How to start up a plant nursery

A diverse plant nursery inside a greenhouseThinking of running a plant nursery? You'll need to be physically fit and enjoy working outdoors in all weathers. You'll find all you need to start up and run your own business in our practical guide.

Research your target market

Estimate demand

Find out whether there is enough demand for a plant nursery in your area. Establish how well your target market is already supplied. This will help you to focus on any gap or niche you could fill.

It may be that you are not planning to target a local market, perhaps because you are going to specialise in a particular plant variety and hope to make sales to customers all over the country. 

Be aware that the market for plants is competitive, with many existing specialist plant nurseries in the UK and strong competition from imports. (Any fall in the value of the pound tends to benefit you, as the cost of imported plants goes up correspondingly; and vice-versa when the pound's value rises.)

Plants are available from many major concerns such as the DIY multiples and national garden centre chains. Because they buy in such large quantities, they are in a position to undercut the prices that most plant nurseries charge. You might consider producing a specialist range of plants and targeting smaller retail outlets that are looking for something a bit more unusual. Or you might concentrate on plants that thrive in a maritime climate, or that do well in drier conditions. You might consider growing unusual plants for offices, hotels, restaurants and other commercial outlets. Perhaps you will operate as a plant breeder, supplying other nurseries with mini plants or 'plugs' which they then grow on. You may want to open your own retail outlet - perhaps as part of a garden centre - or supply retail customers by mail order or through your website.

As part of your market research you will be:

  • establishing who your target customers are
  • deciding on the plant varieties you will offer them
  • finding out how well your target customers are already supplied
  • identifying any weaknesses in your competitiors' plant ranges, service levels or pricing policies so that you can carve out a share of the market for your nursery

Check out the competition to identify how many other nurseries already cater for your target market. Depending on your marketing strategy, these competitors may be based locally or all over the country.

Find out what your customers want

If you plan to supply local garden centres and other outlets, part of your market research could include a visit to some of their premises to check whether they would be interested in your plant ranges. Bear in mind that they will want to take many plants into stock at the beginning of their busy season, around Easter time. Consider whether this would give you enough time to get your plant nursery established and your plants grown to the required stage of development.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your customer profiles

It is likely that your customers will be mainly local businesses and organisations, although if you decide to specialise in particular varieties you might have customers from all over the UK and even from overseas. This could also be the case if you decide to sell plants online.

Your trade customers might include:

  • other plant nurseries, if you breed plants for cultivation by another nursery
  • garden centres
  • retail outlets such as garage forecourts, florists, grocers
  • smallholdings (for example, you might specialise in a particular crop such as strawberry plants, or asparagus crowns)
  • the parks department of your local authority
  • schools, colleges, sports grounds and other organisations with extensive grounds
  • landscape gardeners

You might require your trade customers to purchase a minimum number of plants per order; for example, 500. This will depend on the type of plant you produce and its cost.

Some plant nurseries only sell to the trade, while others also welcome members of the public and local gardening clubs. You will have to decide which is right for your business, bearing in mind your location, the area your nursery covers and your resources. If you decide to open to members of the public, give some thought to how you will prevent damage to growing stock. Also think about who will be available to deal with any retail customers. People do not want to wait while staff come from other parts of the nursery to serve them.

Decide what to sell

Ornamentals

Ornamental plants are plants which are grown for display purposes, rather than functional ones. This includes:

  • bulbs and flowers, grown in open conditions
  • hardy ornamental nursery stock (HONS), (see below)
  • bedding plants, such as geraniums and pansies
  • pot plants, such as begonias and poinsettias
  • cut flowers, grown under glass

HONS are the largest sector and include hydrangeas and other shrubs, Christmas trees, roses, ornamental trees, perennials and fruit stock.

Bedding plants are the next biggest sector, and one which has enjoyed a lot of growth in recent years. Between them, HONS and bedding plants account for nearly three-quarters of the total value of production in the UK.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produces an annual publication containing useful information on the UK horticultural sector. You can download Horticultural Statistics from the DEFRA section of the Gov.uk website.

Choose a range to sell

Decide on the type and range of plants to sell. There has been strong demand for hardy ornamental nursery stock as well as bedding plants in recent years, but these sectors are very competitive, particularly for the more commonplace plant varieties. You might decide to concentrate on more unusual plants, for gardeners looking for something a little different.

Your plants must be healthy, vigourous specimens that will survive well in the retail garden centre or other outlet and thrive once planted in a garden, park or other location.

At times of economic downturn demand for young vegetable plants may increase. This could provide an opportunity for your nursery. Patio plants like dwarf fruit trees have also become popular.

Some plant nurseries specialise in a particular type of plant instead of growing a broad selection. For example, you might consider specialising in alpines, geraniums, herbs, roses or lavenders. You would be able to grow many different varieties of your chosen specialism in different sizes and colours and could refer to this in your promotional literature. Or you might decide to concentrate on larger plants like bamboo, ornamental grasses, hedging, trees and topiary for customers who are looking to plant mature specimens.

Grow from scratch or buy in

You will also need to decide on whether you will grow all your plants yourself, from seeds, bulbs, cuttings or graftings, or whether you will buy in mini plants or 'plugs' from plant breeders who have started them off for you. If you decide to grow them from scratch you will need mature parent plants from which to breed others.

Add value

Work out how you can help your trade customers to sell more items. For example:

  • produce the sort of plants that consumers want - for example small plants are popular, because so many gardens have limited space
  • predict the varieties that will be in demand - fashion can play a part in this, as well as prevailing weather conditions
  • provide colourful plant care and point of sale material. Think about including quick response (QR) codes on plant labels, so that retail customers can scan them with their smartphones to find out more about growing tips
  • package plants in containers that help to keep them in peak condition - this is especially important if you are supplying plants that are ordered online or by mail order
  • consider supplying plants in biodegradable pots for customers who are keen to reduce packaging waste
  • supply 'instant' products, such as ready-planted hanging baskets and tubs
  • supply plant gifts matched with a complementary non-plant item - for example, herbs in attractive containers together with a recipe book

Seasonality

Because the horticultural sector is so seasonal, you need to plan your year carefully. Plant at the right time, so that the stock is ready when your customers want it. You may be much busier at some times of the year than others, and you may have a problem keeping all of your employees fully occupied during quieter periods. You do not want to risk losing good members of staff by only offering them employment on a seasonal basis, so consider whether there are other activities that could be undertaken to employ key staff throughout the year.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) encourages gardeners to plan their gardens six months in advance and to plant in the autumn rather than the spring. Ensure that you have sufficient stock for autumn planting, so your garden centre customers can encourage their own customers to buy in September, October and November rather than only in the spring months.

Services to offer

There are a number of services you might decide to offer your customers, such as:

  • mail order and online ordering facility
  • van sales, so that your trade customers can top up their stock during the busy season
  • point of sale labelling and promotional material
  • distribution of 'availability sheets' to trade customers throughout the season, so they know what is still in stock
  • horticultural consultancy services to other nurseries
  • arboricultural and landscaping services
  • showhouse plant and shrub packages
  • plant list sourcing and pricing (for example, for landscapers)
  • pest control services

Promote your nursery

The right image

It is important that your nursery business projects a professional image, particularly if your customers visit you to place their orders. So:

  • keep your site and any glasshouses tidy, well-maintained and weed-free
  • supply your plants in fresh, clearly labelled packaging
  • highlight your selling points, such as the fact that your plants are grown in peat-free compost
  • if you make online or mail-order sales, ensure that your plants are professionally packed in robust packaging materials
  • ensure that all plants sold are healthy specimens, free from disease or blight

Catalogue, lists

Provide a catalogue or plant list for your customers, from which to place their orders. Many nurseries send lists out on a regular basis throughout the main planting season, so that their garden centre and wholesale customers can remain well-stocked.

Promotion

There are a number of ways in which you can promote your business and its services to potential customers, such as:

  • obtaining a listing in an online directory, with a link to your own, informative website
  • producing a catalogue and plant list, to mail out to customers such as garden centres, or available to download from your website
  • exhibiting at growers shows. The Commercial Horticultural Association (CHA) website includes details of UK shows
  • participating in your local council's roundabout sponsorship scheme
  • donating plants to local community projects - make sure your business receives a visible acknowledgement
  • advertising in the trade press, such as plant suppliers guides
  • using social media like Facebook and Twitter to let people know what is in season or on promotion

Special offers and discounts

It is commonplace in the horticultural sector for trade customers to be offered pre-season discounts for stock. In return for receiving payment for the order a couple of months ahead of delivering the stock, you offer a generous discount. Discounts are also normally offered if large quantities are ordered at a time.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing plant nursery rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • the premises, tools, equipment, irrigation systems and so on are already in place
  • some growing stock may be in place
  • there are established customers
  • the business can generate income immediately
  • suppliers have been identified and relationships established with them
  • the business has a track record, which can help if you are looking for finance
  • experienced staff may already be in place

Look critically at any business that you are interested in, to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire, or is there another personal reason for selling up?

Your market research into the sector as a whole, and the locality in particular, will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because they can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of the premises, equipment, and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets? Check the condition of glasshouses and poly tunnels especially carefully - they are costly to replace
  • the condition and value of any growing stock you are buying. Is it healthy and disease-free?
  • is the existing owner prepared to give you some training after you take over
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for?
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller?

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with them the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

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