There’s nothing we can do about the weather, but it was certainly making everyone more than nervous this year as the spring season got started, and yet there was no sign of spring to be seen for months. Record cold, late snowstorms into March and April, flood events, rainy weekends, and shipping challenges plagued growers and grower-retailers across the country.
Luckily, the sun and heat came out and stayed out for most of May and June, notwithstanding some rain here and there, and with it came weather-weary consumers in droves. Growers and grower-retailers responding to Greenhouse Grower’s 2018 Spring Crops Recap Survey said customers were more than ready to get their hands in the dirt and feast their eyes on some color in whatever form of gardening they did. So even with the rough start, 89% deemed Spring 2018 a success.
“Despite the cooler, rainy weather in the northeast, our customers wanted to plant,” said Chris Moore of Moore’s Greenhouse in the Northeast. “Many of them were willing to cover plants or bring plant material out during the day and inside at night. Customers were tired of winter and were concerned about plant material running out, which led to high sales even with less than ideal growing conditions.”
With 140 responses to our annual survey, 54% were grower-retailers, 33% were wholesale growers, and 13% were young plant growers. Respondents hailed from the Midwest (35%), Southeast (19%), Northeast (15%), Southwest (9%), Northwest (8%), West (6%), and outside the U.S. (9%).
Worst Weather on Record for Many Growers
This spring, 35% of our survey respondents rated the weather in their region to be extremely uncooperative and 29% said that it was moderately uncooperative. In some areas, it was the coldest early spring on record. Only 37% said the weather was cooperative.
“In years past, March can be one of our busiest months,” said Kat McGraw of Ooltewah Nursery & Landscape Co., located in the Southeast. “March and April of this year were bitterly cold and rainy. We had only three days of sun in April. Toward the end of May it was in the 90s. There was not much Spring.”
It was a tough season and started off badly, most agree. But luckily, the late spring and summer sales averted disaster.
“Weather caused everything to be slightly off. Things shipped later because of the cold temps, but we caught up once it warmed up. Then we just had to dodge the rainstorms,” said Karen Schindler of G&E Greenhouses in the Midwest.
Judy Mitchell, President of Mitchell’s Nursery & Greenhouse in the Southeast, said despite the bad weather, her operation is expanding.
“Due to the cold weather in January, we dumped more plants than ever, even those protected in coldframes,” Mitchell said. “We are expanding both nursery and greenhouses for 2019. Business overall is looking good. One reason may be that a major competitor has gone out of business.”
2018 Sales Exceeded Expectations and Increased Over 2017
Even with all of the weather issues this spring and summer, the season’s sales met (31%) or exceeded expectations (41%) for most survey respondents. For 61% of those who answered the survey, Spring 2018 sales increased year over year from Spring 2017, while the season was flat for 20% and decreased year over year for 19%. The majority grew enough to meet demand (69%), but there were some misses for others, the most common being more product availability later in the season, once the weather improved.
Annuals (57%) had the biggest sales increases over 2017, followed by edibles/garden veggies (44%), container perennials (40%), and flowering potted plants (37%).
Sales improved the most at grower retailers’ own stores (41%), independent garden centers (26%), landscapers (23%), and other growers (11%).
Labor Remains the Largest Challenge
Aside from weather, survey respondents said their biggest issue this spring was labor availability (41%), far surpassing other issues including labor costs, competition, and transportation — but availability is linked to all of these, as well.
“Mother Nature will always be unpredictable from one year to the next, so having a schedule that works for most things, even if things are off one way or the other by a few weeks, is critical,” said Dana Massey of Plantworks Nursery in the Southeast. “I’m most nervous about the availability of qualified and willing labor. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find employees willing to do the physical and manual labor required in this industry in addition to some overtime, weekend hours, bad weather, etc.”
Western grower Color Spot Nurseries’ Tom Smith said, “Unemployment is causing labor costs to rise. Candidates are fewer than any year so far.”
Andy Huntington of Pleasant View Gardens in the Northeast said, “We were short 16 drivers for Spring; anyone — and I mean anyone — who had a Med Card was driving. I personally drove every weekend, and many nights after my ‘real’ job.”