Date: December 2000

What Should I Grow? What to Sell ? Cuttings and Liner Procurement?

Dick Bir
NC State University

What Should I Grow? The easy, cliched and totally inadequate answer is "Whatever you can sell."

What Should I Sell? Determining what you can sell requires work before you ever set up your nursery and will never end as long as you are in the nursery business. The kind of plant, the form you sell it in and how it is both grown and packaged will constantly change. If you and your crops don't change, you probably will not remain in business even in the unlikely event that you are growing the same cultivars of plants 20 years from now. Ask those growing azaleas and dogwoods if you doubt this.

To find out what is selling you should read trade magazines and attend every nursery education opportunity that you can find. Trade shows are essential. People go to trade shows expecting to talk. The same is true for short courses and professional meetings like the International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS). Talk to both the people who want to sell something to you and to those you think may be your market.

Think in general terms at first unless you already feel that you have to grow something because of some special insight. . . maybe you can't live without boxwoods or mosses or sedges for groundcovers and MUST grow those. Otherwise, ask yourself if you want to grow rooted cuttings, seedlings and transplants. If so, you better talk to other nurserymen because they are likely to become your liner customers but do not overlook conservation agencies and others who may be looking for smaller bare root or container grown plants for mass plantings.

If you want to grow plants in containers, think about having much of your money tied up before you ever plant something. You will need to have containers, media, irrigation, etc., etc. in place before you start. Will you grow your pots above the ground on some sort of landscape fabric or cru$hed rock$ or in the ground (Lots of pot-in-pot nurseries are developing. Do we need another one?)? If you will be producing container grown plants, talk with rewholesalers, garden centers and landscape contractors as well as other nurserymen because they are all likely to be your customers.

If you plan to field grow plants, decide whether you want to sell plants with soil on the roots or bare-root. Garden centers may be less likely to be your customers but rewholesalers and landscape contractors buy B&B and some bare root plants.

Finally, you must make some decisions about equipment. What you grow as well as how you grow it are essential to making these decisions. You will need equipment to plant, grow and harvest. You should also think seriously about how you will get your crop to market regardless of what you grow and how you grow it.

Choosing the crop: After you have spent time with colleagues and customers in meetings and, if they can spare the time, in their nurseries, you may be ready to think about plants.

Can you grow what someone else is growing? The answer is yes. The more important question is, can you sell it? The answer to this question is maybe. Is there is a shortage of this crop on the market now and will there still be a shortage by the time your crop is ready to sell? Do you have some way of becoming competitive even though your competition has experience growing the crop and you don't? Find out who your competition is and where they are and get a feeling about future demand . . . if you can.

Maybe your asset is proximity to market or a better place to grow with less cost than the competition. If you plan to be a small to medium sized grower, you had better find out what is unique about you and find your niche because there ARE economies of scale in the nursery business. If you can't sell the product cheaper, you better have a better product . . . either in perceived quality or something unique about what you sell that will attract customers that you can keep. Price is usually one of the last factors involved in getting repeat customers but it is a factor. If you are growing something unique or different from what others are growing, ask why this plant or product is not being offered now. Is it because there is no market? No profit? Do you need to create a market? If so, do you need to grow a small amount of the product to show to prospective customers before getting into full production? Only you can answer these questions.

Can you grow the chosen crop profitably? If you already have a site chosen, will it adapt to the crop? Do you have water, power, zoning, labor, the financial resources, etc., etc? The business plan does not just require a good idea, it requires good sense to know what is and is not possible for you, your land and your family. It is a rare nursery that grows just one product or just one size. There are often plants or sizes of plants that nurseries would prefer not to grow but must grow them anyway in order to be competitive. There are often "best" times to do things but there is too much to do at that time and little to do at other times so the work load must be evened out to keep employees employed. This off-peak work can lead to producing crops never intended and, occasionally, these crops become the most profitable. In addition, you should be prepared to: 1. Produce what you need yourself in order to get the quality and quantity you need when you need it, e.g., you may need to establish cutting or seed orchards in order to have cuttings and seeds. 2. Do more than one thing, e.g., sell excess seed as well as save some in years when there is a bumper crop. Seed is for selling as well as sowing.

Where can I get it? You will have a pretty good idea where you can get what you want to grow by the time you determine what you want to grow. If you want to grow seedlings, you need to have access to seeds. Either you will buy them or grow them and/or collect them yourself. If you want to root cuttings, you will need to either have the stock plants yourself or buy the cuttings from someone until you have your own source of stock plants.

If you want to buy rooted cuttings or seedlings, you better know who sells them, get your order to them and be able to tell a good liner from a bad one and the cultivar you want (you do know which cultivars you want don't you?) from other cultivars. You also need to be able to take care of these liners when you get them and be willing to grade as well as ready to throw away poorer quality liners.

If you have problems with liners, you should talk to the supplier immediately. Don't expect them to take your word for the fact that the liners were bad a year from when you get them . . . take pictures and get in touch with the supplier when you think you have the problem. Digital cameras and the internet can be effective convincers.

You can learn who has what for sale by taking multiple approaches. Attend trade shows and talk to those selling what you need as well as those who are growing the same plant you intend to grow. Go to nursery meetings, short courses and professional group meetings. Spend at least as much time listening as talking. Local and state nursery groups as well as bigger regional meetings and IPPS are an excellent way to meet folks who speak your language and have experienced a lot of what you are about to experience. Subscribe to NMPRO, American Nurseryman and local/state/regional publications if you do not get them as part of your membership in these organizations. Get to know your county extension agent . . . well.

Sources of Information
American Nurseryman
77 W. Washington, Suite 2100
Chicago, Il 60602
PO Box 1868
Ft. Worth, Tx 76101
NC Assoc. of Nurserymen
968 Trinity Road
Raleigh, NC 27606
Southern Nursery Assoc.
1827 Powers Ferry Road
Bldg 4, Suite 100
Atlanta, GA 30339
American Nursery & Landscape Assoc.
1000 Vermont Ave. NW
Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005-4914
International Plant Propagators Soc.
Eastern Region
1700 N. Parish Drive
Southold, NY 11971
Southern Region
332 Warbler Drive
Bedford, Tx 76021-3225

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North Carolina State University