Niche market: Finding a niche

Features - NGBC

By buying into the green infrastructure movement, Hoffman Nursery added a new market for its existing products.

May 14, 2015
Matt McClellan

Water is becoming more and more precious. Thousands of dollars of grants have been earmarked for research into making the water we have last longer and find better ways to conserve and recycle the resource.

“Nursery people understand the importance of water,” says John Hoffman, co-owner and president of Hoffman Nursery. “The plants have to have water to survive. Once they get in the ground, it’s not as critical. We understand it, that’s why we have catch basins to try to capture as much water as we can so we can reuse it.”

He spoke with some fellow growers about the subject at the Nursery Grower Business Coalition, last September in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s an issue that Hoffman and his team are passionate about, and he believes in the business potential, as well.

“Our country is trying to save water and soil,” he says. “I think we’ll see more and more of it.”

Stormwater management is becoming a bigger issue nationwide. The development of rain gardens, bioswales and green roof projects is more common. Many cities are switching to green infrastructure because it is cost-prohibitive to address stormwater management through conventional means. Hoffman Nursery noticed that trend and saw it as an opportunity to jump into a new market.

“It seems like every time we turn around there is something going on with green infrastructure,” says Jill Hoffman, co-owner and vice president of Hoffman Nursery. “It’s becoming a new buzzword, and people ask ‘what is that?’ When we first started hearing that, almost two years ago, we thought ‘this is where grasses can fit in.’ We’ve always said in our catalogs and literature that grasses serve a function. This is where grasses are something more than ornamental, beautiful swaying things in the breeze. They serve an actual function.”

Projects kept coming up and interest was high.

“We were getting requests for plants that were not in the mainstream, things like native sedges that you wouldn’t normally expect to be getting requests for in large quantities,” Jill says. “That made us pay attention. Over time, it became this overwhelming wave of ‘Guess what? This thing is big and we need to be a part of it.’”

Hoffman’s approach was simple. The Rougemont, N.C.-based nursery compiled information about green infrastructure for its customers, including the different types of projects and how they worked. Then, it would recommend plants that are appropriate for that particular project.

Hoffman Nursery is known for its ornamental grass liners, which it sells to wholesale nurseries, garden centers, landscapers, design firms, municipalities, golf courses and zoos. As such, the nursery was uniquely suited to this new market. Grasses are the backbone of any green infrastructure project, due to their fibrous root systems, low resource use and ability to control erosion. But their biggest advantage is their flexibility.

“We’ve been saying grasses are drought tolerant for years,” Jill says. “We’ve been saying ‘This is why you need these plants’ for years. They’re still drought-tolerant, but they can be used to help control stormwater. They serve both ends of the spectrum: when there’s a lot of water and when there’s a little water.”

Form and function

Although green infrastructure is a new market for Hoffman Nursery, it is a conceptual continuation of the grower’s focus on plant functionality.

Shannon Currey, the nursery’s marketing director, says green infrastructure will become a larger part of Hoffman’s messages. The upcoming catalog will focus on it, and she’ll be speaking at several industry events on the topic.

“It’s a big push for us right now,” she says. “This is cutting edge. We want to be at the front of this wave as it’s happening.”

Currey says the nursery hopes to see an increase in the number of customers, but expects most of the new business to be from people with whom they already do business – wholesale nurseries and landscape contractors.

Landscapers often install and maintain these projects. Currey hopes to see an increase in that business, and provide a service to recommend plants that will excel in green infrastructure projects.

Hoffman’s biggest customers are large wholesale nurseries, and they are starting to ask about plants that will work in green infrastructure projects. Jill says several nurseries have approached them looking to be educated on how grasses work in these types of projects. Hoffman Nursery will be able to provide liners for those projects.

“Our product is still mainly for the ornamental side of the industry,” John says. “It will still be a pretty plant for the landscape, but the stormwater management crowd we are talking to will be growing. It won’t take over the ornamental side, I believe, but it will certainly be a good addition.”

Even in a project that is designed for bioretention or stormwater management, looks are still an important factor.

Currey says that while some think of plants as either functional or ornamental, that is a false dichotomy.

“One of the major issues with green infrastructure has been that to gain public acceptance, for people to want to put this in their community or corporate site, it has to be attractive,” she says. “That’s been of real interest to the folks designing these projects, to make sure that aesthetics are still part of the mix.”

Hoffman Nursery conducted a survey of designers, installers and others practicing low-impact development green infrastructure. The results showed that the biggest issues these people have stem from the plant – how it looks, how it survives, and how to maintain it. That’s why one of Hoffman’s goals is to help them choose wisely. A green infrastructure project needs plants that fit it, and aren’t merely functional, but look good enough to be accepted.

Do it yourself

Even with all of their expertise in grasses, the Hoffman crew needed to learn about green infrastructure before they felt comfortable adding it as a service. They wanted to get more experience. In spring 2014, the company was planning an expansion. After an initial quote for a concrete-heavy expansion gave them sticker shock, they looked to green infrastructure as an alternative.

“It really hit home,” Jill says. “This is what it was going to cost before with big concrete pipes, and this is what it will cost with green infrastructure. It’s a big savings — probably 20 to 30 percent of what the job was going to be.”

And that doesn’t even count the value of helming one of these projects themselves. After the project is complete, Hoffman looks forward to having visiting customers see green infrastructure in action.

“Look and see what the grasses and sedges are doing,” Jill says. “This is our rain garden, this is our bioswale, and it works. It looks nice and it works. That’s what we want to tell people.”

By using bioswales and rain gardens, the nursery will take care of its impervious surfaces and control its water flow. The nursery is digging another pond, and the nursery will collect the water through vegetative swales and catchbasins. All the runoff from the new expansion will be routed into the new pond. The Hoffman crew is doing everything they can to save their water, collect it, and make sure it’s clean. It’s good training for the work to come.

“Doing this on site gives us an opportunity to learn more about the plants, to feel more confident and have the experience of doing these projects ourselves,” Currey says.

As John stated at NGBC, the stormwater management issue is one that affects the entire green industry. Other growers can get involved, but they might want to look at their product mix first.

“A lot of green infrastructure tends to lean toward the native side of things,” he says. “If they offer natives or some natives in their lineup, that can certainly work. They should be able to pick up extra business there. Everything from the trees and shrubs on down to the perennials and groundcovers. I certainly think there is an opportunity for other nurseries.”

Growers will have to look at their plants to see if any will both look good and perform well in those projects. John says to aim for plants that live long enough, are easy to maintain, and are appropriate for the feature.