When I started working at my garden center in 1994, the manager of the perennial department, Dave Lane, brought in liners every March. We potted these up and grew them later in the summer, using one heated and two solar-warmed hoop-houses. By early June, those plants were of saleable size. Dave had run the numbers and decided that even figuring in the cost of materials and labor, the profit margins on those perennials made it worthwhile to grow some of our own.
After four or five years, we discontinued this practice — primarily because we needed the retail space used by the hoop-houses, and we often didn’t have enough employees to care for those growing perennials in May. Additionally, our sales were going up, and we needed a sizeable, continual influx of perennials from early May through the summer. Vendors commonly supplied the plants we grew from liners, so it didn’t make sense to grow those plants ourselves.
Although Dave’s calculations about our profit margins were correct, the reality was that we ended up making more money by bringing in the finished plants frequently. Yet I miss those years when we grew some of our own because, in addition to common perennials, I was also able to raise plants that weren’t available from our vendors. I grew odd, plant-geek selections from seed and propagated unusual varieties that weren’t available elsewhere.
Upon finding the Rubus cockburnianus ‘Aureus’ that I’d propagated from my own plants, one plant fanatic’s eyes lit up. “I don’t often find a plant in garden centers that I’m not familiar with,” she said, happily putting a pot on her cart. “I guess you’ll be seeing me again.”
It’s not just the rare or quirky that I miss on our shelves, however. There are many great plants that I want to recommend to my customers, but we can’t find a grower who offers them. They might have been commonly grown 10 years ago, but for a variety of reasons, they’re no longer available. It’s sad when this happens, and preventing good plants from disappearing is a key reason that IGCs might want to grow at least part of their own stock.
Unusual, a broader range and hard to find
Don Shor, owner of Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis, California, says that he grows several fun and interesting varieties from seed. “Evening scented stock!” he exclaims. “Also, this year I grew Zaluzianskya capensis Midnight Candy. And I’m now growing a significant percentage of my own roses because I wanted to have a broader range of varieties.”
In Joe Kiefer’s opinion, growing unusual or hard-to-find plants helps retain a unique and regionally focused business. His garden center, Triple Oaks Nursery & Herb Garden in Franklinville, New Jersey, raises unusual plants not readily available in the trade, along with local indigenous natives. “Another plant we grow is elecampane (Inula helenium),” he says, “because it’s a powerful immune system booster and I have never seen it offered. We bought it at some point 20 years ago, because it’s in our herb garden, but now I grow it from seed.”
“We are right near Cumberland County, New Jersey,” Joe continues, “which is a huge nursery production county, so we can’t compete with normal plants. They can do it better and cheaper, but the oddball stuff they don’t do, we can do here and stand out. Then we promote them on our website, email and social media.”
Susan Penland Reavis agrees. She’s been growing and retailing since 1979 in North Carolina, and they propagate many varieties of ornamentals and vegetables. “Over the years we have honed in on growing what’s unavailable, hard to ship and/or more expensive to buy in finished,” Susan says.
“We keep a number of Jewel Orchids in production and have rare cool things going like various ant plants, Oxalis gigantea and Oxalis palmifrons,” says Hap Hollibaugh of Cactus Jungle Nursery and Gardens in the San Francisco Bay area. But like Susan, he also raises plants when the availability is erratic. “With the houseplant craze I have increased the rarer, hard-to-get, and trending crops,” he says, “just because we haven’t had reliable delivery on our orders.”
Setting yourself apart
Growing varieties that are generally unavailable elsewhere helps keep good plants from disappearing completely. And it doesn’t just position you as an alternative to the box stores … it can be the reason that people come to your store in the first place. Heather Pariso of The Garden Gurl Shop in Dover, Ohio, grows several varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
“Every year I have to increase the numbers I grow, and it tickles me to grow rare plants in order to expand people’s horizons and keep the plant passion alive,” she says. “I really think setting yourself apart from the competing interests of the customers.”
C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at www.GardenLady.com