Starting a nursery
About 10 years ago I was eating an apple and was struck by the seeds in the core. They were dark brown, shiny, and clearly alive. I planted them in a small pot by the window. They sprouted a couple weeks later. I have been hooked ever since. Today I propagate tens of thousands of trees every year in my backyard nursery. This hobby (obsession might be a better word) is able to provide for my family of 5. We don’t have any other income at this time, it all comes from seeds and sticks. This article is based on my personal experiences of starting and running a nursery. It is not a propagation manual, its about starting a nursery business.
When I began my business I read about how businesses are stressful and way more work than you can imagine. I sort of shrugged this off because I was so enthusiastic about starting out. I didn’t heed any warnings and if you’re excited enough, you probably won’t either. Just in case you are able to hear it, here’s a warning:
It is not always easy and it is often stressful. To run a full time nursery takes a ton of work. Even if propagating plants is a cinch, making a living from them requires a lot of hustle. To pay the bills takes a lot more cuttings and seeds than a hobbyist might realize. It also takes a lot of marketing, keeping track of inventory and making deals with people. Don’t forget, if you grow 10,000 plants, you want to be able to sell 10,000 plants.
Of course, you don’t need to start with a full time nursery, it can be a small side operation for as long as you like.
Start small. You don’t need anything. Starting a nursery is one of the only businesses where you really can start with zero capital investment. Seeds, cuttings, root divisions can all be found free in great abundance and planted in dirt.
Figure out which plants inspire you the most and start there. Raise 10 or 20 of them and see if you can sell a few. I started out by selling plants on craigslist. Just selling one plant to a stranger is a huge start. You’ll know its possible to one day quit your job and just grow plants instead.
Experiment with different growing methods. Do you like raising your plants in pots?, in beds?, in greenhouses?, outside? There is no right way, just do what feels good to you.
The most important thing is to start. So many people get stuck just thinking and planning and researching. You have to get some seeds planted. Don’t wait. When inspiration comes is the time to act. Your inspirations are fleeting bursts of energy, acting on them is the only way to lead an inspiring life and live your dreams. Don’t wait to start, you may waste an opportunity by planning too much. If you make a lot of plans beforehand, I guarantee you will change them while you are working. Its better just to start ( I think I should say that at least 5 more times).
Sooner or later, you’ll have to decide if the nursery business is what you want to do for your full income. If the answer is yes, then you will have to take a leap at some point. Having it as a side business works to a point, but if you are working somewhere else part time, you’ll never have the time to make the nursery as productive as it needs to be to pay all the bills.
This jump, from part time to full time is exciting and stressful. Be sure that you have a solid market for your plants. Once I made the transition, I was amazed at how much more productive my nursery became. There was so much more time to work on things. It took me about 6 years to switch from part time nursery to full time. All the while, I was learning propagation skills and finding my markets. I thought that I would make less money overall by just working on the nursery because I wouldn’t have any other income. However, the nursery became so much more productive, that I actually made significantly more money by not working anywhere else. I also cut down on about 90% of my driving.
I’m not a lawyer, but this is what I do know. You do need a nursery license to legally sell plants. Every state has different laws, a google search will find your state’s nursery license process. Here in NY, it was not a big deal, a couple hours of paperwork to start. Its $100/ 2 years and an inspector comes randomly to check for invasives and pests.
It is illegal to propagate a patented plant. If you have not heard about this, you will be surprised when you learn just how many varieties are patented. You can apply for a propagator’s license for some varieties, but good luck. Most Universities that release patented varieties, do so to a select few very large nurseries. They will not even take your money most of the time.
Many states have restrictions on what plants can come in. You need to find out before you ship plants all over where they are not allowed. For example, Maine does not allow currants or gooseberries, California does not allow Chestnut trees. A lot of these restrictions are very important. Nurseries are responsible for most of the great plant tragedies of the modern era. Chestnut blight and Hemlock Wooly adelgid come to the top of my mind, but there are countless other examples of nurseries introducing pests. Nurseries can be wonderful contributions to the earth, but be careful. I doubt you would like to introduce something that killed millions of trees.
You have to be. You can not run a full time business and not be a highly motivated self starter. No one will tell you to get up in the morning. No one will care what time you start work or finish. It took me a lot of work to get to the point where I could be a full time grower. I used to pot up plants early in the morning before going to work for someone else. I’ve stayed up late at night after putting the kids to bed so that I had time to graft trees or process seeds. I completely trust myself to get things done and show up for work. I would want to hire myself. Any self starter will feel the same way about themselves.
The soil in my nursery is outstanding. It is a huge factor in the success of my business. It is very deep compost loam. It did not start out that way. Most of my nursery was the site of a giant old barn. The ground was covered in broken concrete, piles of rotten lumber, tall weeds, and random garbage including mattress springs and lots of other scrap metal. I cleaned up and built the soil year by year. I don’t use soil tests or worry about introducing weed seeds. I just keep on dumping organic matter. Sawdust, leaves, wood chips, cow manure, chicken manure, sand, ashes, hay, weeds, nut shells, grass clippings, urine, more, more, more. This soil is now highly fertile. It is bustling with microorganisms and worms and mycelium. A shovel is my soil test. Its got to be easy to dig in. I dig my trees by hand. The looser and more friable the soil, the better. The benefits of such a rich soil are bigger plants, more fibrous and robust root systems, less water, and very easy weeding. I can pull big taprooted weeds out of my nursery beds without any tools. I think compost and mulch are the best things any grower can spend money on.
Potting soil is worthy of an entire book. One that I am not interested in writing, or even reading. There are many opinions and schools of thought as well as University backed research on potting soil.
The basic concept is that potting mixes have to drain well and retain moisture at the same time. If you are going to be raising a lot of your plants in pots, then you should take a close look at the mixture that many other nurseries use. Most of them use shredded/ground bark and fertilizer. My favorite ingredient is compost. It needs to be cut with something like sand, perlite, or bio char to add drainage (each of those has several positive and negative attributes).
There are many ingredients that people can use in potting soil. Many of them are toxic to humans or take a heavy toll on nature during extraction. I personally have decided to stop purchasing peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.
Making your own potting mixes is a lot cheaper than buying bags of potting soil. You can buy bulk potting soil in some locales, in which case it might be worth it. If you are going to be potting plants, than you should look deeply into potting mixes. The performance of plants varies greatly depending on the mix.
Bare Root vs. Potted
I’ve written a couple other articles on this topic alone. They are titled ‘Bare Root vs. Potted’ and ‘Benefits of Bare Root’. They can be found on my website www.twisted-tree.net Everyone has their own preferences and that is fine. I started out with just pots because that is what I knew at the time. Once I realized what it was like to raise trees in the ground instead of in pots, I knew that is what I wanted to do. I love bare root trees.
Learning Propagation Skills
A huge part of your success in a nursery business will depend on your propagation skills. If your beds are full of dead cuttings or unsprouted seeds, you won’t have much income from them.
I often get asked, ‘how can I learn how to propagate trees and shrubs?’ The answer usually turns most people away. You just got to do it. A lot of folks prefer to read about the subject, but you won’t learn very much that way. You have to get a feel for soil. You can only know a high quality cutting by messing around with a lot of cuttings. You won’t know how to comfortably make a grafting cut until you’ve sliced through a thousand rootstocks. There are few good books on propagation, but there are thousands of nurseries and orchards full of knowledgeable, skilled people. Talk to those folks. Work for them, volunteer for them, don’t bug them with emails and questions. They are busy, doing the work. I shudder when I hear of people learning propagation skills at Universities. Institutions have huge budgets and often lack creativity. They do not have anything on the line if a plant doesn’t grow. It is the farmers who work under pressure. If plants don’t grow, then they don’t get paid. These are the folks who work with serious motivation. The things they need to know, they learn through real life experience and they know them. I would much rather spend a day with any orchardist who’s been growing trees for decades than the most esteemed professors of the world. That said, there are many universities conducting excellent plant research and breeding.
There is no great comprehensive book on plant propagation that I have found. The internet is full of articles on propagation specifics. If you want to learn about mist systems, bottom heat, stool beds, hardwood cuttings, seed stratification, then look it up! Its there, people have written about it many times and there are many youtube videos on these topics. If you want to propagate a specific plant, then read about how others do it. You don’t have to copy them, these are just like recipes in a cookbook. Find your own preferred methods of propagation and growing.
The Green Thumb Myth
I remember once standing in my nursery with a friend. It was summer and everything was at the peak of lushness. There were dozens of beds packed with trees all around us and he said to me “You have a green thumb!”
The only reason he thought that, was because he did not see all the trees that I have killed! I regularly have things not work out. Seeds don’t always sprout, cuttings don’t always root. I have no natural ability above any other grower. The reason I am a successful grower is because when a bed of seeds don’t come up, I plant something else there. I don’t slow down and get upset. I keep working while I’m upset and plant something else. If you plant a hundred different things and only half work out, then you’ve got 50 things working out. That’s the key to a green thumb, plant and plant some more. Enough stuff will work out.
There are no gaps in my nursery beds because I always fill them in with something, some transplant or seed or stick. Gaps will show up, but just keep filling them in. Expect things to go wrong and over plant and then be prepared to plant again. You want to have a lot of plants at the end of a growing season, the more the better. A green thumb belongs to anyone who keeps planting.
Make it Your Nursery
Be original, there are enough conventional garden centers and box stores. People are sick of them, even if they don’t consciously know it. Authenticity, creativity, and originality are inspiring and appreciated by customers, especially gardeners. People who buy plants are just like the people who sell them. We LOVE plants. We love watching them grow. Be fully authentic about the way you want to grow, display, and choose your plants. People who come to my nursery often have to step over kids toys and around piles of dog poop. There are stacks of lumber, piles of compost, crowing roosters, barking dogs, crying babies, and projects all around. There’s mini water gardens, fruit trees, berry bushes, plants everywhere. It is not ever clean and neat. its more like an old book store with stacks of books everywhere, treasures that even the owner might have a hard time finding. It is like that because, that’s how I feel comfortable. My authenticity comes through. I’m not pretending my place is something its not. Its a working farm with awesome varieties of plants at very good prices. I used to apologize for the mess or try to explain why things were different than the garden center downtown, but I gave it up. No one cared, in fact, many people say it is a breath of fresh air to be here. Lots of folks are coming from neighborhoods with neat lawns and boring gardens. Its exciting for them to see a place with so much bustling energy. If its not to someone’s liking, thats okay. It will be to plenty of others.
You can make your nursery anything you dream it to be. Its your creation. If your vision of your nursery is not fun and exciting and awesome, then change it until it is. You don’t even have to make it a place that people can visit at all. You can sell all your plants to someone else who will sell them. The point is, do it your way. You are the boss.
These are essential to any nursery that is legitimate. Many nurseries are just reselling what others have grown, but here I am speaking to the propagators. Stock plants are where we get our cuttings and seeds from. Many of my stock plants are not on my farm. I often collect seeds and cuttings from orchards, parks, friends houses, neighborhoods, roadsides, forests, and thickets. It is rare that I go somewhere and don’t find something to collect. I definitely prefer to be in the passenger seat of cars so that I can look around. I have found a great many treasures along roadsides. A grove of carpathian walnuts, the most spectacular tasting mulberry, countless hickories, oaks, and butternuts to name a few. I have knocked on many doors to ask permission to collect hackberries, crabapples, redbud, cornelian cherry and lots of other tree seeds. There is opportunity around us everywhere. You don’t need to wait for anything. You can collect some type of seed somewhere today and post that seed online for sale. You could make some money selling plant material this week.
Though you can find great stock plants in the wild and on other properties, it is great to have your own. You can focus on the varieties that are most important to you and grow them the exact way you want to. Often when collecting cuttings from orchards or friends’ trees, there is a sense that you shouldn’t take too much and should leave the plant looking good. When its your own plant, you can do anything to it. A lot of my stock plants, I cut right to the ground every winter. They flush hard in the spring and produce an abundance of high quality cuttings by fall. I have individual elderberry bushes that can produce hundreds of cuttings every year.
Your own stock plants are of the highest value. Even if you abandoned them, at least you would have them growing on your property where they would produce flowers and fruit. They can become stronger every year. I feed mine heavily with abundant compost and mulch. They can last indefinitely. Stock plants can provide income to anyone who is able to wield a pair of pruners.
Adding new stock plants is an activity that I thoroughly enjoy. Imagine getting paid to plant whatever you want on your property. That is what establishing your own stock plants means.
What You Can Sell
Anything. People will buy just about any seeds, cuttings, tiny plants or big plants. Figure out what you want to grow and then find the people who want to buy it (not the other way around). If you do it in that order, you’ll be doing what you want to do, rather than what you think others want.
There is definitely a market for seeds of annuals, perennials, and trees and shrubs. There is also a large market for cuttings and scion wood. The demand for plants is enormous. Gardeners are everywhere. Plants can be sold in pots or bare root. Don’t think you need to get them to a certain size unless you want to. As long as you are honest and upfront about what you are selling, then its okay to sell trees that are a couple inches tall. Just price them accordingly. Many people prefer cheaper, smaller alternatives to large potted plants.
What you should Grow
Plants you think will make the world better. Its the only way you will have the ability to sustain your enthusiasm through the ups and downs. Nobody starts a nursery from scratch because they want to get rich, they do it because they love the plants. Make sure you are growing plants that you love and not just what you think people want. If you love your plants, you will take better care of them and sell them easier. I don’t know how people are able to enthusiastically sell things that they don’t believe in. I imagine it is exhausting at the end of the day and taxing on your soul after years. Its better to sell something you are passionate about. The market will appear if your passion for the product exists. When I started raising chestnut seedlings, I could not find anyone who would buy one. Today, I sell thousands every year and am sold out by spring. It takes time but it will happen. Stick with plants you love, sooner or later the customers will find you. There are sub-cultures around every genre of plants.
Specializing vs. Diversity
Specializing in a specific set of plants has huge advantages with some risk. Diversity has advantages but also more complexities.
If you become known as the daylily person or the jujube person then whenever people are talking about that plant, your name will come up. When there are questions, people will come to you. You can make a name for yourself by really specializing in something. Maybe its a specific plant or a genre of plants (native woodland perennials for example). The only problem with specializing, is that sometimes things go wrong. I have had hundreds of pounds of chestnut seed destroyed by mold. If that was the only tree I was growing, I’d have been wiped out of business.
Diversity offers resiliency. The greater the variety of plants, the greater the chance that some of them will look great. I have hundreds of varieties I raise and there is always something that is performing exceptionally well. If the chestnuts are poor one year, hopefully the hazelnuts will pick up the slack, or maybe the persimmons will, or the apples or the perennials, or the raspberries or the blueberries, or the haskaps, or the ………..
With all this diversity comes a complicated system. Having different plants means they have different needs, different light and soil preferences, different growth rates. Just try planting elderberries next to anything and you’ll see that you can’t just fill a bed with a bunch of different stuff.
Diversity also means more keeping track of inventory. With hundreds of varieties, it is not always easy to manage. It takes a lot longer to fill an order that has 30 different plants on it than it does to fill an order of 30 plants that are all the same variety.
I have often thought that I want to specialize my nursery around nut trees, but then I just can’t say no to raising fruit trees or berry bushes and the perennials are just so easy. Before I realized what I was doing, I had created a huge collection of plants that I continue to add to. It certainly has its advantages. Personal enjoyment is significant, but it also has been profitable. Someone might come here for nut trees because that is what I am known for. While they are here, or on our website, they’ll see that I also grow a large collection of berries and fruit and flowers. It only takes one variety to bring someone in. Once they are in, they often want to make sure that they get everything else they would want before they check out. Diversity can turn a sale of a few nut trees into a sale of a few nut trees and a few perennials and a berry bush. Of course you have to keep track of all the side projects and I am constantly asking myself if certain varieties are worth offering.
For the past few years I have daydreamed about simplifying my nursery while at the same time I’m adding new varieties. It is the hopeless conundrum of a plant lover. We just have to grow everything. I hear about a new plant and its pretty hard to not grow it. If it performs well, its pretty hard to not offer it. And so, I’m left with a very colorful collection. Its not easy to manage, but it is a lot of fun. Every nursery and person is different, you can make it whatever you want. I’m convinced that I could raise my entire income just by growing apple rootstocks, but that would be too boring for me. It would make economic sense, but economic sense only makes sense if we are happy.
Who You Can Sell To
There are many different types of people who will buy plant material (this includes seeds, cuttings, root fragments, bulbs, and actual plants). There are deer hunters who want to plant fruit and nut trees, homesteaders, preppers, gardeners, farmers, garden centers, farm stands, orchardists, gov’t agencies, conservation agencies, restoration projects, and other nurseries. Other nurseries by the way, is a huge market.
You can sell plant material to individuals or sell them wholesale. I do both.
When I was starting out, I would brainstorm and make lists of who might buy my plants. I came up with so many ideas that 8 years later, I still have not reached out to most of them. If you have something that you see as valuable, then someone else sees it that way too.
Word of Mouth
Your reputation is everything. It will either make or break you, it is that powerful. One person who is inspired or impressed will talk to another person and so the chain begins. It has no ending. If they are pissed off at you, then it is a horrible chain. Do whatever you need to do in order to give people healthy plants at good prices. Be honest and sincere. There will be strong echoes out there, so be sure that you are shouting things that you want repeated. Every transaction is like dropping a stone in a pond, there will be ripples.
When someone comes to the nursery and talks my ear off for 30 minutes and spends 5 dollars or no dollars, it is easy to feel annoyed. But I have seen many times, these people telling other people about my nursery. Some of the best customers have come from the most unlikely of sources.
Word of mouth will be the most powerful force in driving people to or away from your business. Take it seriously, it is never worth compromising over a few dollars or some annoyance.
Sometimes you won’t sell anything. You’ll have all these amazing plants with no home for them and you know that they can’t last. They look perfect now, but they won’t in another month. Maybe they’re going to break dormancy and they are bare root, or maybe they are potted up and in full flower with no insect damage. You just wish, someone would come buy them. You’ve worked hard and there is no money coming in. You haven’t had a sale in a while, what do you do?
Best to get busy. Make new craigslist ads, take more pictures, write an article, propagate more plants and exude abundance. Someone will notice, maybe they won’t buy anything, but if you’re inspiring enough, they will tell someone who will. Thats how a business can work. You don’t need to trick people, you just have to inspire them. Show them something beautiful and make it affordable.
You will also have times when things go really wrong. I once was contracted to grow out several thousand dollars worth of persimmons. It was a good contract with a big nursery that wanted me to grow lots of varieties for them for many years to come. This was the first year. I raised my persimmon rootstocks that I was going to graft onto. I bought several hundred dollars worth of scion wood and was all set to start grafting in the spring. I pulled the persimmon rootstocks that I had grown for a year out of their winter storage and saw that the roots were covered in mold. They were all dead. I had nothing to graft onto, nothing to grow for them. This nursery was offering me an avenue to grow and sell as many plants as I wanted and I had nothing to show them.
Stress will come. The question is how do you react. Customers will call with complaints. Spring will be overwhelming. Frosts will come at the worst time. Droughts of unprecedented ferocity will come. Plants will die. Bugs will come. Hail, tornadoes, even fire. Sooner or later bad shit will come and it will be worse than you ever imagined. What will you do?, How will you handle it? Will you freak out? If you don’t want to deal with stress, then keep your nursery business a small side project for fun and pocket money. If you make your nursery a full time business, you will have to deal with lots of stress. I guarantee it. If you’ve never run a business, then ask anyone who has. It is nothing like working for other people. The level of responsibility is tremendous. You are not getting paid for your time, just for what you sell.
Getting through stressful times and not losing it is not easy and it is not for everyone. Life is short. Your ambitions can destroy you if you are not careful. Pay attention to how things are going and how you are feeling. Remember, the nursery is your creation. Tailor it to your personality. You are not generating an income, so much as you are creating a lifestyle. Working at a home based nursery will be consuming. It will effect your family. If you are truly passionate about your plants, you can get through a lot, but you still need to watch things. Ask yourself how big do you want to get. How much would you like to manage? Are you happy?
Its amazing to me, but after all the stress I’ve been through, I love my nursery. I could never go back to a job. I am a grower. It comes with a cost that I am willing to pay. Its not for everyone.
The universe is not a stingy place, it is exploding with life. There is more than enough for you. Don’t worry about competition. If you do, you will emanate that and you’ll feel it. Trust that the Universe has got more than you have time to take. There are exploding stars, volcanoes, oceans, forested hills filled with miracles of mushrooms and trees sprouting from tiny seeds out of the bodies of dead trees.There are salamanders crawling over moss covered logs and herds of herbivores thundering across grasslands. Nature is an abundant wild force. She will not stop showering you with seeds and stems. If you are worried about money, you will emanate that, you will feel it inside. If you trust in the abundance of nature, you will emanate that, you will feel it and know it. The only way to know this truth is to live it. Go out and start gathering. If you are asking what to gather, then I can not say this loudly enough, Gather What You Are Passionate About, what inspires you, what lights the fire. Apples, pears, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, persimmons, haskaps, and raspberries make it easy for me to wake up in the morning. I love this earth and am grateful for my time on this beautiful and bizarre planet, this is an unbelievably creative and colorful world. Shrug off the doubts and move towards what you love. I have heard it suggested that life is less than miraculous. I feel sorry for people who think that. They do not realize that this world is a dream imagined by the most mysterious of forces. Life is not understood by the human mind, we see flashes of it. Lost in judgement we don’t see what is in front of us. We are naming things. See things with no name for a moment and you will be amazed at the vibrantly colorful mystery before you. It can be felt in the body, in the veins, the bones, become aware of the feeling inside the body and you will be aware of the force that powers the Universe. There are many names for it, but this force is not stingy. Life exudes from every breath, every pore. Awareness of the abundant nature of the universe is a gift that I wish upon the whole world. You can start and run a successful nursery if that is what you want. It is easily within the realm of possibilities. Your attitude will be far and away the most important factor.
I wish you a great journey in starting a nursery or any other task you take on. May you feel joy at the sight of sprouting seeds, the rooting of cuttings, and all things green.
If you enjoyed this article, you will probably like my book, Trees of Power.