Years ago, although it feels like yesterday, my husband, Dan, and I were given two small cacti. We’d just traveled around Europe and decided to settle in Australia’s Queensland, so we never had a garden of any kind before. The cacti belonged to Dan’s grandfather and was aptly named “Jaws”.
These small cacti sparked something, a flame of passion for things that grow. All of a sudden, we noticed other succulents and cacti around us, and we visited the cacti show at the Mount Cootha Botanical Gardens. We came home with another 15 or so cacti. These plants had little hangers-on, tiny offsets, which we learned could be replanted and would grow.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mind. For some reason, I can’t have a hobby without it becoming a business venture of some form or shape. My mother would tell you a story of me, at 7 years old, giving horse riding lessons on my pony to neighborhood kids for 10 cents per go!
This led me to sell the cacti offsets on eBay and it was the start of a nursery business that would serve us well for over 10 years.
There are many ways of starting a plant nursery. My story is just one way to get into it, but it’s a great way to start without any overhead or cost upfront. Yes, I think we spent about $30 at the cacti show, but I’m not talking about huge bank loans. We built it up as we went along. We didn’t start with shade houses, irrigation systems, potting houses, great big setups that cost a fortune to run. We found people selling second-hand pots for peanuts, and used an old shower head as watering wand.
How to Choose What to Grow for a Backyard Nursery
Most advice I’ve read so far is to “grow what you love”. To an extent, I agree with this, but you can’t sell something you can’t source. Meaning, not only do you need to like the plants you’re going to grow, you also need to be able to source either seeds or plants for that variety. There’s no point focusing on a variety that’s so obscure it becomes impossible to get a hold of.
Although, that said, if you do happen to find a source for this incredibly rare plant, and there’s a market looking for it, you’ve got a winner. We did OK with our cacti, but realized quite early on that we didn’t actually like spiky plants very much. I started becoming interested in edible plants and stumbled upon coconuts. Most coconuts grow over 30m tall, but I found out that there’s such a thing as a dwarf coconut, which is much more suitable for home growers.
I tenaciously researched, trying to find a supplier and, although it was hard, found a grower (who, admittedly, didn’t do a lot of online marketing, making him super hard to find!) and negotiated a deal with him. We met his truck on the highway somewhere, and we were now proud owners of 100 dwarf coconuts.
They sold like hot bread. Not only were we one of the very few nurseries offering the Dwarf Coconut, there was also a huge demand for it. Mind you though, we did need to do some educating, as would be the case with a lot of rare plants. People often don’t know this type of plant, and you’ll have to teach them why it’s a good choice for them and the benefits of growing this particular variety.
This education is a science on its own, but if you can pull it off, it’s really great. Our supplier for the Dwarf Coconuts was incredibly passionate about them and this made it a joy to work with him. We worked together on preserving the purity of the different varieties of the coconuts, and managed to spread the word on the benefits of coconuts. Did you know coconut water is used as a replacement for traditional IV’s in emergency situations?
For us, it was trial and error. I started researching wholesale plant suppliers and found a great many of them, nearly all selling the same plants. That wasn’t what we wanted, I suppose we wanted to be special, different, and unique — it’s no fun selling what everyone else is selling! And besides, if you’re a small fish in the nursery world, you can’t compete with them unless you have something different to offer.
We also wanted to grow organically and, besides some of the herb nursery, there weren’t any organic plant wholesalers. We dabbled in some native Australian plants for a while, after finding someone on eBay who sold big lots of them for a good price. We tried to grow them up, failed miserably, and kept looking for other plants.
You need to be flexible, go with the flow. If you can’t grow something, don’t persist with it. We realized that we needed to research our climate, and make sure we selected plants that suited not only our style of growing (meaning, without a lot of horticultural experience) but also our climate and limited setup. We didn’t have hothouses for picky plants, nor did we have special irrigation systems with separate areas for plants with different water requirements.
Choose plants that have similar watering needs. It gets really hard to properly grow cacti and tropical plants in one area. If you use a sprinkler, like we ended up doing (just a big lawn-type
sprinkler in the middle of the plant area), you’ll end up with either over-watered, rotten cacti, or under-watered, drooping tropical plants.
Eventually, we found a palm tree supplier who supplied us with tiny palm seedlings, minimum buy of 100 per variety. This was great. We’d buy 1000 (10 different varieties) and pot them up. One hundred seedlings would cost around $30, so $0.30 per plant. We’d sell them in 5-inch pots at $5 to $10, depending on variety, which is a great markup.
We also started planting seeds, which was both amazing (we felt like miracle workers planting a seed, and growing a whole new life!) and amazingly frustrating. There are lots of critters that love eating seeds. Then there’s rot, and damping-off (a fungal disease), and mold.
We sold all our plants online, which was a must because we lived in a small town, population 280, with the nearest biggish town being an hour away. Our town did have a post office, so mailing them was the way to go for us. I’ll cover this subject, as well as propagating seeds, cuttings, and offsets in one of the next articles.
Find Something Unique for Your Home-Based Nursery to Specialize In
Although the palm seedlings worked out OK, they were slow to grow and we lost a great many of them to all sorts of bugs (and other wildlife, but that’s not just for palms). It was also hard to compete with the many specialist palm nurseries around us. Another downside is that you need to keep buying seedlings, unless you have a mature palm of your own and you can propagate the seeds it produces.
To make decent money as a nursery operator, you need high-value plants. That much we realized early on. At $5 a plant, you need to sell 10,000 plants a year to make an annual income of $50,000, and that’s before costs and tax. That is a LOT of plants. Now, if you can grow a plant with a value of $25 or $50, or even $100 (yes, we’ve had those, and no, they weren’t 20 feet tall, they were just rare and we were the only nursery supplying them), you can do much less work for more money. Plants are a labor of love but, in the end, you also want to provide for your family.
Finding a unique plant with high value is, admittedly, a bit like winning the lottery, but nowhere near as unlikely to win. Look for plants with the potential of cuttings (you’d be amazed how many plants will grow readily from cuttings) or offsets. I wouldn’t touch seeds again. Be wary of sellers offering seeds of a “guaranteed” color or variety. Most seed throws back to its roots, and you won’t get that special purple and pink Adenium, nor will you get ‘Darwin Sunset’ Frangipanis from seed. Cuttings and offsets are the only way to make sure you’re getting a definite clone of that variety.
Good places for finding unique, rare plants, are eBay (we found some beauties there!), Bunning’s (or Wal-Mart), local markets, friends and family, garden clubs, and plant shows at local botanical gardens. Do a Google search for a particular variety, like “Buy African Gardenia online”. If you can’t find a supplier, or there’s only one and that particular plant is out of stock, you might be on to a winner. Particularly if there are forums where people are discussing the plant and asking where to buy it.
The good thing with many of these plants is that you can buy one, or two, and work your way up from there. It may cost you $100 initially, but once you get it home, you’ll take five cuttings of it, or 5 offsets, and now you have six plants. You keep all of those, grow them for a few months, and take another 10 cuttings or offsets. You grow those as well, plant them out in your mother stock garden (which, of course is enriched with lovely organic matter, tons of mulch, and buckets of seaweed solution, or your own liquid microbe enhancer (Dan formulated the best-ever liquid microbe fertilizer, I’ll share it with you in the future) and now you have a ready supply of big plants to propagate, and sell its offspring.
These plants didn’t cost a lot, they don’t take a lot of work once they’re established in your garden, and the plants you’re going to sell have a huge profit margin.
Initial Lessons Learned for Home-based Nursery Businesses
Research your climate. If you regularly get frost, choose cold-hardy plants, unless you’re going to build a hothouse.
Think about water requirements. If you water with a hose, you can look at each individual plant to see if they need water that day, but it’s much easier to choose plants that have similar watering requirements so you can water the whole lot in one go.
Find unique plants to increase your profit margin and to compete with bigger nurseries. Try to establish yourself as a specialist of a particular variety, like tropical plants, frost hardy plants, edible plants, etc. The more niche you are, the easier to market.
Choose plants you like. You’re going to look at them every day all day, and your garden will be full of them (for mother stock).
Choose plants you can propagate, eliminating the need for buying more stock, thus reducing overhead. Look for plants with offsets (gingers, for example, are great, as are Canna) or with the potential for cuttings.
Visit plant shows, collector’s gatherings, local garden clubs, and yes, even Walmart, to find unique plants.
Photos by Dan and Elle Meager, Outdoor Happens
Elle Meager is an Australian homesteader and natural remedy creator in the Pioneer Valley. She promotes vegetarian homesteading principles on her 10-acre farm shared with four horses, three dogs, 11 chickens, cattle, kangaroos, snakes, kookaburras, native bees, eight 100-year old mango trees, over 40 different types of fruit trees, 12 gardens, and two children. Connect with Elle at Outdoor Happens, on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of Elle’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.