Mike’s Backyard Nursery sits on a long, narrow, 5-acre property located in Perry, Ohio. There, customers can find a variety of flowering shrubs available, all in 2-quart pots, and all for sale for $5.97 each.
Owner Mike McGroarty, a lifelong resident of Perry, says the town has a lot of plant nurseries, including 100 wholesale growers within a 10-mile radius of his house.
That doesn’t discourage McGroarty, because he knows that while there are a lot of nurseries in his area, no one else is doing what he is doing.
McGroarty has learned about plants — and marketing them to his audience — through decades of experience. He has never hesitated to pass along his knowledge to other growers looking to start their own backyard operations, and has created an entire program to educate aspiring growers.
McGroarty Likes To Practice What He Preaches
McGroarty’s operation serves as the laboratory for what he teaches in his education program, The Backyard Grower’s University (backyardgrowers.com). He intentionally keeps the nursery at a manageable size, and does not hire much outside help.
The property consists of a house and an outbuilding, behind which there are rows of plants for sale. There’s also some parking space for customers and an area for McGroarty’s two miniature donkeys, Finnegan and Fergus. Next to the outbuilding, there are wood-framed beds filled with rooted cuttings.
McGroarty mostly grows flowering shrubs, but he plans to start doing more perennials, he says. He currently has some Lavender Twist weeping redbud trees for sale, but he says it is not likely that he will continue selling trees after the current ones are gone.
McGroarty isn’t afraid to try new things, but he also knows when to go back to what works best. He tried growing in a heated greenhouse once, but realized that he preferred his original growing methods.
McGroarty’s plants stay outside, uncovered, throughout the winter. If they’re not tough, they don’t belong there, he says.
“I want to teach people at home that they can do this without investing thousands of dollars,” he says.
He also wants to continue to sell all of his plants for $5.97 each, because his own customers love it. He sells most of his plants during plant sales, which take place several times a year. McGroarty says customers are more likely to purchase larger quantities of plants during these sales, particularly when there is one price used across the board.
A Long Journey Into The Plant Business
Mike McGroarty’s experience in the nursery business started when, at age 16, he got a job at a local wholesale nursery, where he started out pulling weeds. After two years there, he had learned a lot, done every job at least once and made important connections with other people in the business. In 1974, upon graduating high school, McGroarty worked for a landscape contractor for a few years before starting to do some landscaping work on his own, part time. Over the next few years, McGroarty kept up the landscaping work, while working other jobs in the winter. One of his jobs was delivering gasoline and fuel to homes and businesses, which took him to more local nurseries and greenhouses, where he began to ask questions and observe.
By 1979, McGroarty had decided to work on his landscaping business full time.
He invested in a lot of equipment, and found himself faced with a large amount of debt just as there was a dip in the economy. Over the next few years, he faced some financial trouble as he struggled to get his business going. In 1983, with his last $150, he purchased an advertisement in a small coupon book, and was met with success, selling $5,000 worth of landscaping in a day. But, McGroarty wasn’t out of the woods yet. Still facing some financial hardship, he worked multiple jobs to offset the landscaping business and pay some of his bills.
Knowing that he had been onto something when he ran the ad in the coupon book, McGroarty decided in the spring of 1984 to try to keep the business going in spite of the fact that he was out of money. He took a day job with benefits, and kept landscaping and repairing furnaces in his spare time.
McGroarty shifted into the plant nursery business in 1989, when he started growing plants in his backyard as an investment, beginning with 1,000 Rhododendrons for $1 each and 1,000 Dwarf Alberta Spruce for $1 each. He started selling them to local wholesalers, all the while adding more plants to his backyard.
His experience with backyard growing led him to write a gardening book in 1994, which has since been replaced with “The Backyard Cash Machine eBook.”
He closed his plant business in 2003 and focused on the online side of his business, which consists of The Backyard Grower’s University and The Backyard Grower’s Business Center.
In 2010, he hired his son Duston to handle the online side of the business. Meanwhile, McGroarty bought the property where his business currently resides, and began growing and selling plants again. That year, he also officially retired from his day job and started focusing on his business full time.
Members Learn From McGroarty’s Firsthand Experience
McGroarty admits that his methods aren’t scientific. He tries to simply follow what works, and teaches Backyard Growers’ members how to get back to the basics.
Joining Backyard Growers is a two-step process. First, those interested in starting a backyard growing business can join The Backyard Grower’s University, which gives them access to a wealth of online resources, including informational videos and pdf copies of McGroarty books, such as “Small Plants, Big Profits From Home” and “Easy Plant Propagation.” There is also a wholesale grower directory with growers McGroarty recommends for getting a backyard business started. He is careful to explain that not everything can legally be propagated, and the ramifications for illegal propagation.
While the program didn’t really get started until 1999, when McGroarty first created a company website, some of the videos available to members online date back to the early 1990s, when he first started shooting videos. The website serves as an archive of everything McGroarty has learned in his many years of experience.
From there, members can join the Backyard Grower’s Business Center, which consists of two discussion boards. One is a general discussion board where members can ask questions, and one is a buy/sell board, where members can buy and sell plants to one another at wholesale pricing.
“It’s a good opportunity,” McGroarty says. “It’s a great way for them to recoup the money they invested in the group.”
Members can join Backyard Grower’s for $97, and complete a 30-day trial for the business center for $7. After the initial trial, the cost is $67 a month for nine months. After that, membership is paid in full and members can belong for years. Because of that, McGroarty says he isn’t even sure of the exact number of members in the program to date. He says people can earn a substantial amount of money from becoming a member, and he has heard reports of growers selling up to $100,000 in plants on the buy/sell board.
In addition to plant sales, Mike’s Backyard Nursery also hosts events for eMail subscribers, as well as members of Backyard Growers. The events for Backyard Growers serve as an opportunity for members to see McGroarty’s operation, meet and interact with one another, and buy and sell plants from one another.
Visit mikesbackyardnursery.com for more information. Also, check out the Facebook page, Mike’s Plant Farm.
Using Marketing To Target The Right Audience
When it comes to marketing, “nobody is geeky about it like I am,” says Mike McGroarty of Mike’s Backyard Nursery.
In the same way he learned the nursery business, McGroarty learned about marketing through practice.
“When I started years ago, the only thing I knew was what other people in my industry were doing,” McGroarty says. “Back in 1983, I was kind of fed up with what I was doing because it wasn’t working very well, and I was struggling financially.”
That’s when McGroarty decided to take a chance with the landscaping advertisement, which targeted the specific type of customer he wanted.
He continued to run that ad for years because it worked so well. Eventually, he decided to get a book from the library on advertising so he could start teaching himself more about it.
“When I first started looking into it I studied some information by mail order advertisers — this is before there was an internet — I immediately realized that those guys know what they’re doing and every ad that they run has to bring a return on investment,” McGroarty says. “I became a lifelong student, and I pretty much studied marketing every single day,” he says.
McGroarty says that a lot of what he studies was written in the 1920s and 1930s, but the information still applies today.
“Human nature hasn’t changed,” he says. “How we receive and consume information has changed, but the message will never change and how the message resonates with the customer will never change.”
McGroarty primarily advertises in the newspaper and on Facebook, and he says he finds that his customers are typically over age 50, but the Facebook ads do help him target a younger demographic, as well.
“People will say ‘print media is dead, forget about it,’ well it’s not dead,” McGroarty says.
McGroarty says his print ads do very well, and they really resonate with customers his own age.
“I tell a story,” he says. “I simply tell the story of how many plants I have and why I need to get rid of them that weekend. And I go on describing the plants in my country tone. I mention my donkeys in the ad, I mention the parking, my neighbor Richard, I tell them that we share the driveway — just stuff like that that makes it very, very real, and people love it.”