Scoop On Spring Supply: Nursery Stock Forecast

Nursery market insiders offer their expert forecasts on next year’s plant availability.

Like any dynamic industry, the nursery market has its ups and downs, which can leave contractors wondering what they’re going to be able to plant once installation season rolls around. Here’s the lowdown from experts across the country on next spring’s supply.

Several key factors continue to govern plant availability, according to industry insiders. For one, a strong economy coupled with a construction boom has created a heightened demand for plant material. Flush financial times have promoted record growth throughout many parts of the U.S., primarily in the form of residential and commercial construction, according to Terry Van Arsdale, nursery manager, McHutchison, Ridgefield, N.J. Because of this massive expansion, "more people are planting more (landscape) material," he said.

On the West Coast, Tony Rosso, operations manager, Julius Rosso Nursery Company, Seattle, Wash., agreed with the theory that the economy is at the root of plant availability, especially in regard to scarcer items such as large trees. "Everybody wants big stuff and has the money to pay for it," he said, adding that the multitude of new residential and commercial projects is driving a healthy demand for plant material in Pacific Northwest.

Wendy Proud, product manager, Monrovia, Azusa, Calif., reported similar findings. "The strong economy has influenced the supply of larger specimens," she said.

THE PRODUCTION FACTOR. The most significant factor impacting plant availability, however, has been demand’s long-term influence on production in nurseries across the country. Because suppliers haven’t had many larger items available the past several years, "they’ve sold into their smaller inventory, in order to generate cash, since the market would pay a good price," noted Tom Randall, director of purchasing, Shemin Nurseries, Danbury, Conn. Essentially, "they’ve been forced to sell things they’d like to, in all honesty, hang on to in the future," he said.

"As the economy has heated up, (many nurseries have) taken inventory out of the pipeline and replacement hasn’t kept up with demand," added Bill Reese, president, Greenbriar Nurseries, Ocala, Fla.

Understanding the ups and downs of the nursery market is a simple lesson in economics – it’s all about supply and demand. "Our business is very much cyclical," pointed out Hugh K. Steavenson, executive vice president, Forrest Keeling Nursery, Elsberry, Mo. "All of a sudden there’s a gap if you get caught behind. Then it takes a while to get caught up, and just when things are getting good, you have a surplus situation," he said.

Steavenson pointed out that a tree requires at least five years, on average, to get from its original producer to the final grower. And from there, a tree can take yet another three or four years until it hits the end market. "We go through these things all the time. (Plant production) is not like a widget press: You can’t just turn it on and off when you want to," he said.

Reese agreed, pointing out that there was an overabundance of trees about a decade ago. When the cycle swings back into a shortage situation, however, "it takes a while to get those (larger tree) sizes back," he said.

More Trees
   On Tap

    The recent scarcity of large trees has many wondering just when the situation is going to improve. While 2½-inch caliper and larger specimens will continue to be on the short side into next spring, a fresh supply is on the horizon, according to industry experts.

    Tom Randall, director of purchasing, Shemin Nurseries, Danbury, Conn., predicts that the current tree shortage will subside within the next two selling seasons. This will be due to a slight slowdown in consumer confidence, spending and in turn, plant demand, he said.

    Suppliers are starting to catch up with the demand for trees, agreed Danny Summers, executive vice president, Southern Nursery Association, Marietta, Ga. "The natural summer slowdown helped us catch our breath," he said. "In 2001, growers may be catching up somewhat."

    Increased nursery acreage devoted to trees is one factor that promises to ease the recent shortage. "Every nursery I've visited has expanded," Terry Van Arsdale, nursery manager, McHutchinson, Ridgefield, N.J., observed.

    Hugh K. Steavenson, executive vice president, Forrest Keeling Nursery, Elsberry, Mo., has seen the same trend. "There have been an awful lot of trees planted in the last few years."

    – Cynthia Greenleaf

SPRING SUPPLY PREDICTIONS. In terms of next spring’s plant availability, contractors can expect the same trends they’ve been seeing to continue. For one, shade and ornamental trees 2½ to 3 inches and above will stay in demand, and in turn, in short supply. "Because of the economy being as strong as it is, people tend to specify larger plants," Randall said, adding that large evergreen trees in the 10- to 12-foot range, such as white pine, Norway spruce and Serbian spruce, will continue to be in strong demand.

In addition, red maple cultivars such as Red Sunset will keep enjoying widespread popularity and in turn, extensive shortages, according to industry experts. Widely adaptable, brilliantly colored and low maintenance, red maples are popular with good reason, according to Steavenson. "They’ve been hotter than a pistol for the past two or three years," he noted. "They’re using them everywhere. Everybody wants them."

From his East Coast vantage point, Van Arsdale predicts that varieties such as Emerald Green arborvitae, as well as boxwoods and viburnums, will also be in high demand throughout the country.

The trend toward colorful landscapes will also carry on well into next year. "Contractors should expect to see a continued demand for colorful plants," Reese said. "People are looking for plants that have a multi-season appeal."

This includes increased use of perennials, which continue to catch on in yards across the country, according to Reese.

"Tropicals and brightly colored foliage will dominate the market across the country," Proud agreed. "New varieties, especially perennials, may be in short supply, however, since people have more money to spend and price is not an issue."

In spite of shortages with certain plant materials, Steavenson is confident that contractors will be able to find what they need for their spring projects. "While there are isolated shortages for sure, there will be enough plants out there," he said.

PLANNING FOR PLANTS. Securing the right plant material has everything to do with planning ahead. The earlier contractors communicate their spring landscaping needs to suppliers, the better, according to nursery insiders across the country. Rather than waiting for their design team to come up with a "want list," contractors need to work ahead of the installation phase in order to secure the plants they desire, Randall advised.

Reese agreed, urging contractors to give suppliers as much latitude as possible when placing orders. "We’d rather have someone tell us they need something in six months then tell us they need it today," he observed.

Advance planning is critical, especially since orders now are placed earlier and earlier every year. At McHutchison, for example, spring orders were in by early July, according to Van Arsdale.

"The past few years, contractors have been booking plant material earlier," added Danny Summers, executive vice president, Southern Nursery Association, Marietta, Ga. "Contractors are no longer waiting until the winter trade shows. If they do wait, they’re basically asking ‘What do you have left?’"

He noted that his association’s annual show in August has become a "hot button for placing orders."

Similarly, at Forrest Keeling Nursery, larger trees already are booked two years in advance, according to Steavenson, who advised contractors to place orders on popular items such as trees, at least one year ahead.

Overall, with plant shortages of some kind almost always inevitable, contractors who are flexible can serve themselves and clients well. "If contractors are willing to be flexible, they can find a large share of their want list," Randall noted, adding that by being open- minded, contractors also can take advantage of great values in the marketplace. "A customer may specify a Red Sunset red maple, which are popular and in short supply," he said. "If a landscaper can recommend a similar tree variety, however, such as a Norway or sugar maple, they can find those cheaper and meet the customer’s needs."

The author is Associate Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine

October 2000
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