Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 2: How to Grow Plants

Reader Contribution by Elle Meager and Outdoor Happens
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So, what do you really need to start growing plants for profit in a plant nursery? Not a lot. Plants actually know how to grow quite well, without interference from us. The problem starts when you take them out of their natural environment and make them grow in plastic containers and shade houses, and you take away natural predators that would, in nature, take care of any pests.

Replicate the Plant’s Natural Environment

The trick to successful plant growing is to know their preferred environment and growing conditions.  Start by answering these questions: What’s their country of origin? What temperatures do they prefer? How about humidity and/or sunshine?

Initially, we didn’t consider any of this when we started our plant nursery, and you don’t have to, but it certainly avoids a lot of stock losses. Your plants will teach you where you’re going wrong, and it won’t be long before you notice drooping leaves, yellow spots, or other signs of a generally unhappy plant. You can take a plant out of nature, but you can’t take nature out of the plant, so to speak.

For example, I managed to get my hands on a true Medinilla magnifica, a very rare plant species. It went into the nursery with all the others, and promptly decided it hated it, dropped all its leaves in the first few days, and had a proper plant tantrum. Much too late, I researched its preferred conditions and realized that 50% shade was not enough, nor was the soil fertile enough, and my watering was way off. I managed to save it by replicating its preferred conditions and it continued to thrive and make us lots of money. One single small plant would sell for over $100! For this one, this special care was worth it, but I highly recommend you find plants that are similar in care, or can at least adjust!

You’ll learn on the fly, and practice makes perfect. If it looks like a plant is not thriving, try something different with the next one. Put it in semi-shade rather than full sun. Give it less fertilizer, or more. Let it dry out a bit more before watering again. And so on.

1. Seaweed Solution

Here is where we enter seaweed solution. Yes, I’ll talk about seaweed before soil, before water, before fertilizers, before anything else really. Why? Because seaweed solution is your right-hand man. It helps average out extremes of your care, your possibly heavy hand.

The benefits:

  • It increases plant growth when applied as seed treatment or foliar spray. Seaweed solution contains micro-nutrients, auxins and cytokinins (beneficial hormones), and other growth promoting substances. (Spinelli et al., 2010)
  • It contains micro-nutrients that increase soil health. (Liu and Lijun, 2011)
  • It helps retain moisture and minerals for your plants. (Zodape et al.,2011)
  • It increases the plant’s defence enzymes which reduces a plant’s stress response. (Jayaraman et al., 2011)

These are just some of the many benefits reported in studies but I’ll tell you what we noticed, from personal experience.  

When we started using seaweed solution, it became harder to ‘go wrong’. Plants were stronger, much more resistant to disease, fungi, mould, and bug attack. They were able to deal with heat and cold better. They looked happier. It was easier to give them the right amount of water.

Soils looked better and retained more moisture, while at the same time making it more well-draining. Bugs didn’t like them as much and seedlings didn’t experience damping-off as much, plus seed germination rate went up.

We also used seaweed solution as a ‘soak’ before packaging plants for postage. There was a noticeable increase in plant health on arrival at the customer’s house, and feedback was very positive. They were able to travel longer, arrived stronger, grew better once planted, and were more resistant to being in a dark box (no sun) for days on end in the mail.

2. Sun

The second thing I’ll talk about is the sun. While some plants, think tomatoes, love being in full sun, there are many that don’t. Also keep in mind that it’s a whole different story when they grow in a small, contained pot, versus being out ‘in the wild’. We found that it is really helpful to have some shade, and we rigged up a rudimentary shade roof between trees for our first under-shade area.

Without watering multiple times per day, it becomes very hard to keep the water up to your plants in adequate amounts. And once your soil gets dry, it’s nearly impossible to wet it again. Seaweed solution will help here, but it won’t completely save you.

Again, it depends on the variety and your climate, of course. Our plant nursery was in Queensland, with incredibly hot sun most of the day, and we specialized in tropical plants. Those two don’t go together. Almost all tropical plants enjoy a fair bit of shade, and they love rich, deep, moist soil, so we couldn’t just grow them out in the open. We started with a little hoop house, but soon realized that, to grow a significant amount of plants, we needed a decent sized area, which is where the oversized shade sail came in.

You’ll need to look at your chosen variety of plants. Do they love full sun, part shade, full shade? Is your climate hot and sunny, or is it manageable?

3. Soil

Then, there’s soil. Our opinion here may be a bit left-field, and contrary to a lot of other advice you’ll see.

Soil is there to hold the plant up. It’s support, that’s it. It’s what you DO with the soil that makes all the difference. It’s a different story in the garden, soil is everything in the garden. Having a good microbe population and earth worms in your garden soil is invaluable, and it’s not as hard to achieve as it sounds. I’ll cover this in the ‘establishing mother stock gardens’ article, coming up.

However, in a pot, which is an artificial way of growing a plant, you can’t create a soil microbe system. It’s just not big enough, not extensive enough. There’s not enough room for bugs to compete with each other, to travel around and spread their goodness. It’s a very small segment of a very large ecosystem, and you’re guaranteed to miss elements of that ecosystem, breaking the natural cycle.

What you’re aiming for is a soil, any soil, that is:

  • Of slightly acidic pH (5 1/2 – 6 1/2 is good), unless you specialise in acid-lovers, like Azalea’s, in which case you should focus on a lower pH.
  • Substantial enough to hold the plant up without it moving around. Movement breaks tiny new roots, and these are the roots that go out looking for water and nutrient, thus arresting growth and setting you back.
  • Moisture retentive, but well-draining.

The pH of your soil is important. We decided to use resources available to us to make our potting mix, and we had a pile of saw dust, given to us by a local wood cutter. We composted it and potted plants in it. The plants didn’t look happy, so we decided to do a litmus paper test (for pH). It was pH4… That’s way too acidic, even for Azalea’s. We later found out that saw dust, or any woody substance, robs the soil of Nitrogen when it breaks down. So, not only was the pH terrible, we were also losing Nitrogen at a great rate.

Moisture retentive but well-draining, that one had us stumped for a bit. How could it hold water and drain well at the same time?

Thankfully, it’s not as hard as it sounds. Your soil needs to have enough ‘big’ (that’s relative) pieces in it to allow for some air, thus drainage, but it also needs to be composed of a substance that holds water. Kind of like a sponge. Imagine lots of pieces of sponge, with lots of pieces of small rocks between it. A bucket full of sponge and rocks would drain extremely well, but the sponges soak up enough water for moisture to be available.

We ended up using mulch, available for $5 per trailer load, from the local dump. They had piles and piles of it, made out of green waste collected. We’d compost it, with two or three piles on the go at all times, so we could use them while the others where still breaking down. This made a good potting mix once we added some coarse sand. We tried perlite for drainage – it all floated to the top. Same for vermiculite. Coco peat was great, but expensive. In the end, simple compost with sand did the trick just fine and it was cheap.

One thing with compost, it’s best to turn it regularly. We started with a shovel, and it’s truly an epic workout. It was fine initially, we’d turn it with a shovel, shovel it into a wheelbarrow, wheel it over to a little platform we built, and potted plants up in the wheelbarrow. To do this at large scale, however, is nearly impossible.

Dan is a diesel mechanic by trade, so we purchased a 1950’s, broken front-end loader tractor to turn the piles with. Dan got it running himself and we came out of it with a great loader for $500. If you don’t have equipment like that, you can order truck loads of potting mix from landscaping suppliers. We found that it was quite expensive, but it does keep you going for months and the quality was really good.

I’ll talk about fertilizers and other equipment in the next article, see you there!

Photo’s 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.

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