How To Start a Tree Nursery

By Robert Fincham
The Bloom Garden Centre, in Bressingham, UK (USDA Zone 9), is a retail garden center in England showing a method of displaying their conifers.
The Bloom Garden Centre, in Bressingham, UK (USDA Zone 9), is a retail garden center in England showing a method of displaying their conifers.

So You Want To Start A Nursery

Text and Photography Bob Fincham

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, my late wife Dianne and I owned a wholesale nursery in Oregon, while also making retail sales through Coenosium Gardens. I used to mail a quarterly newsletter to our customers about the nursery, sale specials, and plant stories. A few of the readers of this article may recall this newsletter: Mitsch/Coenosium Notes.

One of the articles responded to a common question from our retail customers who wanted information about starting a nursery. I felt it was appropriate to resurrect and update the article I wrote about that same topic. Specialty conifer nurseries used to be more common than they are today. There are advantages and disadvantages to starting such an operation. If the reader is thinking about doing something along these lines, perhaps reading this article will help in the decision making.

I have had many discussions with individuals who were thinking about starting a nursery. A tour of a nursery greenhouse and gardens filled with many different plants is intriguing and looks like fun. It looked that way to me in the early 1970s, and Coenosium Gardens started as a hobby that got out of control.

The very first question to consider is why enter the nursery business in the first place. Sometimes a person chooses the nursery business as a career from the start. They either always enjoyed working with plants or were part of a family business.

I have found that those who enter the nursery business as a career change do so for various reasons: dissatisfaction with a present career, the loss of a job, the need to do something less stressful, or retirement from another profession. Whatever the reason for changing, financial improvement is seldom a primary consideration. After all, the nursery business is a form of farming, and few farmers amass much wealth.

I knew most of the nurserymen when I started collecting rare conifers. They were running their nurseries as more of a hobby/business endeavor. Most of them wanted to gain extra income from their hobby while trying to enjoy it more fully.

It is essential to decide if the nursery business is a sideline or a full-time business, providing income for your livelihood. This choice will determine the answers to many questions about your market and the product you choose to grow.

One exciting facet of the nursery business is the friendliness of the people involved. There are very few firms or trades where a person starting out can obtain advice and assistance from competitors. The nursery business is such a field, within limits. I’ve had people visit and ask us how to do many specific things related to plant propagation. When they asked for free scion wood to start a propagation nursery, they did not understand why I said no. Most nurserymen are more than willing to lend a helping hand to the novice, provided, of course, that the newcomer is making a substantial effort on his own behalf. No nurseryman will allow himself to be taken advantage of.

My own retail garden center from my days living in Eatonville, WA (USDA Zone 8a). I had found a good niche doing mail order sales with some local sales. Seen here are the greenhouse at Coenosium Gardens.
My own retail garden center from my days living in Eatonville, WA (USDA Zone 8a). I had found a good niche doing mail order sales with some local sales. Seen here are the greenhouse at Coenosium Gardens.

The first decision most people make when entering the nursery business is about what to grow, what they like, not necessarily what they can sell.

For example, a person enjoys growing fruit trees in a home orchard and has even grafted different varieties onto some of his trees. So, the grower invests in a piece of land and lines out some young fruit trees. He figures that when the trees become large enough, they will be sold for a profit.

This same story can apply to just about any facet of the nursery business. Take the person who completes an extension course and decides what to grow through discussions with classmates and the instructor. Unfortunately, just like the orchardist, this person has put the cart before the horse. Unless a person takes a very systematic approach to enter the nursery business, the results can be disastrous. A neglected field of poorly grown stock becomes choked out by weeds, or, just as easily, an area of beautifully nurtured but unsold plants can be the outcome.

Several decisions must be made by the aspiring nurseryman. They do not necessarily have to be made in the order presented, but they have to be made.

A person should decide if they are going to have a wholesale or retail operation. There are fundamental differences between the two. The wholesale nurseryman must grow many plants of only a few varieties while dealing with a relatively small number of customers. This kind of nurseryman will be able to concentrate almost entirely on growing and working with the plants.

Seen here are the rear of the holding houses and the greenhouse at Lehighton, PA (USDA Zone 6a). The flattopped holding houses collapsed in a winter rainstorm; one of many rookie mistakes.
Seen here are the rear of the holding houses and the greenhouse at Lehighton, PA (USDA Zone 6a). The flattopped holding houses collapsed in a winter rainstorm; one of many rookie mistakes.

Retail nurserymen handle a smaller number of plants with a wide variety. They deal with a much larger customer base than the wholesaler. Retailers must be more of marketing experts and know the growth requirements and landscape uses of a substantial number of plants.

Suppose a person enjoys working with many different people daily and a wide variety of plant material. In that case, the retail plant business should be considered. Suppose a person does not like to spend a lot of time selling plants and prefers concentrating on the nursery’s farming aspects. In that case, the individual should be a wholesale grower.

A newcomer to the nursery business must choose one or the other. Trying to do both retail and wholesale will usually mean that neither is done very well. There is too much dilution of effort. An experienced nurseryman can consider combining retailing and wholesaling into one operation, but care must be taken. A wholesaler does not want to compete with one’s own local customers by opening a retail area. Likewise, a retailer who opens a wholesale department will find many of retail customers expecting to make wholesale priced purchases.

Once the retail/wholesale decision is made, then marketing must be considered.

A course on marketing at a local community college can be a good investment for the new nurseryman, especially since marketing involves several parameters. Where are the customers located? The plants must be suited to their tastes and growing conditions. Where are the competitors? A retailer must be most concerned about the local competition, while a wholesaler must deal with local and distant competition. What kinds of plants are lacking in your marketplace? Are any of these things that the nurseryman would like to grow? How can a market be created for some of the items that you want to grow?

The decisions up to this point should have provided some direction about selling what is to be grown. Now it is time to make some specific determinations about the crops. The wholesaler may do some brokering but will produce the majority of what is to be sold. He must grow large quantities of relatively few items. The nurseryman must be a successful farmer as well as an astute businessperson.

On the other hand, retailers will purchase much of what they sell, growing a much smaller percentage of their crop than the wholesaler. They must work with relatively small quantities of many different varieties. However, even so, some growing is beneficial since some costs can be reduced. With a good plan, the retailer won’t have to worry about shortages of choicer plants.

My first greenhouse, Lehighton, PA (USDA Zone 6a), was built out of 2 x 4’s and poly. It was heated with a coal stove and sufficed until we moved to Oregon in 1986. My investment to start my nursery was minimal.
My first greenhouse, Lehighton, PA (USDA Zone 6a), was built out of 2 x 4’s and poly. It was heated with a coal stove and sufficed until we moved to Oregon in 1986. My investment to start my nursery was minimal.

Marketing studies will help both the retailer and the wholesaler decide what material to offer for sale. The wholesaler should take things at least one step further. Attending a local trade show will provide a lot of useful information. Obtain catalogs from as many distributors as possible and find out what they are growing. Look for everyday items. Those are things that must sell well. Talk to the growers and find out what they have sold out of. Talk to other buyers and get a feel for the kind of things they want to purchase. Having open eyes and studying what others are growing will help determine what to grow. Most of what growers produce may be based upon other criteria; sometimes nothing more than gut instinct.

Do not just go to a nursery in your area and ask them what you should be growing. Do not ask a future competitor for their own unique methods of producing salable plants.

If you decide to be a grower, either as a wholesaler or as a retailer producing part of your own merchandise, you must obtain liners. Liners are the young, immature plants that will be grown into a salable product.

Liners must either be purchased from a propagation nursery or propagated in-house. Unless you are willing and able to expend considerable capital in obtaining stock plants and constructing propagation facilities, purchasing is a much wiser choice. With so many other things to learn, learning the art of propagation could dilute your effort. In many cases, in-house propagation is not as cost-effective as purchasing liners. The propagation nursery will also help make some decisions about items to grow but only if asked about specific plants. Even then, since a propagation nursery is not a grower, there is some guesswork involved.

If you have decided upon retail, you must determine what market niche you want to occupy. For example, do not try to specialize in one-gallon junipers and azaleas in an area where big box stores sell the same or similar items. Consumers shop for those items, and the small nursery cannot compete with the big box store’s buying power or prices. The smaller retailer must offer service and a product line unavailable at the big box stores. Do not ignore their store material completely. Carry some of their items to complement your main line.

Likewise, the small wholesaler should not specialize in commodity items (fast-growing, gallon material). The big commodity producers can profit by selling these plants cheaper than the small grower can raise them. Besides, commodity items are easy to produce and grow, leading to cyclical gluts and price wars between the big producers.

With smaller yards and a more plant-oriented public, homeowners are becoming more discriminating about their landscapes. Many small retail nurseries do quite well specializing in dwarf conifers, trees, and shrubs. The retailer must be well versed in the product to have good sales. Even a willingness to install small garden landscapes may be necessary for some parts of the country.

Bonsai have also become quite popular throughout the country, and some nurseries specialize in bonsai-suitable plant material. The retailer must be knowledgeable about the subject and must even be willing to arrange classes for his customers. A finished bonsai commands a high price to compensate for the labor involved in producing it, which often makes it a complicated item to market.

One major problem faced by all nurserymen at one time or another is how to handle unsold stock. Since plants are living, growing things, they always need more space. When plants are not sold within an allotted time period, they can clog the entire nursery. Be prepared to burn or discard more than a few plants almost every year when they do not fit selling cycles.

Having a special sale does not always work. Customers become conditioned and will often wait for these special times to buy plants, especially if end-of-the-year sales become a standard feature. Work with a few re-wholesalers who will take back plants that have outgrown your marketing scheme, in order to recoup some income. Or simply destroy the plants. Taking a smaller loss now is preferable to the more significant, long-term loss of being forced to use frequent sales to move plants.

The most serious difficulty for the nurseryman is debt. Avoid it. Sometimes debt is necessary to get through an occasional slow period in the economy, but borrowed money must be repaid. Suppose a nursery is servicing a large debt. In that case, that debt becomes a sponge, soaking up a considerable portion of a tight profit margin, under which all nurseries operate.

When starting a nursery, scale it to fit your expertise and budget, being careful that the two balance each other.

Gee Farms is a large, retail, rare conifer nursery in Stockbridge, MI (USDA Zone 5b), that is popular with ACS members. This picture was taken in July 2012 at the ACS National Conference in Ann Arbor, MI.
Gee Farms is a large, retail, rare conifer nursery in Stockbridge, MI (USDA Zone 5b), that is popular with ACS members. This picture was taken in July 2012 at the ACS National Conference in Ann Arbor, MI.

If you want to start a nursery, do your homework first. Growing and selling plants can be an enjoyable and very satisfying experience. Although it is seldom rewarding in a significant financial way, it is rewarding in ways that cannot be found on a spreadsheet. These other rewards should be the ones that make you want to be a nurseryman.

Coenosium Gardens is an example of the third type of nursery that is a modification of the retail nursery model I discussed earlier. It was a hobby nursery started by Dianne and me in 1979. I will mention a few things about its history as a model for any hobbyist who might be thinking of trying something similar.

It was during the summer of 1978 that I got the idea of starting a conifer business. I wanted to collect rare conifers. I had known for some time that I could not keep buying conifers on a teacher’s salary without some additional income. I also realized that I could not get collectors to share some of their treasures without offering something in trade. On top of it all, I had recently lost a few irreplaceable plants to rabbits. I needed a way to have back-up plants for rare ones that I had lost.

I had several significant decisions to make that spring and summer of 1979. First, would I graft to order, or would I sell from available inventory? I decided to do both. The new grafts would be shipped after June 1, while the older plants would go out in mid-April.

The second decision involved naming my new business. In 1980 I studied a dictionary of plant terms to find a name. I got to the C’s and came across the word Coenosium. It meant “plant community”. I figured that would be a great name. It was a name that would be unique to my nursery since nobody in their right mind would use a name that no one could pronounce.

My third decision involved advertising. I mimeographed my first plant list with brief descriptions and mailed it out to anyone who wanted it. I advertised in the publications of several plant organizations to find these people. I sent out over a hundred lists and got quite a few shipping orders in the spring of 1983. It would be my first shipping season. A year later, I published my first real catalog with pictures. The catalog that resulted set a standard. There was no catalog at the time of rare and unusual conifers for retail sales that included pictures.

I had converted most of the lawn area on our 2/3 acre into conifer gardens. Those gardens supplied the scion wood for propagation. I also had two blocks of container plants that I enclosed with white poly for the winter. Collectors used to visit regularly and were always so happy to leave with a load of rare conifers. They came from as far away as Cincinnati, OH.

Coenosium Gardens’ mail-order was proving to be successful and operated for thirty-four years. It was never a sole source of income but worked very well at paying its own way and financing my hobby.

Large wholesale conifer nurseries must limit their range of conifers to produce large numbers of fewer varieties. This one is in The Netherlands (USDA Zone 8a). Specific location unknown.
Large wholesale conifer nurseries must limit their range of conifers to produce large numbers of fewer varieties. This one is in The Netherlands (USDA Zone 8a). Specific location unknown.

Comments

Gil McNeal

I enjoyed this article very much. I started a nursery when I was over 70 years of age. Possibly not the wisest thing to do, but it gives me a reason to do something productive every day. Like so many of my gardener friends I enjoy being around and taking care of plants. Especially conifers. Consider Bob's advice if you ever want to start a nursery.