Growing a nursery business takes more than a green thumb

Growing a nursery business takes more than a green thumb
Growing a nursery business takes more than a green thumb

Weakley Countian of the Year Mike Biggs surveys the geraniums on sale in one of his nine greenhouses off highway 45 in Greenfield.
Those who have made it in the nursery business will tell you it’s tough to survive.
“It’s boom or bust,” says Janie Zimmerman of Zimm’s Nursery in Martin, who has run the nursery off of highway 45, north of Martin, for over 25 years with her husband, Mark. March, April and May can bring big sales as customers flock to nurseries to get their gardens started, but then sales can fall off.
“A person can make gobs in one month and then barely be able to pay the electric bills the next,” Zimmerman says.
A successful nursery needs a lot of things besides good cash management and a unique niche in the market is one of them. Each of the four family-owned nurseries thriving in Weakley County has certainly found its niche.
Even though a wide range of plants is sold at the nurseries, customers especially count on common sense, bright annuals and vegetable plants and seeds at Bigg’s in Greenfield; they know they can find all kinds of bushes and trees to landscape their yards at Zimm’s and they know they’ll see some drop-dead hostas at Robbins’ Nursery in Martin. If they’re looking for unusual conifers, like pines, bald cypress, arborvitae and other cone-bearing trees, they know to call James Wick of Peach Grove Nursery in Martin.
The owner/operators of all four have many things in common besides a love of outdoors, strong work ethic and a way with people.

They have to be part scientist, testing and developing new plant varieties under different conditions, part artist with an eye for both the unique and the pleasant. They even have to be part doctor/pharmacist as customers invariably come in to get diagnoses for their plants’ ailments or a healthy regimen to insure proper growth for their new green specimens.

Then throw in animal control specialist, how to discourage deer, voles, raccoons and other creatures from snacking or stomping on expensive new plants.

Guy Robbins for instance will tell you that his hosta lovers, which include serious collectors of the shade-loving plants, will go to all lengths to discourage the tailless mouse-like critter who likes to snack on the gourmet roots of the hosta. Some, he says,. will bury the pots of hostas, letting the roots go through the watering holes in the bottom.Others will encase the plant in wire or special cloth and bury the plant.

Wick of Peach Grove swears by the mulching of sweet gum balls to discourage slugs from munching on hostas.

Robbins has some secret weapons against. His cats prowl the premises sniffing for the little creatures. For this reason he does not mulch around his hostas so as to aid his felines in visual recognition of the brown beasties.

Other creatures are bound to show up out in the country-side where most nurseries are situated. Zimm says that at one point, while strolling through a greenhouse early in the morning, she was forced to stare down a bobcat.  The equally perplexed creature soon scampered up a tree. Robbins says that raccoons will sometime tear through his plants upturning pots in search of worms.

Get any group of nurserymen together, say at such venues as gardening seminars in the West Tennessee area, and you will hear a competition for stories about another critter, their human customer. The customer that thought this and that about a plant, the buyer who wanted to hide this obnoxious feature in a neighbor’s yard, the client that wanted to take a weed eater to his wife’s expensive new ornamental grasses.

They can “let loose” then, but back in their place of business, they must patiently instruct the customer about his or her plant, when to plant it in shade or sun, when to water and how to build beds.

So, add to the list, part teacher.

Biggs will patiently warn his customers not to plant too early; that as a general rule they should wait until at least the middle of April to plant and then only if they have a good seven day forecast ahead of them. Robbins is even more cautious, advising mid-May for annuals and vegetables.

“I can’t predict the weather,” says Biggs “but there is a lot of basic common sense to this.” “I don’t want to sell a begonia in mid-March knowing it won’t survive.”

Where to put a plant is also key. Though most hostas like the shade for instance, Robbins warns customers not to plant them too close to their trees as a competition for root space can ensue. In that contest, “ the tree will win out,” he says. Some clients he says have moved to putting their hostas in large containers around the tree.

Customer trust is another ingredient for success in the plant business. Gardeners want to rely on their area  nurseries to ferret out what plants survive best in this northwest Tennessee zone 7 (some say 61/2)

After he graduated from UT Martin in the late 1990s, James Wick became the chief horticulturalist for a major conifer nursery in Chicago, supplementing his nurseryman’s income with snow-plowing in the winter. When this northern Illinois native decided to move back to the Martin area,  he set out to prove which conifers, usually associated with more cooler climes, could survive in this area. That he has done, even developing his own hybrid varieties some which he has named after grandparents.

When Wick sells a customer a golden arborvitae in Martin, that person knows that the tree will survive here and in conditions of “typical landscape neglect.”

Much of his business is mail order, however. He will pack little pots off in the mail to customers around the country looking for unusual varieties. Though not unusual to this area, a big seller is the bald cypress, of Reelfoot Lake fame which he develops from seeds and cuttings from a private farm near the park. He says that his northeast customers particularly like to buy a tree with a history, like the tree associated with this earthquake formed lake.

Though Robbins carries some azaleas, he will caution customers that azaleas and rhododendrons have an uphill battle in this soil and climate. He figures for every azalea that has been planted in the area, at least 28 will not make it. “Life’s too short to be frustrated,” he advises. Nevertheless, he tests the plants out in various spots in his gardens, to find conditions they might like best.

In addition to the many varieties of hostas on hand, Robbins sells companion plants that also like shade including ferns. He also has a large collection of boxwood varieties, including one as big as his house. Robbins was for many years director of the Memphis Botanic Garden. Ornamental grasses make up still another specialty collection.

When a visitor walks into one of the 13 greenhouses at Zimm’s or the nine at Bigg’s, he or she knows that many hours of work have gone into developing new plants from cuttings and seeds. As Bigg’s explains how many petunia seeds make an ounce, one can see the old math teacher still at work.

But perhaps one of the key attributes of these Weakley County gardening gurus is their keen eye for color, composition and what makes for a lovely outdoor scene. Like an antique shopper on the look out for a find, a sharp horticultural eye can even spot a rogue or mutant variety of a plant that might be developed into a winner.

 “Pleasant,” is a word used over and over again by Robbins as he seeks to identify the nurseryman’s key objective in designing a botanical scene. He says that when he was developing the landscape at UTM he told his co-workers to add “redeeming value.” When a professor or student passed by a “pleasant” bed, he or she should feel inspired to do better.

And that “redeeming value”may be the biggest contribution to Weakley County from these unique botanical professionals. Their designs, advice and plants have provided many a needed lift, a little inspiration, in a mundane day.

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