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Advice requested--plant nursery business


Joined: Aug 07, 2010
Posts: 271
I have been interested for sometime in running a plant nursery.. but... my experiences are all with traditional growers, long rows/tables of one or two types of plants, lots of plastic flats, pots, etc. Things outside grown on level ground, lots of water added.

Is it possible to run a self sustainable plant nursery.. one with minimized human input? A seed it, forget it kinda thing. Could Hugelkultur be integrated?

I live in a cold climate, zone 4 ish.
I would like to avoid "dead" soil, chemicals/pesticides, etc. So looking for creativity, sustainability.

Joined: Apr 21, 2011
Posts: 18
I know of a couple of women who are successful (on a small scale) selling things out of the ground.  No pots, hardy perennials only.

1)  One of them has an iris garden.  Her iris are planted in rows, and customers visit when the plants are blooming, walking up and down the paths to view them.  Of course, the place is gorgeous when all the iris are blooming.

You make your selections on an order form, then drop the form and your check in a box.  The tubors are $7.50 each. In the fall, she divides her iris and calls to let you know they are ready to be picked up.  Your tubors are in a brown paper bag on a shelf, organized by last name.  The entire operation is self-serve.  You never even see her.  She doesn't advertise, but she puts up signs on the highway, and she's been in the same spot for 20+ years.

2)  The other woman aggressively divides her perennial beds so they multiply as quickly as possible, and then sells plants in the spring by the shovelful ($1).  She just scoops them into old grocery sacks. 

It started out small for her, but over the past ten years or so it's gotten to the point where most of her one acre (or so) yard is planted with perennials.  Customers come back year after year, and she also advertises in the local paper. 

She sticks with hardy, fast-growing things.  Also sells thornless blackberry, walking onion, and a few other perennial fruits and vegies. 

Something to consider:  As she sells shovelsful, she is giving away her topsoil.  She replaces it with straight composted steer manure (which her perennials love). 

She runs her sale for three or four weekends in early June (zone 4).  My mother-in-law is friends with her, and I know one of the weekends she made $850.  Like I said, it's pretty small scale, but maybe it will give you some ideas.

Personally, I think the iris operation is particularly clever.  She just does one thing, and does it well.  Her garden is beautiful, and it's sort of a fun outing.  My mom and I buy from her every year, and often my mom will take the grandkids and let them each select one. 

I hope I've inspired you! 

Joined: Aug 07, 2010
Posts: 271
IdahoFolk wrote:
I know of a couple of women who are successful (on a small scale) selling things out of the ground.  No pots, hardy perennials only.

I hope I've inspired you! 

They both sound awesome to me... except.. sigh... I'm more than a bit off the beaten path, which means I won't be able to rely on "driveway" sales.  I'm thinking more of farmers market, craigslist, etc as a way of marketing.

The soil thing is exactly what I want to avoid. Years ago when I managed greenhouses/garden centers, I made a nice soilless mix out of shredded bark, sand, and compost that worked great. Started cuttings in sand, perlite or vermiculite, seedlings were started in a sterilized soil mix.

I adore iris (and have a few myself)
John Polk

Joined: Feb 20, 2011
Posts: 6898
Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
I would think that in zone 4 you would almost need a greenhouse for starts.  If you are planting outside from seed, by the time your plants are marketable, most people would have already bought their starts from the big box store.  In a short growing season area, most people are looking for robust plants for transplanting as soon as the soil has warmed.

One  way to cut your startup costs is to use newspaper pots instead of the conventional plastic nursery pots.  Those plastic pots, even at wholesale prices, can really add up when you are looking at 1,000 plants or more.  You can make the newspaper pots all winter long while watching movies on TV for absolutely no cost.  I like them much better than the peat Jiffy pots.

Joined: Aug 07, 2010
Posts: 271
Have done lots of looking/thinking about greenhouses and their alternatives. I definately need a greenhouse, but I do want to try to consider ways to minimize greenhouse use. For example, if I may be able to seed directly into pots, using normal fall seeding techniques, in the fall, trench (in a place that won't accumulate water), tuck the pots in with mulch... in the same manner I would a fall seeded bed, gently uncover in the spring. Same type thing with any cuttings that are taken, no immediate results. But one of the issues is.. the longer something is on hand, the more risk of something happening to it. Voles/deer, mis watering...etc.

Don't have power.. so I probably wouldn't be very productive at making the newspaper pots <VBG>  Seriously, I've used them and like them.
Suzie Browning

Joined: Jun 10, 2010
Posts: 48
Location: Southwestern Ohio
When I was much younger, we sold plants from hotbeds that my grandfather would dig out and place fresh manure in, and old glass windows on the top.  I think we had two or three, but I remember growing many different plants in those beds.

When a customer would stop, we'd pull the plants right from the beds and wrap them in newspaper.  Saturday mornings were crazy, but it was my job after school and I had someone there everyday.  All we had was a sign by the driveway in a pretty rural community.

I was thinking recently about this, wondering how it might work in a nursery setting, using a printed list that the customer would fill out  and or order online and then the order would be pulled.  They could order online and pick their order up on their way home from work.

With a major emphasis on customer service while minimalizing daily watering, plastic use and the soil staying on site.  Ask the community to recycle their newspapers at your place.  I'm still considering a test run for next year in my yard.   

On the border of Zones 5 & 6 on the last 2 acres of what was once a large farm.  Flat, flat and more flat!

Joined: Aug 07, 2010
Posts: 271
Ok, I still keep tossing this idea around in my head.  I'm thinking that the best plant choices would be natives or hardy perennials, so I wouldn't have to worry too much about climate control.

I'm thinking I would need pots and would like to start seeds directly in the pots they are going to grow in, so that I don't have to deal with transplanting. Obviously, most things started from cuttings would be started in flats, and would need to be potted up.. with a few exceptions.

So.. one of the huge issues with conventional nurseries is.. watering. The person doing the watering is the person who makes or breaks the nursery. I want to avoid watering. That's a pretty big thought.. pretty challenging.. how on earth to start stuff in pots, but not water? 

So here's a thought.. if I built mini hugelkulture beds, basically a series of steeply raised  inverted V shape beds, using alder that is maybe 4 inches in diameter as the primary skeletal structure, building the beds about three and a half to four feet tall and cover with very loose soil. Plant one side with some sort of cash crop (s) preferably perennial. The other side would be planted in pots. A horizontal row of pots, horizontal row of.. something planted directly into the bed, another row of pots. Mulched well over the top. 

The hugelkulture, so that there is natural moisture retention and a tiny bit easier access then if I were to just grow in beds at ground level.
The cash crop plants on one side, for all sorts of reasons 1) to give an alternative to selling potted plants (I'm thinking along the lines of strawberries.. or something similar) 2) to help maintain a "living system" with established micorrhizae 3)to help attract water and maintain humidity 4) to prevent the top soil layer from drying out.

The horizontal pot rows 1) because I have a hard time getting away with conventional thinking and it makes the concept flow easier for me 2) if the soil is loose enough and the pots sunk deeply enough in it then the plants should be well insultated/protected and simultaneously, should wick up water from below

The horizontal hugelkultur row plantings that alternate with the horizontal pot rows 1) to help maintain humidity 2) to help draw up moisture (hmmm, should I consider dandelions or some sort of mix, for these rows?) 3) will be harvested annually as ground will be disturbed from potted plant harvest


I've also considered growing seedlings such as tamarack, pine, goats etc by direct seeding. The competition is really tough as it would be competing with people who grow gazillions of these a year for reforestation. But there may be a limited market at farmers market, etc. I would prefer to sell potted, not bareroot. Any suggestions on how to grow in a manner that is easy to harvest (I'm thinking this may not be amenable to hugelkulture as the roots may grow into some of the rotten wood?), and again, requires little or no watering or maintenance?

When I drive up the forest roads, along the shoulder, I frequently notice tons of plants that have started which would be wonderful to resell (they aren't mine), and are totally self maintained. I feel that the root systems on such may not be the best (if one were to do an alleycrop type system) when it comes to transplanting.  Any experiences, thoughts on this?
Thanks again!

Joined: Aug 07, 2010
Posts: 271
Another thought.. because my growing season is so short.. can this be used to my advantage, for example, the season for things tends to be long gone elsewhere.. when things start happening in my area. An example, lilacs bloomed nearly a full month behind areas in Vancouver, Portland, SE Idaho.  Same with many other things. I'm thinking that this could be used to my advantage as it could extend the availability of some seasonal foods and flowering plants.

Just all thoughts that keep rattling around in my head and I need to figure out how to use them!

Joined: Jul 07, 2010
Posts: 508
Found a place  by accident which grew mostly day lilies and sold them for pretty substantial money. The gardens were wonderful..they sold a few from the gardens but mostly plants  in pots. They were in a rural area (however, they were about 45 minutes out of a large city) and didn't even have signs on the highway, just at their driveway..I ran across them en route to a garage sale.  Both times I was there they seemed to be doing a good business..

My impression was that the ones in the gardens were their "parent" plants  but they would sometimes sell those too if they were going to switch to another variety or just had to many of that one. They had a few other perennials there but mostly just to help show off the lilies so people could recreate the bits of garden they saw there.

I don't know if they sold over the internet but I do know that there are several smaller outfits across Canada (several in Nova Scotia) who specialize in daylilies  and WILL  sell over the internet.

Daylilies are pretty tough and there are a trillion varieties. Another option anyway.
John Polk

Joined: Feb 20, 2011
Posts: 6898
Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
Be certain to research your state's nursery laws.  Each state has its own laws, and while some may be lax in enforcing, if you do get cited for violations, it could wipe out several year's profits, plus you would then be "on their radar", and under scrutiny.
Mac Nova

Joined: Jul 24, 2011
Posts: 24
Feral wrote:
Another thought.. because my growing season is so short.. can this be used to my advantage, for example, the season for things tends to be long gone elsewhere.. when things start happening in my area. An example, lilacs bloomed nearly a full month behind areas in Vancouver, Portland, SE Idaho.  Same with many other things. I'm thinking that this could be used to my advantage as it could extend the availability of some seasonal foods and flowering plants.

Just all thoughts that keep rattling around in my head and I need to figure out how to use them!


Looking at it from a neutral POV, Your in zone 4 back off the beaten trail with a short growing season. You will never compete with local nurseries or the big box players. Your at least a month behind them. Selling native perrenials seems like a bad idea since the perrenials are native to zone 4 and probably will not grow in warmer zones the few that will grow are already there in the wild in the other zones. Kinda like me trying to start a tropical food forest in Northern BC. Not trying to piss on your parade just trying to save you some grief.

Joined: Jul 07, 2010
Posts: 508
Zone 4 isn't bad at can grow all sorts of stuff. I think the trick would be to find something that isn't widely available..a niche..and go  with that.  For example very few nurseries sell nut trees or pine trees that provide edible nuts. I don't know how long it takes to get a seed to sprout but there are places that sell such seeds and indeed such trees.  Hardy grapes and kiwi will grow in zone 4 and again are either not widely available or if they ARE, are often brought in by big box stores from the southern states and they gasp in horror and curl up their roots in despair when winter hits.

Another thought are such things as hedge roses and such..easy to propagate from cuttings so they can be sold for a moderate amount of money.  For the past two years in this area nobody was selling strawberry plants locally, you had to order them  from somewhere else.
Often  something grown locally is far more likely to survive than something brought in from somewhere else.

Marketting is the would likely need to take stuff to some sort of farmer's market once a week or find a spot to park and display your offerings (you will likely need a pedlar's licence in most towns to do this) until you got known... if you are truly out in the boonies.

One thing which is fraught with potential problems but could be quite lucrative  are various herbs..To the best of my knowlege you can say what they have been used for as long as you present it as sort of historical information and make it clear you are NOT suggesting using them as alternatives to standard medical care.  Many are becoming difficult to get  and that might be a market that has some potential as lots of people are looking for alternatives to drug company offerings.

Lots of stuff might become customer bait if the plant was sold with "instructions for use" like how to make rose petal jelly  for example. or how to make elderberry wine (or pie)

I think that zone 4 should be if you were in zone 2....that would be a different story.

I agree  that going nose to nose with the big box stores is likely to be extremely disheartening. Finding a niche  or a specialty market has potential though.
duane hennon

Joined: Sep 23, 2010
Posts: 540
Location: western pennsylvania zone 5/a
here's a place with info on how to start a nursery cheaply
a website might be useful if your hard to get to, to let people know who you are
S. G. Botsford

Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 71
I sell several thousand dollars worth of native trees and shrubs each year.

Some I grow from seed, but most I buy as 1 year plugs from the forestry nurseries.  Typical cost is 17 c to 90 c.

They get planted into Beaver Plastics 1 liter styroblocks, and are grown on for one to two more years.  I have to water them -- twice a week in hot weather, every two weeks in cool.

I sell for $5 each, with discounts down to 3.50 each for 100+ plants.  Reclamation is the main market.

Ones that don't sell get moved up to #2 pots, and are marketed to acreage owners who want shelterbelts on the cheap.  "Big enough to miss with the mower, small enough to plant with a shovel.

if they don't sell in a #2, they move up to a #7 or #10 growbag.  The latter will hold a pine until it's 7-9 feet tall, a size that I have big demand for.

Watering is the most time consuming aspect.  I'm moving more and more to drip irrigation, especially for the larger trees.  This year I've put in 7 drip 'blocks'

Each block is 240 feet long x 12 feet wide and has five 1/2" lines, running the length 2.5 feet apart.  Every 3 feet it has a 1 gallon per hour dripper.  One end has  all 5 connected together and a standard hose fitting.

So 400 trees each have their private dripper.  The local hose bib has a timer on it.  Each day, I move the hose to the next block, and that night it runs for 1 to 4 hours depending on how warm and dry the previous week has been.

Pipe costs 10 c/foot.  Drippers are 12 c each.  So a full block is about $200 to set up, or about 50 c per tree.  Given than an 8 foot tree retails for $80.

Without a greenhouse, you need to go with perenials. 

Anything that you can seed and forget is likely to become a weed. 

Transplanting is part of the game, and saves you time.  It is MUCH easier to care for small flats of plants that big pots.  Takes far less water too. 

Fall is my transplant season.  I've done about 3000 trees now, and havie another thousand to go.  Spring is my season to plant the next batch.  With trees and shrubs, you get a better root system by transplanting too.  Plant into a big pot, and all the roots are on the outside of the dirt ball.  Confining when young gives you more branches.

It doesn't take much of a greenhouse to raise a lot of bedding plants.  Marigolds take only 6 weeks, so you are only heating it for a few weeks.  Again, small pots and transplanting give you higher densities so that you don't hvae to heat all the greenhouse during the coldest weather.

jacque greenleaf

Joined: Jan 21, 2009
Posts: 471
Location: Burton, WA (USDA zone 8, Sunset zone 5) - old hippie heaven
THanks for posting your operational details.

How did/do you decide which species to grow out? Did you identify and approach potential buyers, or did you just start growing and advertising?
S. G. Botsford

Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 71

Firstly -- I'm not making a living yet.  So far every nickle goes back into the farm.  Fortuneaely I've got support from my wife, as well as a small pension.  This year we sold about $30,000 worth of trees.

My first several years were determined by:

1.  What liners could I get cheap?

2.  What did I see in people's yards.

3.  I started taking trees to farmer's markets and seeing the reactions they got.

These don't work.
I am now WAY overstocked on colorado spruce (1,2) , and Siberian Larch. (1) 

Swedish aspen are currently popular.  I sell about 150-200 a year.  6 footers for 40 bucks seems to be the sweet spot.  Other poplars are good for acreage planting.  I start my own from cuttings and sell 3 footers for $12 each in quantities of a dozen or more.

Lot of call for fruit trees, but until you KNOW they are hardy where you are, don't go there.  There is a huge amount of information about varieties that you need to learn.

Some call for shrub fruit -- dwarf cherries, saskatoons, blueberries.

People will pay a premium for your knowledge and help.  I give an unconditional guarantee.  If it dies, and you think you took reasonable care of it,  bring me the stick in exchange for a new tree. 

I've also grown Jack pine, lodgepole pine, pondersosa pine, red pine, scots pine.

Of these lodgepole and scots sell well.

Individual trees don't sell until people can look up at the top.  They aren't willing to pay tree prices.

I've started selling seedlings in spring -- basically just double my own order and sell the extras.  Last year this paid for all of my own seedlings. and start up plants.

I'm starting to order 5-20 of this and that from the bigger growers to have more variety.  They are bigger cash flow, but they usually sell the same year I buy them.  So a #10 "Prairie Cascade Weeping Willow"  costs me $40 to buy, but sells for $90, and if i can get people to come out for it, they will often pick up a few shrubs too.
John Polk

Joined: Feb 20, 2011
Posts: 6898
Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
I, too, have looked into growing trees/shrubs as a nursery business.  An idea that I had for inexpensive grow pots was a bottomless pot (as it makes it simple to see when "up potting" is necessary), was to buy rolls of roofing felt.  A 36" x 144 foot roll costs about $25, and can be cut into any sized pots you need.  Some bailing wire, or twine to tie the tubes, and you're all set.

For easy planting, just set the tubed tree into a hole, cut the twine, and remove the transplant shock.

You can make the pots any size you need for pennies.
S. G. Botsford

Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 71
Roofing felt is toxic.  A better but more expensive option is to use snow fence lined with newspaper. (the paper keeps dirt from falling out the holes. By the time the paper disintegrates the dirt is solid. )

Another problem:
  It's hard to keep the tube even when filling it at least at larger sizes e.g. 16" wide by 12 inch #10 pot.

Problem #3:
many trees won't stop at the bottom of the tube and will keep going down.

Problem 4:
Moving a bottomless pot is tricky.

The idea is sound. See "tree bands"

I buy used pots from contractors. Once I got areal bargain and got 20000 pots for a hundred bucks.

But root control bags are better.
I agree. Here's the link:
subject: Advice requested--plant nursery business