Saturday, August 17, 2013

Behind the Bushes

When you are out plant shopping at one of the big box stores or even your local favorite nursery, have you ever stopped to think about how much work went into that plant? Why it might cost as much as it does? Or why the plant next to it, even though it is the same size, costs way more?
I was at one of those big box stores not too long ago and heard somebody asking some of those very questions. I also heard, "it is just a plant, WHY is it so expensive?!"

Working in the nursery trade now for almost 10 years, I have learned a LOT!
So, I thought today I would help explain, Why that plant is so expensive and what all goes into one.
I will start at the very beginning with propagation.
At the nursery I work at, this is the time of year that we send a bunch of the girls out into the field to take cuttings. As you can imagine, this is very time consuming. You don't want to take too many from one individual plant and ruin the look of that particular plant. So each plant might have two or three cuttings taken from it. They will probably take anywhere from 5000 cuttings on up, depending on what type of plant we need more of. They then have to sit there and prep the cutting. Length, amount of leaves still on it, angle of cut on the bottom, etc. If you have ever done any propagating, you know the routine. Now multiply that by thousands. They then dip it in a rooting hormone and stick it in pots filled with the soil medium.
Sounds pretty labor intensive doesn't it?
That cutting that they just stuck?
It will be ready to sell in the size pot shown above, in about 2 years. That is an average, there are some species of plants that root and grow quicker. Something like, Ligustrum will root and grow MUCH quicker then say, a Camellia.
In that two years a few other things happen that will add to the cost.
Things such as fertilizer. It will get fed 2 or 3 times, depending on the species.
It will be repotted a couple of times. It starts out in a rooting tray. Then gets put into a one gallon pot. Finally a three gallon pot. There is also the labor involved in repotting it. Every time a plant gets touched there is labor involved. Even at minimum wage, that can get expensive. You don't work for free, right?

Speaking of labor, there is the process of spacing them out. When the plants are little they can be kept "can tight". The edges of the pots put up right next to each other. As the plants get bigger they need to be spread out so they have room to grow, allow air space to help prevent disease, and allow the water to get down into them better. I mentioned that these plants will be at the nursery for a couple of years, in that time frame Winter will rear its ugly head. While the plants that we grow are adapted to our Zone 8 growing area, that is when they are in the ground. They are a little more cold sensitive up in the air, as it where, in those pots. So, those plants need to be moved to a cold frame. More labor used. They will still get chilled, but not frozen should we have a bad Winter. My boss was telling me he learned a valuable lesson one year. An entire bed of Society Garlic froze to death because they were not protected. We are talking thousands of plants here. That's a bunch of money lost. I know what you are asking, why not keep them in the cold frame all the time?
Answer: The cold frame is covered with plastic. In the Winter, while dormant, they do not need as much sun and can be covered this way. During growing season, they need sun. So, labor can be used to move the plants, OR, labor can be used to put up and take down the plastic covering each year. Are you starting to get the idea that labor is your biggest cost?
Okay, then there is the cost of the potting soil each time it is transplanted. Plus the cost of the pot. On average, the price of a one gallon pot is 15 cents. The price goes up to 45 cents for a three gallon. The pots are petroleum based and the price fluctuates with the cost of oil, we know what that means right now.
I have not even mentioned the cost of electricity to run the pumps to water these plants, every day.

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Cooperative Extension

When you are out choosing your plants and you have the choice between one that is beautiful, full of nice green leaves, no holes in the leaves and no weeds in the pot, compared to a half eaten, weedy specimen, which one will you pick?
The way the nursery sends those beautiful plants is with the use of insecticides and herbicides. Believe me when I tell you those things are NOT CHEAP! For a relatively inexpensive herbicide, to cover about an acre of plants, it can easily run you $300+. Then there is the labor to apply said products. There is that L word again.
The cost to weed these plants by hand is even more outrageous.
Oh yea, don't forget the cost of putting the plants on a truck to ship them. The cost of the driver, fuel, truck maintenance, etc.

Photo courtesy of

I bet by now you are seeing the pattern here.
If all of this where not enough and you have ever taken any kind of business class, you will understand the next phase, Supply and Demand. The recent economic downturn scared a lot of growers. They were afraid to plant any new liners for fear the plants would just sit there and not get bought. This has caused a gap in supply. Remember the two year time frame? If you don't plant anything or very little, the plants can't suddenly grow and be the right size to be sold. There were a few growers that rolled the dice and planted, but there are certain plants that just can't be found right now. Want a couple of examples?
Viburnum suspensum

Three gallon Viburnum suspensum are extremely hard to come by and when you do, they are pricey. Supply and demand.
There are also larger things that are getting tough to find.
Fifteen and thirty gallon Podocarpus macrophyllus.

Everybody kept buying the smaller ones and there were very few left to pot up to a larger size. Again, supply and demand. If you have the larger sizes you can get more money for them.
Again, I mention the two year growing time. Tree growers are in an even longer window and there will be shortages of trees in the very near future. They have to think 5-10 years out.
I am not trying to make you feel sorry for the nurseries, they will come through this. What I want you to take from this article is this; the next time you pick up a plant to purchase, ponder how many people have touched it in it's life. Think about all the time and money spent on it, then consider, is $6.95 or whatever the price, REALLY such a bad deal?
And remember, There is always more, Behind the Bushes.
Happy Growing!


  1. After trying to get a start from the 'candy cane' crepe myrtle my son got me for Mother's Day 6 years ago, and having none of them root no matter what I did; I had to settle for getting a new one after we moved.

    So yeah, I do know what goes into getting a plant or bush.

    Great post.

  2. My question is always how the plants are so cheap; I always knew about the labor involved. I've often thought about starting an heirloom rose nursery, but can't envision it making money at the going rate of $16 or so a cutting.