Time to Grow Up: The Landscape Architect-Nursery Grower Relationship

by Michael Keenan, ASLA

Maple trees at the University of Chicago
The timeline for growing the Redpointe® Maple (Acer rubrum ‘Frank Jr.’) trees in the Crerar Science Quad at the University of Chicago is approximately 15 years from propagation by J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. Their young trees were grown to maturity by Kaneville Tree Farms, Inc., of Illinois, and selected for the project by Terry Ryan, FASLA. / image: Jacobs/Ryan Associates Landscape Architects

While plants are a primary color in the landscape architect’s palette, we often fail to grasp the complex challenges, laborious processes, and good luck it requires to bring healthy nursery stock to the market and ultimately to our projects. At the 2018 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Philly, the Planting Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) met to discuss the ever-important relationship between the landscape architect and the nursery grower. We heard from four nursery professionals to learn about the realities of nursery production, incoming production shortages, and how to foster a better relationship with your grower.

We were joined by:

Nancy led off with an insightful presentation of the tree growing process. We all know that trees are an investment in time, but we may not fully appreciate the dedicated efforts that go into growing the trees we specify.

As Nancy says,  “Growing trees is an exercise in patience and faith in the future. It takes a long time and many skilled hands to grow beautiful, resilient, durable trees that will cast shade for future generations. Bringing new and improved trees to the marketplace is a collaborative, multi-generational effort that takes even longer.”

The complex timeline for bringing specimen trees to market is made simple via this elegant graphic shared with Plant Design PPN participants. / image: created by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects of Chicago for an iLandscape educational session, it is adapted for the J. Frank Schmidt Reference Guide by permission. Available to download from the J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. website.

A typical deciduous shade or flowering tree will spend its first five years with a liner grower; first being propagated, then establishing a central leader, then being pruned to develop a healthy branching habit. At this point, the tree is sold, harvested, and shipped to another nursery, where it is root pruned, replanted in field or container, and further developed into a saleable, landscape-ready product during this three to 10-year ‘growing out’ phase. Hence, a typical 2-3” caliper tree requires a total of 7-8 years to produce, while a 5-10” caliper tree may take 10-15 years or more to reach the stately large specimen sizes specified for some projects. This time spent during production doesn’t even recognize the years and sometimes decades spent in analysis, selection, and breeding programs that aim to produce the most resilient and desirable tree selections. Think about that the next time you place one hundred circles on your concept plan.

There is no pause button in the nursery industry.

When the housing bubble burst in 2008, the nursery industry was hit hard, much like that of landscape architects. Just as design firms were forced to freeze hiring or worse, begin downsizing, nursery growers were forced to drastically reduce inventory by culling much of their stock or selling it at bargain prices. A glut of trees in the marketplace led to low prices and plentiful availability, to which specifiers and landscape contractors became accustomed.

Unfortunately, thousands of nursery growers went bankrupt or turned to growing other crops. This lack of production created a reverse bubble of sorts and created shortages that are painfully apparent a decade later, thanks to the very long timeline for producing trees. It wasn’t until the economy slowly came to life in 2012 and 2013 that the surviving growers began to restart production, leaving a multi-year gap in the production pipeline. With the full tilt investment as we’ve seen in recent years, the demand for large, quality trees is reaching a fever pitch. Due to the recession, the large trees we need now simply were not propagated during the recession and recovery period, and hence never entered the production pipeline. This increased demand and repressed supply inevitably brings increasing prices. As you’ve no doubt experienced, the average sale cost of trees has been rising rapidly.

Another complicating factor in the nursery production struggle is generational change taking place in the nursery business and in agriculture in general. Our esteemed panel of nursery professionals warn us of a troubling trend: next-generation, would-be successors to many of today’s nurseries are choosing to exit the industry in favor of other career opportunities, a factor that further complicates nursery production shortfalls. Urbanization also is taking its toll on nursery lands that are generally located on the fringe of the urban centers they serve. Additionally, a nationwide, shortage of labor is preventing growers from expanding their production to meet increased market demand. These and other market factors will continue to cause nursery stock shortages and/or the total unavailability of plants that once were readily available in the horticulture industry.

Martin Hanni of Northwest Shade Trees describes production steps for developing strong branch attachment and canopy structure in a Metro Gold® Maple. Joan Cartwright of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. and Planting Design PPN EXPO tour participants look on. / image: EPNAC

What can landscape architects do?

Despite the shortages and complications, there are several things landscape architects should always be doing to ensure healthy nursery stock is made available for our projects.

Visit nurseries
It is important to visit with nursery growers to see what trees, shrubs, and other plants are in production, how they produce them, and to develop relationships with them. In addition to learning something about plant production, you might even find some design informants. Schedule an outing for your firm to visit local growers.

Invite growers to visit you
Steve Castorani frequently visits landscape architect firms to present “lunch and learn” sessions in which he shares information about North Creek Nurseries’ product line. He, Heidi Hesselein, and Nancy Buley all welcome landscape architects to visit their extensive demonstration and trial gardens and arboretums. Most growers welcome your questions and are eager to share what they know, but may be intimidated at the prospect of reaching out to offer their services and expertise.

Know your suppliers
If you don’t have time to personally visit nurseries, Steve Wagner suggests developing relationships with trustworthy plant brokers and plant procurement services that share your goals of obtaining the best quality plants to be found in the marketplace. Because it’s their job to know all the reputable, quality growers and product lines, they can save you a great deal of time and money. Attend nursery trade shows and conferences to learn about plants in educational sessions that may well offer CE credits for landscape architects.

Nancy Buley shares tree information with participants in the Planting Design PPN EXPO tour during the 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans. / image: EPNAC

Plan ahead
While shortages of plants with shorter growing cycles have eased a bit, the recession-sparked tree shortage is not likely to go away in the next decade. For all types of plants, reach out to growers, sales reps, and/or brokers before you specify. Educate your clients and contractors about the need for planning well ahead of your planting dates. Place deposits well in advance to secure an order and to prevent last-minute substitutions that will compromise your design intent.

Consider contract growing
When possible, developing a contract growing agreement in the early stages of a project can ensure availability and specificity of plant material. Whether you are in need of a watershed-specific native grass or perennial, shrubs or large shade trees, a well-executed growing agreement is a great tool for project success. This security often reduces the occurrence of project delays, change orders, and those ever-detested substitutions. Additionally, a contract growing agreement reduces risk for the grower as plants aren’t being produced speculatively.

Michael Keenan, ASLA, is Chair of the ASLA Planting Design Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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3 thoughts on “Time to Grow Up: The Landscape Architect-Nursery Grower Relationship

  1. Terry Warriner Ryan, FASLA January 22, 2019 / 1:41 pm

    Thanks for a great article and for featuring our Crerar Science Quadrangle in your lead photo. One thing I might add is this: get your local ASLA chapter to hold an event once a summer at a local grower’s nursery. With participation by the local grower’s association and speakers, you can get them to talk about new plants and old favorites, the market supply and how to arrange for contract growing.

  2. Nancy Buley January 22, 2019 / 3:42 pm

    Great suggestion, Terry! Thank you. And I encourage local ASLA chapters to invite growers to speak at their educational conferences, too. And while I recognize that everyone is busy in our respective “green circles,” landscape architects can benefit by attending educational sessions at nursery trade shows such as iLandscape in IL, The Western in KS, ProGreen Expo in Denver, Farwest Show in Portland, etc. Many offer CE credits, or would be happy to do so if encouraged by landscape architects.

  3. Marinna Wagner February 7, 2019 / 10:04 am

    Great article, thank you! I’m happy to hear you suggested contract growing. Utilizing native or local seed on projects, beyond just ecological restoration, can be beneficial because local seed increases habitat value, long-term health of plants, and overall sustainability of a site. Cultivating a relationship with a grower that is willing to experiment can be crucial to a successful project. I would love to see landscape architects utilize this resource more.

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