Slow growth

Features - Green Goods

Disease and drought have wreaked havoc on the country’s canopy, but at the same time, the recent recession has slashed tree supplies. Garden center retailers can both sell more trees and help their customers be successful with new and old plantings with these strategies.

July 22, 2016


It’s not new news that persistent drought is having a devastating impact on trees, both nationally and globally. According to the Texas Forest Service, the state lost approximately 500 million trees during the 2011 drought, with many trees continuing to die even today as a result of ongoing drought stress. Researchers predict approximately 58 million trees are expected to die in California as a result of current drought conditions. Due to such extreme droughts, the reforestation of urban areas has become a clear focus for a number of state forestry services as well as non-profit groups across the country. As an industry, it’s our responsibility to support these efforts and help consumers reforest urban areas. For garden center businesses, it’s a strategic opportunity to boost tree sales that may have been lagging in years past.

Sell it

When it comes to selling both new and replacement plantings, the list of benefits they offer in an urban setting is a long one. In addition to the beautification of the surroundings, trees mitigate a host of environmental issues such as urban heat islands, energy usage for cooling our homes, air pollution and stormwater runoff, just to name a few. Trees provide much-needed habitats and food sources for urban wildlife and pollinators. If you plant fruit trees, you also benefit from some food production.

But urban life is hard on trees. It’s not a “plant it and forget it” scenario. Issues ranging from pollution to construction to poor tree care can mean shorter life spans for urban trees. Good species selection, planting techniques and ongoing maintenance are required to keep trees strong, safe and in good health.

Magnolia grandiflora, native to the Southeast.
Silent killer

Tree replacement needs won’t just crop up during times of current drought, they’ll continue for years afterwards. Many urban dwellers are seeing their trees die now as a result of drought in previous years, even if current rainfalls are adequate. Water restrictions in drought-stricken areas, coupled with a lack of homeowner knowledge about good tree watering techniques, have made tree survival even harder. It’s often a surprise to homeowners when a tree dies years after a severe drought.

Micah Pace, arborist and urban forester with Preservation Tree Services in Dallas, Texas, says homeowners don’t know how to recognize the signs of ongoing drought stress in their trees. Too often they assume that if rainfall has returned this season, their trees will soldier on just fine. Drought often kills a tree’s small feeder roots, rendering it unable to take up the water and nutrients needed, even when rainfall returns. The tree is then often unable to support a large enough leaf canopy. Until the tree is able to regrow adequate feeder roots, it will remain under stress and weaken.

“The stress related to drought is typically slow and silent,” Pace says. “It is usually expressed as crown dieback, or the dying of branches from the top down or tips inward.” Pace notes that if a tree is strong and healthy before drought hits, it can often tolerate the stress and recover naturally; but that’s not the case for trees already under some other form of stress. Because some stress signs can be masked by other issues, Pace says it typically takes a professional to properly diagnose the problem before it’s too late. Drought-stressed trees are highly susceptible to pests, diseases, storm damage, heaving or completely uprooting in heavy rain or wind, as was the case throughout the spring and summer of 2015 in Texas, when heavy, ongoing rains and flooding followed years of severe drought.

Ulmus crassifolia, native to the Southwest
Supply squeeze

The opportunity for garden centers to boost tree sales can only be capitalized on if the supply of quality trees is available in the marketplace. That has been a struggle over the past few years post-recession. Zac Tolbert of Local Plant Source, Inc. in Austin, Texas, couldn’t point directly to drought as the cause for a reduction in production and supply levels of trees, but he did state that reduced availability due to the recession was the single largest factor affecting his tree availability.

So, it’s a double whammy: Trees lost to drought need to be replaced, causing an increase in demand, while growers struggle to provide enough inventory due to recession cutbacks. “The connection between supply and demand is improving,” Tolbert says. “However, the timeline between design and construction (and project delays) continues to be a challenge for a connected supply chain.”

Water-wise choices

When it comes to replacing trees lost to drought, special consideration should be given to which species are sold and planted in their place. Species that are either native or use less water are better options than replacement with the same high-maintenance ornamental. Garden centers need better diversity from their suppliers to help consumers make smarter, water-wise choices. While that progression toward more drought-tolerant offerings is happening, it’s not necessarily happening quickly.

As more landscape architects and designers are specifying the use of native and drought tolerant plants, growers are being forced to respond. “While we have not seen an about-face,” says Tolbert, “most growers have increased production numbers for drought-tolerant plants while traditional, more water intensive plants have been reduced.”

Platanus occidentalis, native to the Midwest, Northeast and South.
Buy right

When it comes to ensuring the best chance of success for your customer’s tree replacement, there is another important factor to consider — size. During my tenure running an IGC, sales of large B&B tree sales declined to the point where I eliminated the category. The big trees simply took up too much space, didn’t turn fast enough and required too much maintenance and special equipment. As it turns out, bigger isn’t always better.

According to Pace, research shows that in addition to selecting native and drought-tolerant species, plant size at planting time is also a major factor in homeowner success or failure. “Smaller diameter trees tend to stress less and also establish their root systems more quickly following planting,” Pace says. While smaller trees can come with smaller price tags, they also turn faster, require less maintenance while in stock, can be more easily planted directly by the homeowner and don’t have to be warrantied as long. Pair those benefits up with a better chance of success by the homeowner, (meaning fewer returns) and carrying a good selection of small diameter trees may be a more successful strategy for all involved.

Buy in

That said, are homeowners really willing to give up some of their favorite ornamental cultivars and make the shift to natives or less water-sensitive species? Or, go with smaller trees when what they want is instant gratification? Pace asserts it’s all about education.

“The level of understanding about proper species selection certainly varies by the homeowner,” Pace says. “But more and more property owners are becoming more aware of how the selection of proper species has a direct impact on the long-term survival, as well as the long-term management costs of newly planted trees.” By partnering or cross-marketing with your local urban forester, state nursery and landscape association and nonprofit tree groups, you can work to improve customer education.

As drought is predicted to become more frequent and severe in the future, maintaining a healthy tree population is becoming even more important and challenging. Good tree care education and tree replacements in areas with persistent drought will only become more crucial.

“Tree planting is a necessity,” Pace says. “But it must done in more strategic ways so that we are not only selecting the best species for the specific site and regional area, but we are planning for the future dynamics of our climate.”

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, digital content marketing, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies.