Steps to Starting a Nursery

Starting a nursery requires some essential business skills as well as horticultural talent.

| September 2014

Tony Avent wrote So You Want to Start a Nursery (Timber Press, 2003) as "a reality check for anyone wanting to start a nursery," drawing on his own experience transitioning from a government job to a full-time nurseryman. Now the owner of Plant Delights Nursery, Avent shares his expertise on how to start a nursery with wit and clarity; the book is devoted to the business and planning concerns of the nursery owner. The following excerpt from Chapter 3 gives an overview of the essential skills an aspiring nurseryman or –woman will need to successfully start a business.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: So You Want to Start a Nursery.

The Essential Skills

Some prospective nursery owners forget that a large part of the nursery business involves much more than just plants. Plants are our commodity, not our business. Nurseries are a lifestyle business, but like all businesses they are multidimensional. While you can start and run a nursery without the essential skills that I will discuss, your job will certainly be much easier, less stressful, and far more financially rewarding if you have all these skills. It is crucial that you assess your own strengths and weaknesses honestly.

Entrepreneurial and Visionary Skills

I strongly believe that entrepreneurial and visionary skills are a natural gift. Some people are born with one or the other, but rarely with both. Visionaries see the future and know where they want to go but often lack the skills to get there. Entrepreneurs are the ones with the mind-set, energy, and risk tolerance to actually make the vision become reality. It is the combination of these personality traits that creates the nursery owner who can truly take a nursery to the top level. Of course you can start a nursery with only one of these traits, but such nurseries tend to be smaller and last for a shorter time.

The key in business is seeing the big picture. Then, having seen it, you must be able to plot the details of a workable path to get to your goal. You will need to assess your entrepreneurial skills honestly. Are you a naturally energetic self-starter who thrives on challenge and change? Can you respond to crises with maximum effort and then turn back to the daily mundane tasks? Are you an enthusiastic leader who creates confidence in others? These skills can certainly be enhanced and honed, but they are essentially innate components of a personality.

Systems Skills

Systems are the processes through which work flows and tasks are accomplished. No matter how much vision or plant knowledge you have, your business will be no better than your business systems. Systems are continually being modified as the business grows. Each system will only work within a given set of parameters, especially those of size and volume. For example, a plant-potting system may work well until you reach a critical number of plants, at which point your system is no longer efficient. Similarly, a system for shipping orders works well until the number of orders received outstrips its capacity. You will find that as your business grows, a systems coordinator will become one of the most important members of your staff. If you take on the role of systems coordinator, be aware that a common mistake of many “hands on” business owners is that they are too busy with the day-to-day details to pay attention to the critical development of workflow systems. The result is a nursery that muddles along with too much time spent putting out fires each day instead of attending to issues of growth and increased efficiency. A downward spiral of profits often follows, a pattern common in fast-growing but poorly managed nurseries.

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