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A plant nursery grows plants from seeds or saplings to the size that most gardeners, landscapers, or larger retail distributors desire for installation into lawns, backyard gardens, floral borders, and other indoor or outdoor areas.
A successful nursery offers a wide variety of young plants to their customers who purchase the plants individually or in bulk quantities. The quality, selection, and size of the products produced by the nursery will be dictated by the demographics of their location. Often, a nursery’s selection is also influenced by business relationships the owner has established with major landscaping businesses. Some nurseries will specialize in trees, decorative growing art such as bonsai, or water features and associated plant life. Additional services often offered by some nurseries include garden design, hardscaping supplies, and mulch/soil delivery.
Who is this business right for?
This business is best suited for someone who enjoys learning about and practicing the cultivation of plants. Nursery owners should also like sharing this knowledge with others. The right person for the job will also have solid business skills, an appreciation for the agricultural life, and a real interest in providing information and support for their local gardeners.
What happens during a typical day at a plant nursery?
As the owner/operator of a plant nursery, you need to be prepared to:
- Care for a wide variety of plants in various stages of growth
- Work a farmer's schedule from dawn to dusk
- Maintain large greenhouses or acres of irrigated growing flats
- Apply herbicides/pesticides to control disease and pests
- Determine which and how many plants of each variety should be grown to meet demand without waste
- Maintain retail storefront for sales to local gardeners
- Carry out basic accounting/money handling
- Maintain sufficient staff to care for plants and customers
- Establish relationships with wholesalers to both buy and sell product
- Provide information and support for your local customers
What is the target market?
Depending on your locale, you may want to target landscapers who maintain elite properties indoors and outdoors for the wealthy homeowner. Municipalities will purchase large amounts of trees and plants on an annual basis. If you are situated in a suburban setting with high foot traffic, you may cater more to the homeowner who wants to develop their own vegetable plot or flowering landscaping.
How does a plant nursery make money?
While specialty plants such as orchids or rare trees and shrubs may be sold for a much higher price than a flat of tomato plants, a profitable nursery makes its money by selling large quantities of familiar, hardy, easy-to-grow plants. Perennials, common trees such as maple and pine, and landscaping hedges require little attention to grow. This means that they will not take many of your resources to care for, and they are more likely to be purchased by your customers. Having enough product and satisfactory customer service will encourage your clients to return.
What is the growth potential for a plant nursery?
Through aggressive networking and the building of a large customer base of wealthy commercial clients, a plant nursery can continue to expand its operation as long as there is additional acreage to cultivate or build additional greenhouses on. Popular nurseries often open multiple locations in a region when they've achieved positive name recognition among landscaping and construction companies.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful plant nursery?
You need an excellent understanding of maintaining commercial greenhouses and supporting healthy plants. You should also have solid understanding of accounting and retail business practices that can help you decipher fluctuations in supply and demand in order to maintain profits through changes in the economy and customer base. An ability to build positive business relationships will also aid your growth in the business.
What are the costs involved in opening a plant nursery?
Location will significantly affect your start-up costs as you need a decent amount of land, and an urban site will be priced significantly higher than an existing rural farm. Greenhouses can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 depending on size, whether or not it will be heated, require electricity and how you have it plumbed. Your retail storefront will require another $50,000 investment minimum and your start-up plants, soil, and supplies will run you another $10,000 to $50,000. It is a labor intensive start-up, and payroll should be part of your initial business plan.
What are the steps to start a plant nursery?
Once you're ready to start your plant nursery, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your plant nursery is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your plant nursery keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Where can I find a business mentor?
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Recommended: Fizzle.co offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a plant nursery?
Do your demographic research before breaking ground on a new nursery. If you don't know if your potential customers are going to buy a thousand trees or a thousand pots of pansies, you will waste time and money growing plants that nobody is going to buy. Reach out to gardening clubs, growers associations, and commercial clients to develop a plan for your first three harvests. If you live in the north, you need to start planning your growing season right after the New Year in order to grab advanced sales when the planting season begins.
How to promote & market a plant nursery
Check out your region for flower and garden shows. Create a stunning display and work the crowd for the weekend. For routine marketing, direct mail flyers promoting the next season's available plants work as great reminders. In order to establish a new relationship with a commercial landscaper, you may wish to offer samples so the quality of your plant can be experienced in a real application.
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How to keep customers coming back
Marketing pushes must be timed with the seasons. While holidays are great for selling a rose bush, your large customers are planning their purchases a month before they are planting a new garden. Personal contact with your larger companies help to keep your phone number at the top of their contact list. Homeowners look for specials in early spring and fall. Having the flowers, soil, and conditioners they are seeking in stock will help to build repeat business as they can rely on you.
How and when to build a team
You will need your staff as soon as you start receiving seed, soil, and pots. Most of the labor involved in a nursery is in the growing of the plants, not the selling. Emptying your storefront is really the easy part. You will want to hire individuals who are willing to get dirty, do lots of heavy lifting, love working with the earth, and are interested in building relationships with your customers.
Read our plant nursery hiring guide to learn about the different roles a plant nursery typically fills, how much to budget for employee salaries, and how to build your team exactly how you want it.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a plant nursery. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
In addition, certain local licensing or regulatory requirements may apply.
For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Labor safety requirements
It is important to comply with all Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements.
Certificate of Occupancy
Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
- If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a plant nursery business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your plant nursery business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
How much can you charge customers?
Plants are sold from $1 per pot to several hundred dollars for unique and exotic specimens of trees. Prices can be adjusted upward in wealthier neighborhoods.
What are the ongoing expenses for a plant nursery?
Payroll, water, chemicals, and inventory are your largest expenses. When scouting locations, you may wish to investigate the use of private wells versus municipal water supplies to lower operating costs.
How much profit can a plant nursery make?
Your profit will depend on scale and location. Successful nurseries can see an annual cash flow anywhere from $40,000 to $625,000.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Determine which plants are in the greatest demand and focus on providing enough of them to fulfill your customers' needs. Follow that up by introducing species that have a low wholesale purchase price and require the least amount of attention to attain their retail size in order to maximize return on your investment.