(adapted from So You Want to Start a Nursery)
I still recall the look of horror expressed by the late Dr. J.C. Raulston, when I told him that I had left my secure state job of 16 years, to run our small nursery full time. His response was, "There is no way that a specialty nursery can possibly make a profit without doing something illegal...please consider keeping your full time job." One thing immediately hit me...obviously J.C. had only spent time around poorly run businesses, which at the very least showed the need for better nursery business role models. The very idea that one of the top horticulture professors in the country didn't think a specialty nursery could make money was appalling, frightening, but also challenging. I had never entertained the idea that such a nursery could not make money. The more I pondered his comments over the next few weeks, the clearer it became that those in the industry must do a better job of helping those who would like to enter the industry.
The idea of an illegal part of a nursery operation was fascinating, especially since the top agricultural commodity in our state is an illegal one...Cannabis sativa. The only problem is that the idea of running a nursery from jail wasn't very appealing. I quickly thought about what we could do "illegally" to generate funds as J.C. had suggested. The next time J.C. visited the nursery, he noticed where we had hung a coat hanger on a trellis/clothes line near the office. On the coat hanger was clothes pins, each clipping a dollar bill. J.C. stared at the coat hanger for a few minutes, and finally admitted, "Ok, I don't get it." I quickly responded that we had indeed taken his advice, and this was the money-laundering part of our operation.
By now, some of you are probably thinking...why didn't a plant nerd write a book about plants, and I must admit that such was my original intent when I first considered writing a book. Perhaps, it was J.C.'s comments on top of the many calls that I received about how to start a nursery, which first planted the seed for this book, but it was a conversation with Dr. Mike Dirr, that sealed the idea. On a visit to Georgia in the mid 1990's, Mike and I were discussing many plant related topics, when I asked him which textbook he used to teach nursery management. His response, "There isn't a good one." I couldn't get this out of my mind, as I thought back to my own nursery management course, taught by the late Dr. J.C. Raulston. In fact, J.C.'s text book was nothing more than a series of articles reprinted from various nursery magazines, assembled in a packet. I do not mean to imply that there are no books on nursery management, as nothing is further from the truth. There is a good assemblage of books on propagation, soils, fertilization, construction of greenhouses, including giant tomes on virtually all of the technical aspects of having a greenhouse. Amazingly, there was a large void in the area of usable common sense books covering the complete thought process involved in considering the implications involved in the starting of a nursery.
I have been fortunate to have spent the better part of my life visiting and studying nurseries...from the largest in the country to the smallest. In doing so, it's clear that a standard for success is hard to define, as it is measured in different terms by each nursery owner. What would be a meager income to some is entirely satisfactory to others. For some nursery owners, selling 100 plants out of a pickup truck at the local market is success; to others, sales of less than 100,000 plants is a failure. Every idea and rule that you will read about will not apply to every nursery, because as nursery owners we all want different things from our business. Some nursery owners start their business based on a desire for a particular quality of life. Others like the independence or simply enjoy working outdoors. You will have to decide what you view as success in your nursery operation and which path will get you there.
As I travel around the country visiting nurseries, it is quite easy to see why each nursery is either succeeding or failing financially, based solely on sound business standards. What I have attempted to do with this book is to offer a wide range of information, which if heeded, will virtually assure a successful nursery operation...regardless of your idea of success.
I have also been asked if the intent of the book is to encourage or discourage folks from starting a nursery, and the answer is neither. What I have attempted here is to give a realistic view of everything that is involved in getting into the nursery business. Some ideas are pertinent for small back-yard nurseries, while others are more suited for those wanting to grow plants in a large scale production nursery. While the nursery business can be one of the most fun and rewarding careers for anyone who likes plants, I hope the book will be a reality check for both students as well as plant nuts who think they want to start a nursery. Homeowners will enjoy a peek behind the scenes of the nursery business, while owners of backyard nurseries may gain some insights and ideas of how to make their businesses grow.