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Business Is Blooming Home Gardening Craze, Ice Storm Cleanup Fuel Growth Of Inland Northwest Plant Producers

It starts with a seed so small that a tiny vacuum machine must hold it in place to plant it precisely in a moist plug of dirt.

It ends weeks - sometimes years - later in your yard as a rainbow of petunias, a row of tasty peppers or a shady maple.

For more than 2,000 nursery and greenhouse companies, the chore of keeping Washington and Idaho green is an around-the-clock business that grows bigger every year.

Capitalizing on a home gardening craze and increasing demand for landscape material and pre-packaged floral arrangements, plant producers in both states are delivering bedding plants, shrubs and trees by the millions.

And this spring - with property owners cleaning up after Ice Storm ‘96 and no one immediately filling the void of Ernst Home & Garden stores’ massive plant sales volume - industry experts say it’s a good bet that nursery and garden sales in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene will be among the best ever.

“We went from a backyard hobby to a viable industry,” says Ed Lima, co-owner of Spokane-based Lima Greenhouses since 1972. “The numbers are getting larger as the industry mass produces plants.”

In 1995, the most recent year figures are available from the Washington Department of Agriculture, the state’s nursery and greenhouse trade generated $245 million in plant products and was growing at an impressive five-year average of 12 percent per year. That made flowers and trees the eighth-most valuable combined crop in the Evergreen state, ahead of grapes, cherries and onions.

Idaho figures are unavailable, but a county agent says tree farms in North Idaho’s Kootenai Valley alone garner $6 million in revenue each year.

Dozens of wholesale and retail nurseries and greenhouses operate in Spokane and Kootenai counties, though the number has shrunk in the past 30 years because of consolidation and economies of scale.

But the volume of production has risen as more people move to the area and real estate developers cover tracts with larger, landscaped homes.

“People don’t realize the size of the industry because there are so many players who feed into it,” says Kurt Schekel, professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Washington State University. “I would guess that the (Department of Agriculture) numbers are low, especially if you consider that it creates tiers of wholesalers, retailers, landscapers and maintenance companies.”

Because of cold winters and lack of a migrant work force, Inland Northwest plant production is a fraction of that produced in Western Washington and Oregon. Many local nurseries and landscapers import their plant materials from huge farms west of the Cascades, either to sell immediately or allow to mature into more salable plant stock.

“We’re like J.C. Penney, buying an array of goods that we sell to consumers,” says Gary Gibson, owner of Gibson’s Nursery & Landscape Supply in the Spokane Valley. The nursery turns its 4.5 acres of inventory six times a year.

Gibson says 1997 should be a healthy year for the industry because pre-season orders are strong, there is no surplus of plant material and Ice Storm damage was substantial.

But ultimately, the industry will be at the mercy of weather conditions. A string of cold, wet weekends spoiled spring 1996 for many wholesalers and retailers and nearly wiped out 20,000 rose bushes that Gibson had shipped in early.

“Rainy weekends can kill a retailer,” says Gibson, 46, who is one of the leading suppliers to landscape contractors. “Some sales you just can’t make up.”

But nurseries and florists have learned to add value - and charge a higher price - by potting plants and flowers into hanging baskets and cedar planters. These products are popular among apartment dwellers and homeowners too impatient to grow their own plants.

“The old philosophy of nurturing a garden and watching it grow has changed,” says Marian Lima, co-owner of Lima Greenhouses and wife of Ed Lima. “I think it’s about instant gratification - customers want a splash of color right now.”

Retailers also have generated greater sales by offering compatible products such as fertilizer and gardening tools, and expanding into crafts, furnishings and even espresso.

“I had a guy ask me the other day if we still sell plants,” joked Mel Shaw, co-owner of Mel’s Nursery Floral and Gifts in North Spokane, which acts as a florist, furniture store, coffee shop and greenhouse. “But that’s the way it is: you’d have to be a retired guy with a lot of money to sell nothing but bedding plants.”

But not every sector of the industry is gaining. Cut flowers, especially roses and carnations, have been hurt by cheaper imports flown in from South America. Jacobsons Greenhouse, a South Hill company that cuts 800,000 blooms a year, opened a retail shop a few years ago to replace the lost income.

“We’re sentimentally attached to roses, or we would have got out long ago,” says co-owner Don Jacobson. He says imports have cut his flower sales from $600,000 to $300,000 per year. “But we hope to stay in the business for a long time.”

Growers of potted and containerized flowers and trees are insulated from the imports because of restrictions on soil and the expense of shipping heavier products.

But tree farmers north of Bonner’s Ferry have a different concern this year - snow. James Kraemer, president of Silver Springs Nursery Inc. in Moyie Springs, says tree farmers are six weeks behind as they wait for three feet of snow to melt.

“All indications are it’s going to be a really good year, if the weather cooperates and we can get product shipped and into customers hands,” says Kraemer, who grows containerized aspen, maple, bunchberry dogwood, kinnikinick and other trees.

“As long and as dark of winter as it’s been, people are going to want to get out and plant a tree,” Kraemer said.

Dave Wattenbarger, extension educator for the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension, says about three dozen growers produce trees in fertile Boundary County soil. The winter-hearty trees typically are shipped to high-mountain markets in Colorado and Utah, though an increasing number are purchased each year in Spokane.

“We feel like we have superior product for winter heartiness,” he says.

The success of the Kootenai Valley growers makes Toni Fitzgerald, Spokane horticulturist for Washington State University, wonder why there aren’t landscape tree farms closer to Spokane. She believes that local tree farms could produce varieties best suited to property owners.

But many growers of bedding plants are thriving. Lima Greenhouses on Inland Empire Way produces 250,000 flats of bedding material and 60,000 poinsettias each year.

Hidden off Highway 195 on the bank of Hangman Creek, Lima’s may be the largest greenhouse grower between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. The operation sprawls under five acres of greenhouses where up to 60 workers produce more than $2 million in plants each year.

A vacuum machine plants seed trays with 460 plugs, which later are transplanted by hand into garden center flats sold at ShopKo, Wal-Mart and several independent nurseries, stretching from Oregon to Montana. At Lima, colorful bedding plants cover long rooms like fresh carpet as workers shuffle flats among different greenhouses to acclimate them for spring planting.

Says Marian Lima: “We’re ready for spring, even if the weather is not.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; 2 Graphics: Greenhouse and nursery production; How they stack up

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