At first glance of the rows and rows of plants in the garden center, it can be hard to see what's not there. But if you were looking for some specific varieties or sizes of landscape plants this spring, you, and we, may have had difficulty finding them.
Throughout the nursery & landscape industry, a couple of factors have converged to create plant shortages. The past few winters of unusual weather plus lingering effects of the recession has made some landscape shrubs and trees difficult or impossible to find. These shortages could continue for a few more years as the industry catches up to increasing yearly demands for crops that take up to a decade to grow.
As a product that is grown essentially outdoors, landscape plants are subject to the whims of mother nature, and boy has she been acting up for the past few years. When shrubs are fooled by a mild winter into developing tender spring growth too early, they are often damaged by an inevitable late temperature dip. That can not only remove large quantities of plants from the market as the resulting damage makes them unsaleable, it can kill particularly tender or borderline hardy plants. As an example, this past winter’s late hard freezes were particularly hard on loropetalum and some varieties of butterfly bush, resulting in shortages of those plants.
But what’s causing longer-lasting shortages is the recession...still.
First, a quick overview of the basics of commercial plant production. It's rare nowadays for a plant supplier to produce a finished plant from start (seeds, cuttings or micro-propagation) to finish. Each step—starter plant, liner, and finished product—is handled by a specialist who sells their product to the next producer in the pipeline. A retail- or landscape-ready nursery plant is the end result.
During and immediately after the recession, growers at all stages of the plant pipeline were suddenly stuck with large quantities of product and no market. Millions of plants, from starters to finished product were scrapped as whole crops were landfilled and growing fields bulldozed. (They weren’t kept because the carrying costs for landscape plants are not insignificant.) Mature landscape plants sold for ridiculously low prices as growers desperately tried to clear overstocks. While for a short time those that were still buying got great deals on trees and shrubs, lots of growers couldn’t survive the downturn and went under. Those that did often didn't have the capital left to replant much.
Now, as the housing market is heating up and homeowners are spending on improvements again, the industry faces a multi-faceted problem. Not only are there fewer remaining suppliers, those who did survive are hesitant to produce too much on speculation and are also sticking with a more narrow (you could say safer) selection of varieties. Plus, longer-term crops like larger landscape-size shrubs and B&B trees (which can take up to 10 years to be ready for sale) now have a gap in the production pipeline.
The result is landscape plant shortages, particularly for larger or less common items, but even some heavily-used staples have been in difficult to obtain. You may have noticed that what you can find is often much smaller material for the same price as a few years ago.
So what can we all do while we wait for supply to catch up with demand? For the gardener looking for a specific plant, our green goods buyer Sean Pancoast has some advice: “I would encourage you to be flexible. Sometime we may have to sub the size or variety.” He reminds us that even if we have to start with smaller sizes, they will still grow to be great plants.
Sean brings up another great point—while you may have a specific variety of plant in mind for an area, in almost every case there are other available options that fulfill the same function in the landscape. If you’re flexible and open to using equivalents, shortages are almost a non-issue. That’s where our staff can help you find a suitable substitute.
To smooth out anticipated supply issues even further, New Garden is working with our growers to produce landscape plants specifically for us to ensure we have material for our retail and landscape clients. The severity of the recession changed the long-standing plant supply chain model, and we are adapting to what is probably the “new normal” for the foreseeable future.