MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – That hanging flower basket you bought mom for Mother’s Day, the perennials you planted for ground cover or the annuals being considered for the special pot on the patio may have been shipped to Spokane recently from a greenhouse near Puget Sound, but some of the plants inside the containers may have started out in South America or Africa.
Western Washington is one of the nation’s biggest producers of landscape and nursery plants, generating more than $365 million in annual sales for an industry producing everything from acaena to zinnias.
It’s an agricultural industry that relies more on how its commodities look than how they taste, although there are some growth areas in certain specialty products, like hops, driven by the boom in microbreweries, and organic herbs and vegetables driven by environmentally conscious buyers.
But the industry is changing more by a generational shift in consumer preferences and economic forces, said Mark Buchholz, president and chief executive officer of Skagit Horticulture, one of the state’s largest nursery and landscaping growers.
“Gardening is being made less complicated,” Buchholz said. “For the baby boomers, gardening was a real passion. Yards were bigger, people had more time and they spent it in the yard.
“The new consumers, they don’t have time. They’re online, they have smaller yards or they rent or have a homeowners association that takes care of it.”
The industry also has seen an evolution in where its plants are sold. About 30 years ago, most were purchased at independent garden centers; now about two-thirds are bought at national chains or big-box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Skagit Horticulture operates about 325 acres of greenhouses and outdoor growing areas in three Mount Vernon locations, another 295 in Mabton, Washington, plus 36 acres in Watsonville, California. It’s the merger of two longtime producers: Skagit Gardens, which primarily sold to independent centers throughout the region, and Northwest Horticulture, which sold to the national chains.
The merged company still provides different varieties of its plants to the different markets, Buchholz said, so a container of peonies it ships to the garden center will not be the same as a container of peonies at the chain store.
Because some plants may take two years or more to go from propagation to shipping, growers try to anticipate changing demand for new plants or new colors in old standards.
Passing rows of petunias in one of the maze of greenhouses outside Mount Vernon, Buchholz said the company works with breeders around the world to get the latest, most popular varieties. Red is always the most popular petunia color, but the most popular shade of red will vary from one year to the next.
A growth industry
Some nurseries supply fruits trees for orchards or small conifers for Christmas tree farms. Others specialize in native plants for restoration projects. All are listed together in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, where Washington ranked 10th among all the states in the most recent listings, with 709 businesses, and ninth for total sales, with $365.7 million. More than half those sales were for nursery, bedding and gardening plants.
Skagit Horticulture also grows acres of succulent mats, known as Etera, that are used as roofing tiles in urban areas that require greener solutions to reduce the heat being produced by buildings, or replace sod for lawns in dry climates. By varying the types of succulents, the company can produce tiles in a wide variety of colors and shades.
Many flowering plants available in Northwest stores had their origins in other countries or continents. Some are bred to better adapt to the local climate, others are propagated by the region’s nurseries for their shape or color.
Growers search for new plants they think will catch on with homeowners, said Andrej Suske, general manager of T&L Nursery in Woodinville. About five years ago, T&L took a chance and stocked a new flowering plant called Digiplexis, a hybrid developed in England by crossing digitalis, commonly known as foxglove, with isoplexis, a related plant that grows mainly in the Canary Islands.
“It was a plant no one had seen before,” Suske said. It produces a spire of red flowers more full than the foxglove that grows wild in Washington state. “You’d look at it and say, ‘That’s a sexy plant.’ ”
The hearty hybrid caught on quickly, but other growers began stocking it, too, and the competition is driving the price down. It’s a perennial, so with care it can last for years.
Now Suske is hoping for luck with a new variety of Helleborus
A battle against pathogens
Many nursery plants with foreign origins on the shelves of local garden centers didn’t start as seeds or cuttings, which can carry pests or diseases. They started as a few cells placed in “tissue culture,” a growth medium that allows the cells to subdivide and develop to the point where they are transferred to soil mixtures.
Adding new plants to the region can pose ecological challenges, although state and federal regulations are designed to protect against outbreaks of new pathogens. Researchers at Washington State University and other institutions are working on the best practices and procedures to control ones that are here.
Like any agricultural enterprise, landscape and nursery growers face a number of diseases, pests and weeds, said Gary Chastagner, who holds a doctorate in plant pathology and is working at the WSU Puyallup agricultural station. Some have been around for decades, others are new.
Take the case of “sudden oak death,” which is caused by phytophthora ramorum, a mold that entered the United States several decades ago. It can be transmitted by nursery and cut plants, as well as a variety of trees. It’s not native to North America and may have arrived on plants from Asia, although no one is sure.
Related to the phytophthora mold that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, sudden oak death was first noticed when certain species of trees, primarily oaks, began dying in California’s Bay Area. They weren’t actually dying suddenly – the fungus takes several years to get established before the symptoms show up.
Studies showed many plants, shrubs and trees can carry the fungus – it can cause leaf spots on rhododendrons and camellias – although most don’t die from it. But it spreads easily in water and damp soil.
Nurseries and government inspectors have to be aggressive when phytophthora is found, to keep it from spreading.
“When it’s detected (in a nursery), all plants are destroyed,” Chastagner said.
Soil is treated with steam to kill the pathogen and a series of inspections must be passed before a nursery can move any new products.
While the bulk of nursery growing is dedicated to ornamental flowers and shrubs, another segment of the industry is dedicated to native plants in demand for mitigation and restoration projects.
Ground cover, grasses, shrubs and trees are needed to meet federal or state requirements for wetlands, stormwater treatment and highway projects. The Washington Department of Transportation is a major user of native plants.
“Roadsides have a huge environmental impact,” Ben Alexander, of Sound Native Plants, said. “For years, they used to just spray hydro-seed and grass along the roadsides.”
Sometimes the seeding didn’t take or died quickly from lack of water. Other times it grew tall through the summer, then dried out and became a fire hazard in the fall. Now, the state and local transportation departments are using more natural landscaping along roadways and interchanges.
Sound Native Plants occupies only about an acre outside Olympia but makes the most of its limited space, in part because it prepares its products in small, lightweight tubes easy to transport to remote locations. On that acre, with its office in a converted garage heated by a wood stove and no hot running water, it grew about 120,000 plants in 2017.
Alexander has seen a growth in demand since the company started in 1992, mostly driven by government requirements, but also by environmental concerns. Portland has taken a lead in treating stormwater runoff with plants, and has replaced some parking spaces in its downtown core with planted areas that help clean pollutants and capture sediment.
While ornamental growers might look for consistency in size or color of the plants they grow, native growers look for the diversity found in nature. They still have to plan a year or two out for the kinds and numbers of plants they will produce, but those plants can be moved quickly out of a greenhouse.
“Because it’s native, it’s acclimated to the environment,” Alexander said.
But the things that would naturally eat them – rodents, squirrels and deer – are also present and have to be countered by netting and fencing.
Economic forces in a Goldilocks climate
Like all agriculture, nursery and landscape growers are subject to economic forces beyond their control, but they may not be on the same cycle as the rest of the economy.
When the recession hit much of Washington in 2009, many growers were OK for a year or two.
“We lag behind,” Suske said. “2009 was one of our best years because all the construction projects were still going.”
By 2011, however, those projects were finished and few new ones were starting. Some growers went out of business, others cut back and planted less.
“That’s when we woke up and started really meticulously planning,” he said.
Competition for workers in metropolitan Puget Sound is “extreme,” with nurseries vying for workers with construction companies, hotels and restaurants. Wages have gone up at least $1 a year for the past three, and prices can’t go up to match it.
“Where do you find that? You start doing things differently,” he said.
Like Boeing and other manufacturers, Skagit Horticulture and T&L use lean management techniques to analyze their production practices as they’ve seen their labor costs rise. T&L tracks the number of seconds a pot spends on a production line as it moves through multiple steps from propagation to sale.
As he passed a line of workers placing ivy cuttings into soil, Suske said a year ago, a pot averaged 13 seconds on that line. The goal this year: 10 seconds. Their best so far is 10.08.
Nursery growers who can weather the economic challenges can thrive in Western Washington and Oregon because of its Goldilocks climate.
“We never get really cold and never get really hot,” Suske said. “We can’t grow everything, like tropical plants. But the number of different plants we can grow is huge.”
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