Steps to Starting a Nursery

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Starting a nursery requires a multitude of skills beyond horticultural ability, especially if you intend to grow beyond a backyard entity.
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“So You Want to Start a Nursery” by Tony Avent provides a primer on the nursery industry as a whole, from starting a business to keeping it running.

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.

Administrative Skills

Good office skills are vital for any nursery to succeed and continue. More than one nursery has failed not because of a lack of business but rather because of poor financial management. Office skills include seemingly simple tasks such as filing, bookkeeping, developing workflow systems, and communicating with others in the office (both verbally and in writing), each of which can make or break a business. I have often seen nurseries fail because of something simple like a poor filing system—if a customer calls about a shipment but the nursery staff can’t find the paperwork, how long will it be before the customer goes elsewhere?

To properly manage a nursery, you must not only have good information but also good access to that information. The adage that “knowledge is power” is as true in the nursery business as in any business, and it is up to your administrative or office staff to provide this information. Nevertheless, as important as it is to capture information, it is of no value unless that information is in an easy-to use and easy-to-access format. When a potential customer calls with a question, do you consistently have to call back after a time-consuming search for the information they have requested? If you can’t accommodate information requests in a timely manner, you should consider this a red flag that your information storage and retrieval systems are not working properly.

Possibly the most important administrative skill is the ability to use and understand the basics of a computer. Today, everything comes to a screeching halt when there is a computer problem, so having access to someone with a good basic understanding of computing is essential. Whether you choose to make your own computer decisions (these include selecting hardware and software and troubleshooting problems) or assign a staff member to converse with a computer consultant, reliable computer know-how is critical when starting a nursery.

Computers allow us to store, manage, and retrieve the data that we have assembled. Without the ability to keep track of information, we cannot make good decisions. Is it possible to start a business without a computer today? Possibly—if the business is quite small, but as the nursery grows, the need for a computer system becomes unavoidable. Without a system in place to provide you with current, useful information, you will quickly be left behind. Too many nursery owners have waited too long to enter the computer age, and this task, so long put off, has become so daunting that they opt to close up shop instead.

Communication Skills

Among the most overlooked skills is that of interpersonal communication. No matter how much of a visionary you are or how many technical skills you possess, you will not stay in business long if you don’t have the ability to communicate well with your employees, your suppliers, and, most importantly, your customers. Many who start a nursery business are introverts who want to communicate with their plants and avoid people. What these types of nursery owners usually fail to realize is that plants are just the commodity and that interaction with people is necessary as those people are their customers.

As your business grows, you will have to hire more people for it to thrive. If you lack good interpersonal communication skills, you will find it difficult to keep your employees and customers, and the business will quickly go downhill. Those of you who have trouble communicating clearly with people in a business setting should perhaps consider another career, such as programming computers or, at the very least, a nursery business in which you custom grow for a very limited base of customers.

Supervisory Skills

Although supervisory skills come more naturally to some than to others, it is one skill that is absolutely necessary in maintaining an efficient workforce. There are more seminars on honing supervisory skills than on almost any other part of business, with the possible exception of computers. Business owners who overlook supervisory skills will never be able to obtain and keep high-quality employees.

Technical Skills

It is a rare individual who combines technical skills with the visionary, entrepreneurial, administrative, or systems skills that move a business to the highest level. I am certainly not trying to minimize the need for technical skills (for without them the business would likely not survive for very long), but realistically, these are the least important skills while your business gets larger. They are, however, the most important while you are still in the process of starting a nursery.

Technical skills are usually the most common skills possessed by those hoping to start a nursery. Unfortunately, nurseries with owners who possess only these types of skills will never grow very large or be very successful by typical business standards. If you examine the nursery business from a purely technical perspective, you will discover that it probably requires an understanding of extremely diverse technical skills. How many do you possess? For example, do you know how to assemble a greenhouse? You will, with luck, be able to hire a carpenter to perform this and other related chores one day, but if you don’t know how it should be done, you may be at the mercy of unscrupulous contractors. Unnecessary work could cause costs to skyrocket, but cheap and shoddy work might result in the greenhouse being decimated by a weather event. While most nursery owners install their first few greenhouses themselves, they soon find their time is better spent operating their business and that it is cheaper to pay a contractor for such specialty tasks.

Moving water correctly around a nursery site is so important that you should be able to do the grading yourself or at least understand how it is done. Too much water draining to the wrong areas could easily drown or wash away a crop. Do you know which is the right type of gravel for your road base, or will you have to redo that project? To avoid ruining the nearby environment (not to mention subjecting your business to fines and penalties), you must also know how to manage water-carrying nutrients and pesticide residues.

Plumbing skills are truly the lifeline of your nursery, and you will have to manage the water that is applied to your crops if you want to stay in business. You will quickly discover that most commercial plumbing firms have little or no knowledge of crop irrigation, so if you don’t understand it or know what questions to ask, you will likely wind up with an irrigation system that doesn’t meet your crops’ needs. Since your crop is alive, each day is critical, and irrigation systems must be monitored daily. If you have the impression that nothing ever goes wrong with water systems once they are installed, it will not take long for this myth to be shattered. When a container operation’s water goes out on a sunny day, you may have only three to four hours before it starts to incur losses. Are you willing to risk trying to find a plumber who can be there instantly and at anytime? Knowing how to make electrical repairs is almost as important as having plumbing skills, especially when greenhouses are wired for power. Power problems in a nursery with covered greenhouses mean that plants can die from either excessive cold or heat within a couple of hours. An ability to diagnose and troubleshoot electrical problems and to correct minor problems is essential for saving crops.

Having the skills necessary to make mechanical repairs may not be as critical in saving crops but it does save money! Most mechanical problems in small nurseries are not major in scope and can be fixed if the nursery owner has some basic understanding of mechanics. Mechanical ability could include putting a tire on a wheelbarrow, installing a battery in a truck’s engine, or making small repairs to a gas heater when the heat goes off in the middle of a snowstorm.

Horticultural Education and Training

Assuming for a moment that you want to become more knowledgeable in the field of horticulture, let’s consider your options. You could attend several types of schools, from two-year technical schools to four-year bachelor degree programs. When choosing a school, be sure to ask whether the school’s emphasis is technical or scientific in nature. A science background, which is usually more theoretically based and geared toward research or teaching, is usually less important to starting a nursery than practical or technical knowledge.

Four-year institutions often provide more opportunities to make industry contacts, so if you choose this route, be sure to take full advantage of these opportunities. Technical schools are generally more concentrated in their offerings and can move you through the programs much more quickly. Some two-year technical schools offer high-quality programs, but be sure to ask for recommendations from knowledgeable nursery owners in your area. I would also consult with nursery owners in your area to find out which school programs consistently produce the best quality graduates. Whichever school you choose to attend, be sure you take courses in business, computers, communication, economics, and accounting in addition to your horticulture courses. Often these other courses will turn out to be the most important of your career in the long haul.

Those of you who are employed in other fields but are considering a career change should look at the many night courses offered by local community colleges. In many communities, extension services offer training in a generalized horticulture arena, such as the Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardener Program. This service, like other garden volunteer programs, is an invaluable educational activity. For eight years prior to my nursery reincarnation, I was fortunate enough to be a volunteer with our county Master Gardener program. Not only did I learn from their educational programs, but I also received great training when I dealt with questions from customers who came to the plant clinics.

Local botanic gardens, arboretums, and plant societies, with their speakers and volunteer opportunities, are also wonderful places to continue learning. You can easily keep up with these local events via local papers, libraries, newsletters, and so on. Some of the best knowledge I have gained over the years has come from such venues.

With the advent of the Internet, as well as the ever-expanding horticultural print medium, the access to good information is unparalleled. The amount of horticultural information available from these improved methods of mass communication is truly mind-boggling. In fact, the amount of information is so voluminous that you will need to stay particularly focused to extract only the information that you truly need.

Professional Trade Organizations

In the professional realm, nursery associations, whether they are regional, state, or national, are invaluable for exchanging information and ideas. There is no better single source for learning the ins and outs of the nursery business than these associations. Although there are far too few regional or county-based associations, the ones that do exist provide excellent information about problems encountered and solutions discovered in your region. State nursery associations also offer trade shows and educational seminars, and you can do plenty of networking with other growers as you exchange information and products.

An independent national organization, the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA), now American Hort, serves as a coordination point and clearinghouse for information related to all nursery and landscape issues. American Hort prints a series of publications on everything from nursery standards to pertinent government regulations to helpful business ideas. It also serves as your voice to Congress in pushing for new laws that will benefit the industry as well as in keeping poorly conceived legislation from adversely impacting your business. If you plan to grow your nursery beyond a backyard entity, membership in American Hort is a must.

More from So You Want to Start a Nursery:

How to Start a Mail Order Nursery

Taken from So You Want to Start a Nursery© Copyright 2003 by Tony Avent. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Buy this book in our store:So You Want to Start a Nursery.