On the rebound

Features - Uncensored: Product Availability

Product shortages continue thanks to conservative planting schedules and increased demand.

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February 9, 2016
Maria Zampini

Market consolidation and the shortages it caused was a hot topic at Uncensored. Shortages are continuing in the market, and this story outlines which crops may be hard to find this season.

Sheridan Nurseries

If the first and second trade shows of the new year that I’ve attended — MANTS and Green & Growin’ — are any indication, 2016 could turn out to be a memorable year.

I recently tapped several colleagues from various green industry channels of distribution across the United States and Canada, asking for their analysis on what will be long and/or short in plant material.

Ironically, although several colleagues said the housing market is coming back, I had just as many tell me it really isn’t. They felt the increased plant sales are for existing homes, not new ones.

And, with the unseasonably warm start to the winter followed by a cold snap in the new year, who knows what crops or landscape plants will survive the winter and ultimately affect our spring and future production plans.

Find out how product availability and demand are affecting these green-industry representatives.

AJ Petitti, Petitti Garden Centers, Ohio

Our nursery department sales were up 15 percent this past year and we’ve budgeted for a 15 percent increase for the coming year. I think consumers who built half-million-dollar homes before the recession never put in a landscape, as they couldn’t see the value in it. And those people are now coming in for plants to install that missing landscape.

John Lewis, JLPN Liners, Oregon

The reduction in production of understock and field-grown liners during the recession is still visible in the volume of larger caliper shade trees available east of the Rockies. This has left a large hole to fill by West Coast producers, and that can’t happen overnight.

The volume demand is right around the same levels as last season, or greater. We’ve had very few products go down in sales, and have been surprised by some that we thought might still be in over-production, but have turned around. Commodity items such as sugar, Norway and red maple, linden, ornamental fruit and zelkova, are all seeing a nice recovery.

Kathy McKay, Flamingo Holland

Due to the unusually cool Dutch spring in 2015, many calla bulbs did not have their typical harvest size of 16+, so there may be shortages in this size category.

Asiatic and Oriental lily sales continue to be strong and many popular varieties are sold out.

Ashley Ahl, Northern Family Farms, Merrillan, Wis.

Generally speaking, we are seeing a shortage on liners and finished shade and ornamental trees throughout the Midwest, particularly the Chicago area, north through Wisconsin, and even in the Twin Cities, where emerald ash borer is rearing its ugly head. We see municipalities addressing EAB problems and implementing proactive, and in many instances, reactive programs to replace ash trees.

There has also been increased residential building activity taking place that could be driving the increased demand for trees. Most likely, the increases we are seeing could be attributed to a decreased supply of liners produced by the West Coast.

Willoway Nurseries

DeVonne Friesen, Van Belle Nursery, Abbottsford, B.C., Canada

We’ve definitely seen the effects of shortages in the market when it comes to flowering shrubs. After the economic downturn there was much less speculative growing, and now with increased demand there just isn’t a lot of extra product available for last minute decisions. As a result, our customers are ordering earlier in the cycle to ensure they get the plants they need. We’ve also seen a trend toward significant summer and fall second shipments as our customers rebuild their stock after they’ve had better than expected spring and summer shipping seasons.

Jeff Smith, National Nursery Products, the Midwest region

In my travels visiting growers between Oregon and Tennessee, the story is about the same. I think most growers continue to be conservative with liners going into the field and any type of expansion into nursery stock in general for several reasons, including high liner costs, growers not wanting to invest back in to the business if they are looking to position the nursery for sale, diversification into row or specialty crops (like filberts) since these crops are less labor intensive, and not enough labor to expand outside of what they have now.

That being said, I think material across the board, especially field stock, will remain tight for the foreseeable future. I think container material will be available for the bread-and-butter items, but it’s the specialty items that will be slow to bounce back. I also feel this will drive growers into more pot-in-pot production. If you look at two large pot-in-pot growers, Bountiful Farms and Hale & Hines, they both expanded throughout the collapse. Their ability to adjust to inventory levels in the market is so much faster than what the B&B guys can do. I think it’s the future for the tree industry.

Kings Sunset Nursery

Chris Uhland, Harmony Hill Nursery, Downington, Pa.

We never cut back on lining out material the last several years. We’ve had a sales goal and have met and now are exceeding them. Originally, our production was geared toward commercial landscapes, while the last five years we have evolved to a higher quality and more designer friendly selection, with changing liner vendors based on quality and attention to product detail.

We’ve exceeded our sales forecast because we have picked up several unexpected new clients, local and regionally, due to the closing of other nurseries from economic pressure, retirement or merger.

Personally, our inventories have been reduced to where our staple of shade trees is between 2- to 3½-inch material. Some items like Green Vase zelkova, Greenspire linden, October Glory and Red Sunset maple, any sugar maple and a few others, are almost exhausted and now limited to 2 inch. Flowering and ornamental trees are slim on 2½ inch and larger, too.

Our normal field-grown shrub availability with sizes ranging 3 feet to 8 feet have been sold down to a minimum inventory. Our container selection is strong, but the plant size compared to container size is smaller versus past seasons which eliminates root-bound issues. Field grown viburnums — native and ornamental, winterberry, holly and boxwood have been in high demand along with almost any suitable substitute, just to get projects completed. In the past, if we had a hole in our production, we could fill them with a regional grower, but some of those options are gone and others are sold out, too.

USDA Forest Service

Evergreens such as the Green Giant arb, we are completely sold out of 6 feet and larger. Our liner vendors have an expanded availability on this plant right now but we have maintained our planting schedule in order to not harm industry prices in the 3- to 5-year production cycle as well. This fall, our white pine, blue spruce and Norway spruce 6 feet to 12 feet inventories have dwindled, but we have local vendors we’ll work with on this crop.

We have essentially maintained our orders of liners for 2016 and tentatively for 2017. Pre-season orders are definitely increased for 2016, which indicates to me that clients might have realized the lulls in inventories and are planning ahead to get what they need. Clients — contractors, designers, architects, etc. — need to look through current availabilities and be flexible on what they can use. From a planning aspect, I want to speak with clients on what they anticipate they’ll want and need down the road to grow what will be needed and not line out varieties that will be culled just to fill our fields.

Marc McCormack, Bailey Nurseries, St. Paul, Minn.

We have seen demand for tree and shrub liners increase steadily since 2013. This demand has come from all channels of our distribution, but most significantly from the growers who are supplying the landscape channel.

At Bailey’s, we are optimistic that demand for liners will remain strong for the next three to five years. Growers who use our products are increasing the quantities and varieties that they are planting again, but also at a more conservative pace than in the early 2000s.

We recognize that the reduced supply has caused a greater sense of urgency in the marketplace and many customers are frustrated that we cannot supply all of their needs. The positive side to all of this is most everyone is able to get more money for the products they are selling and certainly making up for some of the deficits from five to seven years ago.

Maria Zampini is president of Upshoot LLC and Director of Plant Development and Ornamental Program Manager for the HGTV HOME Plant Collection.