Cover Story: What’s in their nurseries?

As the seasons change from fall to winter in most parts of the country, some of you are putting up your lawn maintenance equipment in favor of snow removal duties, while others are using this time to catch up on repairs or relax and plan for next year.

Hopefully, that leaves you plenty of time to read about what’s new in plantings for 2009. Total Landscape Care visited three nurseries in September to bring you the ins and outs of nursery ownership, and what tempting flowers and foliage are in store for your spring designs.

Briggs Tree Company, Vista, California
Founded by Donald A. Briggs Jr. and located in the heart of San Diego County, the Briggs family has spent more than 80 years as part of San Diego’s horticultural industry. For the past seven years, Briggs’ son-in-law, Don Dabbs has been the general manager of the more than 200-acre nursery and its 140 employees.

Among Briggs’ annual offerings include 4-inch annual and perennial color, groundcovers, shrubs, vines, and a premier line of trees in various sizes. Dabbs prides himself on the quality of plant material the nursery grows and sells: “You can’t take an ugly one-gallon tree and turn it into a beautiful 24-inch,” he says. “You have to start with great quality.”

The nursery’s nine acres of wholesale space is inviting for local landscapers searching for the perfect plant or tree. In fact, landscapers make up about 85 percent of Briggs’ sales. According to Dabbs, many landscapers will bring their customers with them to pick plants right out of the wholesale yard.

“We try to get the employees involved in the displays because they know what looks good in the sales yards, and they are great with customers, too,” says Alissa Adams-Simmons, sales manager.

Briggs does not breed plants, but buys and grows the majority of its own stock. “We buy many of our trees from Monrovia and our shrubs from Hinesman,” Dabbs says. “We’re often asked to try new things by breeders to help get the product into the local market.”

Because the climate in southern California is fairly temperate, Dabbs buys a lot of his trees, especially palms, from Florida. Then he grows them for 16 months until they are mature enough to sell.

“Business in southern California is going to slow down,” Dabbs explains. “We need to be prepared by getting our foot in the door in other markets that continue to expand.” He ships material to Arizona, the greater Las Vegas area, Utah, some areas of Texas, and in California from the Mexican border north to Sacramento.

Briggs prides itself on offering exotic, hard-to-find plants that southern California homeowners and landscapers love to use. The nursery is one of the largest growers of Oldhami Bamboo, known for its popularity as a property screen. They also grow a lot of magnolia ‘Little Gem’, Phormium and Cordyline australis.

Dabbs says in addition to providing plants, he tries to help educate landscapers about water usage in light of the droughts of the past few years and increasing water restrictions.

“A lot of homeowners, and even some landscapers, don’t realize irrigation levels should not be the same all year,” he says.

Another challenge Dabbs faces is neighbors near the nursery. “Everyone wants plants,” he says, “but no one wants to live next door to a nursery because of the employees, noise or chemicals. Nurseries are being encroached on by development.”

So what does Dabbs see as a trend for 2009? “Native plants while not pretty to look at, can make a lush garden with the right amount of irrigation,” he says. Dabbs suggests mixing textures and colors with permeable pavers and rock to get a sumptuous look with all the sustainable benefits.

Carolina Nurseries, Moncks Corner, South Carolina
J. and Linda Guy, co-owners of Carolina Nurseries and founders of Novalis, take great care to grow and produce the finest plants as well as educate landscapers and landscape architects. Their partnerships with Viking outdoor kitchen appliances and Summer Classics outdoor furniture enforce the Guys’ belief in a “total landscape package.”

“We focus on easy-solution packaging,” Linda Guy explains. “Landscapers still rely on tried-and-true varieties, but there is so much more out there.”

Through the nursery’s association with the Novalis consortium, a national grower network that grows perennials, shrubs, annual color, the Guys and the other alliance-based growers trial plants across the country. This enables them to provide a wide array that might include multi-seasonal plants offering spring flowers and fall berries, or new succulents and color options which are suitable for various landscapes. Being part of the network allows the growers to supply a more diverse and region-based plant palette to professional landscaper customers.

“The wide selection of varieties combined with our plant trials and contract production allow landscapers more choices they can bank on and helps them command higher-level jobs,” Linda Guy says. Plus, a slightly higher cost for premium plants is justified by the return-on-investment in the end.”

Carolina Nurseries is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. In its earlier days, the nursery changed hands from its original founder to then-employee J. Guy – along with eight other people – who partnered to buy the nursery portion of the business. The current 700-acre nursery, with 400 acres devoted to production, services landscapers, retailers and wholesalers.

Of the 350 nursery staff, four of them are dedicated to leading Novalis’ marketing and managing efforts. They work closely with the other network growers and their staff members as part of the group, which spans 15 or more companies.

With the Novalis Plants that Work by Color line, the Guys hope to give the consumer easy solutions to be confident in their choices. All plants are arranged by color, not variety. This works because many landscapers bring their customers with them to pick out plants, and the color-coded arrangement helps homeowners identify the plants they like.

Linda, who managed a 300-acre estate in Mobile, Alabama, for 20 years before joining J. at Carolina Nurseries, is very interested in the breeding portion of the cultivation process and has taken many trips abroad to collect seed for potential propagation.

“The best part about breeding now is that when you travel you go with a group from a botanical institute or university,” J. Guy says. “You travel with scientists and taxonomists. Together, we work to bring the best of new plants to the U.S. with a goal of trialing them and cultivating the finest.”

All plants being grown for an upcoming Novalis line get sent to the consortium’s growers throughout the U.S. to see if they’ll grow in various climates and terrains. Most plants are held in trial for five years.

Linda and J. are pitching the Novalis Plants that Work series to young homeowners who may have limited space in their yards or want sustainable landscaping.

“There is no reason to plant a boring landscape,” Linda Guy says.

Hi Cotton Greenhouses, St. Matthews, South Carolina
“Brent (Crenshaw) and I met while in the horticulture program at Clemson University,” says David Rickenbaker, co-owner of Hi Cotton Greenhouses. “I started working here as a junior in high school under the previous owners.”

Started in 1986, Hi Cotton was originally a way for its owners to diversify its row crop operation. “We were mainly a spring geranium and Christmas poinsettia operation, and it just grew from there,” Rickenbaker says.

After college, Crenshaw and Rickenbaker purchased the company in 1998. In the last 10 years, Hi Cotton has tripled its sales, doubled its production area, and added some much-needed upgrades. “Every year, we have increased sales and expanded our market, which now includes North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia,” Rickenbaker says proudly. Hi Cotton delivers about 98 percent of what it sells. Due to their remote location, it’s not cost effective for most customers to come to the St. Matthews, South Carolina, headquarters.

“We can be anywhere in our area for 7 a.m. deliveries,” Rickenbaker adds. “Some customers even have our drivers’ cell phone numbers on speed dial or programmed into their phones.”

Hi Cotton has been using Ball Horticultural Company plugs exclusively for several years. “Their punch-and-grow system is amazing, it allows us to produce more in a shorter period of time. We like Ball’s trucking system, and we have an outstanding relationship with our Ball salesperson,” Rickenbaker says.

Though the production space is just four acres, it is continuously full of growing plants and plants ready to sell or be shipped. This allows greenhouse manager and head grower Brad Stowe to move between areas quickly and help manage the company’s 17 employees.

“We tailor plantings to what we believe landscapers are going to use next season,” Rickenbaker says. “We use trial plants from southern universities, but we also rely heavily on our Ball sales representative and on customers’ trial and error.”

Due to the economic downturn, Crenshaw thinks people will only install two major annual plantings for a while: spring and winter. Customers also asked for fewer mums this year, opting instead for pansies and violas, he says.

However, business at Hi Cotton is going well, and Rickenbaker hopes to have 80 percent to 90 percent of his spring orders in by Christmas. “For landscapers, there are huge advantages to booking your orders early,” he says. “They get the colors, sizes and delivery dates they want. The longer they wait to order, the less selection they’ll have.”

Hi Cotton shuts down for one week in the summer and for almost four weeks at Christmas to give employees time with their families. “People sometimes ask if we grow poinsettias, but we don’t anymore because they were taking up space for our more popular plants,” Rickenbaker says. “We want to take care of the people who are with us all year.”

Through their partnership with Ball, as well as with their many customers along the East Coast, Hi Cotton prides itself on being a top South Carolina color grower.

New from Novalis in 2009
Novalis Plants that Work (exclusive perennials and shrubs):

  • Bletilla ochracea ‘Chinese Butterfly’: A shade perennial that forms large clumps over time, the ‘Chinese Butterfly’ grows from 12 inches to 15 inches tall in Hardiness Zone 6b-10. Creamy yellow flowers are accented by a dotted maroon lip.
  • Agave ‘Kissho Kan’ (Translated in English, Happy Crown): This striking agave for containers and dry landscapes is suited for Hardiness Zones 9-11, needs bright light and well-drained soil and grows to 12 inches in height.
  • Aloe humilis ‘Hedgehog’: Upright and urn-shaped, this aloe is perfect for hot, dry locations in Hardiness Zones 9-11 where bright light is plentiful. It can grow to 20 inches high and features spikes of coral-red flowers in summer.
  • Hydrangea ‘Mystical Opal’: Opal blooms in the spring as a pink ball of ruffled florets and dries to soft shades when cut. Grows best in Hardiness Zones 5-8, needs part shade to full shade in the coastal regions, and grows up to 4 feet tall.
  • Diervilla sessilifolia (PPAF) Cool Splash: Best in Hardiness Zones 4-9, this shrub is the first variegated bush honeysuckle and is great for mass plantings. Growing to a height of 3 feet, panicles of yellow trumpets top the striking lance-shape variegated foliage in May and June.

New from Ball Horticultural in 2009
(Select color annuals):

  • Easy Wave ‘Pink Marble Mixture’: This flower is billed as the most versatile of all large-flowered spreading petunias, and is perfect for solo or mixed in containers or in the landscape. Reaching 12 inches in height, the Easy Wave blooms in spring and summer.
  • Cabaret Calibrachoa ‘Yellow’: Offering color in spring, summer and autumn, this mini petunia blooms early under short days with a range of vibrant colors. Foliage stays green, even in high pH conditions, and grows to 10 inches in height.
  • Fanfare Impatiens ‘Bright Coral’: The unique spreading and mounded habit fills containers, baskets and landscapes quickly. Known as the most heat-tolerant impatiens series on the market, it can tolerate full sun in many areas.
  • Kong Series ‘Salmon’ Coleus: Reaching 18 inches tall, this coleus features extremely large leaves and unique patterns on well-branched plants, and is an eye-catching choice for large containers and landscapes. It prefers full shade for best performance.
  • Lantana Landmark ‘Pink Glow’: New ‘Pink Glow’ is more compact and shows off a brighter, more intense yellow/pink flower color than ‘Pink Dawn’. This lantana holds up well in extreme heat and humidity, but is so vigorous that northern growers can enter the lantana market.
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Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
Attachments Idea Book Cover