26 February 2010

Are specialty nurseries dying?

I got my copy of Asiatica's spring catalog the other day, which opens with a chatty letter from the owner. This year, a fairly depressing one, starting with "For most merchants in the specialty nursery business, [2009] was a difficult year." and going on to say: "If it wasn't clear before, it is clear now that there is no sound economic basis for introducing and selling new and rare plants."

Arrowhead Alpines' catalog doesn't start out much more cheerfully: The headline on their first page is "Still Alive" and includes this: "All the better specialty nurseries are struggling and we hope that out customers and friends will continue to support our efforts to provide cool new plant material. For that matter support our competition as well. It is depressing how many great nurseries have gone in the last couple of years."

Even the perpetually upbeat Tony Avent of Plant Delights writes in his nursery's current newsletter:
"The economy continues to devastate the nursery industry, and the latest casualty is Green Valley Growers of Willis Texas. Green Valley Growers was the 59th largest nursery in the country with 300 acres and one million square feet of greenhouse production. There are many other large growers who are still hanging on while operating in Chapter 11 or Chapter 12 bankruptcy ... we wish them the best in trying to save their businesses."

I wonder -- and worry -- if these nursery struggles are just one more side effect of the hard economic times, or a sign of a longer term trend. I hope not. I can't imagine a world without catalogs packed with amazing plants I've never heard of and long to grow... I hope all my beloved suppliers make it through the hard times, and thrive for years to come. I'll even add a little bit to my orders, just to do my part.

But I think -- and hope -- that brighter times are ahead. Gardening is becoming trendy! I know right now it is just vegetable gardening -- but surely those people lured into the garden by vegetables will be drawn ever deeper into plant addiction, and soon finding themselves ordering rare Japanese Asarum. The rise of the internet, which is not only the ultimate gardening reference book, but also a source for plant-lust inducing blogs, and virtual gardening communities, will surely help fuel the rise and passion of gardeners across the country and the world. I think gardening is poised to follow the path of the "foodie" scene, and explode into mainstream America.

What do you think? Is gardening on the rise? Are specialty nurseries doomed?


mr_subjunctive said...

Honestly, I am surprised that Asiatica ever was a viable business, given their prices. And I say this as someone who was at one time willing to pay those prices, just to see what I'd get, and then found similar-if-not-identical plants elsewhere for less money. (The Aglaonema at the link looks basically the same as one we got where I used to work, but cost me four times more at Asiatica for a smaller plant, and both the one I got from Asiatica and the one I got from work died anyway so I'm only going to try that once. The Dieffenbachia looks very much like one I saw at Glasshouse Works recently, though GHW's plant is slightly more interesting-looking and basically the same price.)

I'm willing to pay more for cool plants, and I'm willing to pay more for local businesses, as opposed to sending money abroad or out-of-state, but I ain't no damn fool, either.

As far as the question of whether nursery struggles are another side effect of the hard economic times or part of a long-term trend, I'm pretty sure the answer is both. I don't see the current hard economic times going away anytime soon, and I don't think our political "leaders" are doing enough quickly enough to turn things around. (The Republicans aren't fixing things because they want Obama to fail and their corporate masters don't want to become marginally less rich, even temporarily; the Democrats aren't fixing things because they're afraid of the Republicans and their corporate masters don't want to become marginally less rich, even temporarily.) Even the Obama Administration, who in theory should be giving us the rosiest of all possible projections, is predicting we'll still be at 10% unemployment by the end of 2010.

I'd be happy to be wrong, of course. But everything I see suggests hard times ahead for everybody, still, even after the hard times we've had already. Some businesses will fail. And ornamental and indoor plants, strange as it is to imagine, are luxury products for most people. People cut back on luxuries first and hardest.

I don't think the producers of heirloom food plants and food plant seeds are going to do a lot better, though they might. Mostly what I see is a lot of people buying the cheapest F1 hybrid seeds they can find, having mixed or no success growing their own food with said seeds, and giving up after a couple years.

Perhaps I'm looking at the world through shit-colored glasses again. I do that sometimes. I do think that the internet will help to keep the weirder plants from disappearing entirely -- the plant fanatics will keep passing them around among themselves. If that helps.

And none of this even takes into account the zombie apocalypse of 2014, and President Palin's misguided efforts to eradicate all the zombies by personally shooting them from helicopters.

Aaerelon said...

That is quite the comment! However seeing as the Zombie Apocalypse of 2014 was nearly overlooked and the spontaneous reversal of the poles was not even mentioned, the entire thing should likely be discounted.

I think there will be a return to more tried and true plants in the near future. There will always be changes in demand and a place for rare/exotic plants. I just don't think we'll see much more interest for a few years.

Nature Assassin said...

This is all well and good, but what we really need to concentrate on is... what will we grow during the zombie apocalypse? Someone needs to make a master list of essentials. I love heirlooms, and I love decorative plants more than anything... but Aglaonemas will not help up in the struggle against the undead hoardes.

This inevitability aside, I think it is a terrible shame to lose our specialty nurseries.

Anonymous said...

I have this sinking feeling that in the eleventh hour science will discover that zombies are actually a great alternative fuel source, however with the incredible popularity of the Hummercopter, in ten years we'll use them all up and have another collapse. Unless Charlton Heston shows up and tells us that "Biofuelant Green was people..."

mr_subjunctive said...

Obviously the thing to grow during the zombie apocalypse would be zombie-repellent plants. Or plants that smell like the opposite of brains.


By all means we should avoid growing herbs that are used to season brain dishes. I'm not sure what those would be. I tried googling for it, and hit the following sentence in a recipe for cow brains -- "Sometimes there are also small blood clots embedded in brain which have to be removed." -- and completely lost the will to google any further. Maybe someone else can find out.


(The same site contains the sentence, "Because it is hard to find, fried cow's brain is a treat for my family." I find myself unable to come up with a coherent response to this, but there's a joke in there somewhere.)

Anonymous said...

That's some insight Mr. Subjunctive. How about Marijuana Guerrilla Gardens in Washington D.C?

Might also explain the GOP party: auto-necrophagy (they ate their own brains) - because thinking is dangerous (I understand it's part of the purity test...)

Joseph said...

I have no idea how to respond to ANY of these comments (zombies? Cow brains?), so I'm just going to laugh and keep moving. :)

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Perennial flower gardening grew exponentially in the 1990's and vegetable gardening grows as the movement for organic and sustainable gardening continues to expand.
Nurseries grew in response to these developments. I disagree that economic hard times are responsible for the demise of all nurseries that have closed.
The growth of the big box store played one role, the expanding eduction of the astute gardener played another.
The most unusual plant will eventually trickle down to the mass merchants and the local nurseries if it proves to be a true winner.
A gardener looking for even more exotic specialty houses will have to rely on internet research to find what is on their wish list.