Sunday, June 04, 2006

Heronswood Closing

There's anguish and tearing of hair across the land as gardeners react to the closing of the famous Heronswood Nursery.

But really.

There's precious little money in small specialist nurseries. You do this for the love of the game rather than for the fortune it will bring you.

If Dan Hinkley - whom I admire tremendously for his plantsmanship and writing skill - chose to sell to Burpee, then it was a business decision. He got more money and his personal needs met by selling than by continuing to own this nursery.

Now is Burpee to be blamed that the nursery - on the west coast - didn't make any money? Amy Stewart - who I admire greatly for her writing - goes on a rant about the big business of nurseries and how California and the western states are just as populous as the East. Point taken. But if the nursery wasn't making a profit on the west coast - who's to blame for shutting it down.

Blame Burpee for closing the doors on a money-losing business?

Blame the west coast customers? Lovely folks all - but apparently not enough of them to support the rarified plant list at profitable levels.

The rarer the plant - the smaller the market for it. The more expensive the plant, the smaller the market.

Ask any small specialist nursery across the country and they'll tell you they're getting by...or not. But none that I know are rolling in the bucks. And those that don't have a national audience for their plants are even worse off. Maybe somebody knows of a small specialist nursery that is returning inflation plus a 10% profit after taxes but I don't.

And having said that, the proliferation of perennial nurseries has been dramatic over the past 30 years. The owner of Sunny Border nurseries in CT estimates that he had 12 competitors 30 years ago but that he has 300 today.

The perennial and plant market is changing drastically as the market changes. You're going to see even more nurseries - larger and smaller - go down in the next 3-5 years as the retail market shakes out. So while Heronswood may have had a massive plant list, it didn't have a massive market share to support the costs. Fact of life folks. It may have "owned" the rare plant connoiseur on the west coast but there weren't enough of them to turn a profit - and money talks in the nursery business just as it does in any other business.

What is often lost - the nursery business is a business for those who run it. It is however, a passion for those gardeners who use the nurseries. And much of the time passion runs the small nursery at the expense of the balance sheet. When it doesn't, then those small nurseries and family garden centers close down sooner or later. So the anger and passion about losing the nursery is about the passion gardeners have for their gardens and plants rather than any sense of real financial analysis.

Plant lovers - and I count myself among them - will lament the loss of yet another small nursery. The upside is that we still have Dan Hinkley's writing and his love of plants. That will re-emerge sooner or later.

But in the meantime, let us apportion the blame equally between those that owned the nursery and those that didn't support the nursery enough to make it truly profitable.


At 8:55 AM, Blogger lisa said...

That's really a shame...i make a point of trying new nurseries every year in search of bigger plants for my money, as well as more rare and unusual varieties to add to my gardens. However, I think part of the problem is the fact that the big discount stores like Kmart, Walmart, Menard's, etc. are carrying more and more different varieties of plants. There is something to be said for walking in a store, often day or night, and picking out a plant you can SEE is the variety and size you want. No waiting, no shipping costs, no disappointment that you just paid $15.00 for a 2" plant that must be babied along to just SURVIVE the first year. I definately order less and less every year, and wait to see what I can find locally first. One of my favorites is Plant Delights, beacuse thay offer such a huge selection of unusual varieties, many from places like Siberia and Northern climates which jive perfectly with my zone 4 garden. Plus, thay send you a nice size specimen when you order. But I am always looking to become a customer of anybody who provides me with cool new plants!!!!!!!!!!!


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