How Do Nursery Growers Decide What to Grow?

by Jane Beggs-Joles, Corporate ASLA

Mid-summer production at Prides Corner Farms, Lebanon, CT. / image: Jane Beggs-Joles

It’s August 2023, and growers are deciding on their inventory for 2025.

You read that right: two years out. That’s the best-case scenario, and that’s for flowering shrubs. Sure, perennials will have a quicker turn-around, but trees take even longer. And that two-year forecast? It’s for a three-gallon container. If you like five- or seven-gallon specimens, the timeline gets even longer.

Here are the details:

Right now, growers are looking at what sold this spring and anticipating what will sell through the rest of the year. This tells them both what plants are popular and how much space they have for new crops. They do some math, make some educated guesses about demand, and then order their starter plants (liners) for delivery in spring 2024. Most of those flowering shrubs will need at least a year to grow to a finished size, and that’s how we get all the way to 2025. For slower-growing plants and larger specimens, it will take even longer. If they can’t get the liners until summer or fall, add another few months to the schedule.

Kodiak Fresh™ Diervilla liners potted June 2023 for Spring 2024 sales (3 gallon). This is a relatively fast-growing plant. / image: Jane Beggs-Joles

When it comes to deciding what to grow, the most important factor for a nursery grower is whether or not it will sell. Plant people love plants and will often keep a small inventory of “pet” varieties that they really love. But growing plants is a business; if they can’t make money on a plant, they can’t afford to grow it.

That’s the second part of the decision: can they make money on it? There are some really fabulous plants that are just too slow or too finicky for nurseries to produce in large numbers. Growers may be able to justify maintaining a small inventory of these plants, but they will need to charge a premium price for them to cover their costs.

Scentara® Double Blue lilac liners planted June 2023 for Spring 2025 sales (3 gallon). Lilacs need a bit more time. / image: Jane Beggs-Joles

But what about new plants?

Good nursery growers know that new plants are key to long-term success. Customers’ tastes and needs change, new environmental stressors and pathogens develop, and we all are intrigued by the prospect of something new. So which of the new plants do they introduce?

As with established varieties, it comes down to whether or not they think they can sell it. Is it a better production plant that won’t need much pruning or disease control? Will it be attractive to consumers in a garden center?  Is it something that landscapers are asking for?

That last sentence is an important one. Some landscapers ask for the same plants every year. That’s why nurseries grow them. Others would like something different, but they don’t see it on availabilities, so they don’t ask. If you don’t ask for it, growers are less likely to produce it, particularly if it’s a plant that is more appealing to professional landscapers than homeowners shopping on impulse appeal.

These tree form hydrangeas were started as liners at least five years ago. Note the cycle pruning to have different bloom times for retail sales. / image: Jane Beggs-Joles

If there’s a new plant or a difficult-to-find one that you would like, ask your supplier about it. Remember, they have to plan years in advance, so it pays for you to think ahead, too.

Talk to your grower when the new catalogs come out. Tell them what varieties you think look interesting and why. If you’ve got a big project coming, tell your supplier about it as early as possible. They may be able to adjust their production so you have the plants you need. Even if they can’t make changes to meet your timeline, talking to your nursery supplier as early as possible will give you both time to source the material or find a good alternative. If you all of a sudden need five hundred of a plant you’ve never used before, don’t be surprised if your grower doesn’t have them ready for you.

Perhaps there’s a plant that you’ve used for years but now is getting hard to find. Some plants have seen a surge in demand, or their supply was affected by regional crop losses. There may be some new pest or disease that’s making it difficult to produce, or there’s a new selection that’s a better choice. Ask your supplier about it; they can probably offer you a good substitute if you give them some details about your project.

Ray DeFeo, Sales Manager for Prides Corner Farms in Connecticut. He’s happy to talk to you about current and future availability, and may be able adjust production numbers for a big project. / image: Jane Beggs-Joles

One recurring theme here is that you should talk to your supplier. Let them know what you’re interested in, and don’t be afraid to ask for plant suggestions. Nursery growers know a lot about how plants will perform in their region and can steer you away from a plant that will struggle on a site. They can also clue you in to a “solution plant” that will make you look like a hero to the client.

If you don’t work directly with a nursery grower and deal with a contractor instead, have this discussion with them. Going with them to visit their nursery suppliers will give you a good sense of what’s being produced. Don’t be afraid to advocate for a plant that you could use; just be prepared to give the nursery grower a realistic estimate of how many units you would use.

Nursery growers ultimately want to produce plants that people will buy. Open communication with them will help both the grower and the landscape professional who wants the best plant for their project.

I’m a proud graduate of Michigan State University (B.S. Horticulture, M.S. Agricultural Economics) and have over twenty-five years of experience in the wholesale nursery industry. My own landscape reflects many years of bringing plants home from various events to “see what they will do”—there is no design! After years of exploring our National Parks with our daughters my husband and I are now doing some empty-nest adventuring without the limitations of the school year. I’ve had the privilege of helping to introduce some outstanding new plants to the North American trade, and look forward to seeing what new plants will appear in the next decades.

Jane Beggs-Joles, Landscape Program Manager for Spring Meadow Nursery, Inc., is also a PPN leader for ASLA’s Planting Design Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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