be clear on what kind of nursery I’m not talking about: I can also think of a few nurseries who claim “we grow our own plants;” yet, while they may produce a proportion of their own stock, it’s obvious that they have also brought in plenty of plants from wholesalers such as Monrovia (as if they could hide those green pots!), and lots of bare-root trees and shrubs that they didn’t produce themselves. So they don’t count. Also, I’m excluding from this categorization nurseries that produce many of their own plants and offer some retail sales, yet have another major outlet (usually mail-order) for their plants. These are usually specialty nurseries and include Desert Northwest and a number of other nurseries that continue to do business this way (Raintree, Coenosium, Colvos Creek, Fancy Fronds, etc.)
The nursery industry has changed dramatically over the decades. It now appears that the majority of retail garden centers and nurseries now buy most or all of their stock from wholesale nurseries. For those that do continue producing some of their own stock, this seems to account for a continually decreasing proportion of their sales, with a trend towards producing only a limited variety of annuals with no other plant types represented. While the industry keeps trending in this direction, it’s rare that I see anyone stop to critically analyze the possible benefits and drawbacks that may result from these changes. (One could say that critical analysis in general tends to be severely lacking from the horticulture industry, and this is but one example – oops, did I just say that?)
In fact, I’m to the point of wondering why businesses that don’t produce plants should appropriately be called nurseries. My dictionary defines a nursery as “a place where plants are grown for sale, transplanting, or experimentation.” The use of the word “grown” in this context would appear to suggest that plants at a nursery are meant to increase in size while there. This idea stands in opposition to the usual intent of retailers, which is to buy retail-ready plants from vendors and liquidate them as quickly as possible, and in pretty much the same form. So I guess I have this novel idea that nurseries, to be worthy of the word, should not just sell plants, but they should grow plants. Businesses that have completely abandoned production might be more appropriately called “plant stores.” I realize that’s possibly a subjective point, depending on how much one wishes to stress dictionary definitions; but still, it bears contemplation.
When retail nurseries produced their own plants, that meant the people selling the plants actually had plenty of hands-on experience with the plants. They knew exactly what everything they sold needed to succeed in cultivation, because they had, in fact, grown it themselves. Now garden centers often pride themselves in having knowledgeable employees, yet it’s my observation that this knowledge is based more often on books, the internet, plant tags, and (everyone’s favorite) heresay than on personal experience. These sources of information are potentially less reliable, or sometimes inapplicable to our region, than good old personal observation of plants over time. Unfortunately, most people who work in retail nurseries don’t have sufficient funds or garden space to buy one of each plant offered and try it, nor do they have a chance to watch the plants over a period of time on the sales floor in the same way that they might at a production nursery. The result is that while the breadth of knowledge may be impressive, the quality of knowledge isn’t always adequate. Have you ever wondered why so much plant information circulating today is still just plain wrong, after we should have had decades to figure things out? Perhaps this is partly a result of this shift away from production by retail nurseries and corresponding tendency for many of their employees to lack the hands-on plant experience they need to discern such things. It’s something else to think about the next time you visit a nur – I mean, plant store.
Also contributing to the misinformation problem is the tendency of wholesalers releasing new plants to make definitive statements about their needs or features based on trials over an inadequately short time period or narrow range of climates. How can they really know how big something will get in 10 years? In 20? If it grows 10′ tall at the test garden in California, who’s to say how big it will get in Seattle in the same span of time? 3 feet? 15 feet? Or will it freeze dead the first winter? Now I know that sometimes growers and breeders do a better job than that testing new plants – but it’s still not always good enough to be sufficiently accurate. I have observed that, generally, retail nurseries accept whatever the wholesalers tell them and pass this information on to the customers without bothering about its accuracy. Is that really the best thing for the overall health of the retail business?
In fact, another more subtle phenomenon that has shadowed the shift of retail nurseries away from production is that, increasingly, plant breeders and wholesale nurseries are controlling the market. For a while I had doubts about whether this is true, since common theory dictates that the market is based on the demands of consumers. But if nothing else, I’m certainly convinced that the average nursery retailer has completely lost control, and this does not benefit the gardening public. The retailers should be the experts, and should be leading the way, and deciding what they sell based on what they actually want to sell. They should be able to discern that new plants promoted by plant breeders are not always superior to the old plants, and inform the customers. Instead, they (not without exception, but all too often) just play along with whatever the wholesale reps tell them, compromising their long term potential as a trusted source of garden expertise for their short term profit margin. Related to this, people are forgetting “old” plants that used to be more common and deserve much wider use. For example, Photinia serrulata is a useful, attractive, small evergreen tree that performs perfectly in Seattle, where it lingers in certain older gardens. But I can’t recall ever having seen one at a nursery. If the wholesalers don’t grow it, no one else does either, so people forget it exists. Or they’ll bring a piece of it into the garden center hoping to find someone who can tell them what it is, and none of the employees younger than 65 will be able to identify it, and if anyone wants to buy one, well they’re just plain out of luck because no one is growing it anymore.
SO… what’s the big deal? Maybe you’ve accepted all those trends as just the way things are. This is how it is in all the other nurseries, so why break the mold? But, all these other reasons (and nostalgia) aside, I can add a few very practical reasons why retail nurseries should seriously consider a deliberate return to production, and why I believe the future may, and should, see a reversal of the trend away from it.
Let’s consider for a moment what a retail nursery is paying for when it purchases a plant from a wholesale nursery. One must pay for the soil, fertilizer, and labor that went into its production, for facilities and maintenance, taxes, and (sometimes) for patent rights and water. One must also usually pay to heat greenhouses. You’re also paying for your friendly wholesale nursery representative. And I’m sure we could think of lots more expenses; that was just a quick list “off the top of my head.”
Then — the big one — one must pay for delivery. Even in those rare cases where there’s no visible “delivery fee,” we all know (unless we forget to stop and think about it – I hope not!) that you’re still paying for delivery, since the wholesaler has to absorb those costs somehow. I think we can safely predict that delivery of plants on trucks is not something that will get less expensive in the future. Obviously, producing plants on site eliminates these costs entirely—producing them off site a few miles away, under control of the retailer, reduces them substantially; and still has the side benefit of allowing for better control of one’s inventory vs. being at the mercy of wholesale suppliers.
And then – the even bigger one – wholesale nurseries have to absorb all those costs making only half as much money or less per plant as the retailer. Suppose a wholesaler puts $4.50 (all of the above costs together) into a 1 gallon plant and sells it for $5.00, keeping the remaining $0.50 as profit. In theory, the production retailer (assuming a professionally trained production staff and adequate facilities) should be able to put the same $4.50 into that plant and sell it for… $12? $15? I grant that keeping a sales staff and appealing customer experience adds a bit of additional overhead to the $4.50, but even so, it’s not unrealistic to possibly keep $5 – 6 or more as profit for the same plant!
(By the way – that math in the last paragraph is what we in the specialty nursery business call a trade secret. So, shhhh! Don’t tell anyone! Actually, anyone who has managed to read this far is welcome to it.)
And THENNN, we’re all observing a cultural trend whereby products shipped over long distances are increasingly less “cool” among those who decide what is hip and fashionable, than things produced locally. People want to “shop local” – why not be the first in town to offer locally produced plants?
ANNNND – yeah one more – as long as we’re taking about what people want (imagine that) – and tying into this problem of plant breeders and wholesalers controlling the industry – shouldn’t we be wondering how much longer customers are going to tolerate poorly adapted or just plain lousy patented plants that fail to perform as expected? I’m not saying all patented plants are necessarily lousy, but a surprising number of them are genetically weak or just aren’t bred for the Northwest’s climate. Meanwhile, wholesale nurseries push them into our marketplace at the expense of more appropriate selections. Will there be a backlash? Will gardeners someday start specifically avoiding the latest patented cultivars because they are skeptical of them in general? Who knows? – someday it could happen.
As far as I can tell, the main reason retail “nurseries” and garden centers are not interested in producing their own plants is they have established what they consider to be a successful model of business and would prefer not to change it much. But the time may come when this change may be necessary, and these businesses should be ready. We would all agree that there’s no point in sticking to your guns to the point where you start losing money and losing business to your competition. I’ve heard plenty of other reasons not to explore production, from the cost of heating greenhouses (which you essentially pay twice as much for when purchasing wholesale plants, as spelled out above), to the challenge of finding and training new staff. None of these excuses really holds water. To me, the best — perhaps the only — excuse for retail plant stores not to expand into production is the lack of available space. And even this may not be a workable reason forever, as many nurseries have found that substantially downsizing in coverage is what it has taken to get through our current difficult economy. Hmm, now what to do with all that “extra” space?
I’m not advocating a return to the past just because I happen to like it better. I think it’s partially true that what was unworkable about Olympia Greenhouses was partially its failure to adapt to a changing market at the time (although I also heard rumors of the new owner being a plain lousy and irresponsible boss making numerous missteps with management and staff). We can expect change to continue, and should always be ready to adapt to it.
But here’s one thing I think would actually be helpful to the nursery business: I would like to suggest a return to a gardening culture in which nursery people who sell garden plants are the same people actively involved in breeding, propagating, selecting and producing the best ones, rather than this ridiculous breeder to grower to broker to retailer chain we have now. I believe more than a few positive changes would result from this, all the way from quality of plant material and advice, to employee satisfaction; vastly benefiting horticulture and gardening culture at large. And that is just one reason why we at the Desert Northwest remain firmly committed to propagating and producing all of our own plants here on site. Anyway, this is getting so long, I’ll try to describe exactly what that would look like in greater detail in a future blog post.
In the meantime, just to be obnoxious (wasn’t that one of your New Year’s resolutions too?), I may as well go on labeling non-production “nurseries” as plant stores. If we don’t draw the line somewhere, the word nursery as it pertains to horticulture loses its meaning.
Peninsula Gardens, Gig Harbor, Washington in 2007. A classic example of the “plant store” business model (in their later years at least), they are now out of business.
Derby Canyon Natives, Peshastin, Washington. Although many of their plants go towards restoration projects, and the like; at least they are a grower that sells directly to the public. (I had such a hard time finding a photo of just the sort of nursery I am talking about that this was the closest thing I could think of!)