Challenges of a Native Plant Nursery

 A guest post by Kari Ruder owner of Naturewise Nursery in Cocoa, FL. in response to Monday's post Supporting the Native Plant Industry. Be sure to respond to Kari and all the other native plant professionals who work so hard to bring you locally-grown natives.

Dear native plant customer,

As a native plant enthusiast, I had found it difficult to find nurseries specializing in native plants when I was ready to do some landscaping. While I had some experience in gardening and Environmental Science degrees, I didn't have Florida plant specific knowledge other that what I gained through my job working for my county's Natural Resources Office and through attending talks, field trips, and conferences as a member of FNPS. I started playing around with growing a few plants on the side from seed, and after time, the idea of starting my own native plant nursery popped into my hand. There seemed to be many other people like me wanting to use native plants but not able to find enough sources for them. So off I went to acquire my Masters of Science degree in Environmental Horticulture through the University of Florida. My wonderful professor, Sandra Wilson, even taught a Florida Native Landscaping course.

Naturewise Nursery's location in Kari's back yard.
While working on my degree, I started building my backyard nursery, growing assorted native wildflowers, vines, grasses, and shrubs along with heirloom vegetable plants. Now, unlike traditional garden centers, there is no massive supplier of blooming natives ready for me to truck in and put on display, rather I have to grow them myself and educate customers about the natural seasons our natives go through and that they generally don’t look that good in nursery pots. Finding a retail location was a challenge too, with real estate at an all time high and profit in this industry low.
Naturewise Nursery's first retail location--
outgrown in 2011.
Hoping for growth, I partnered with a couple local small farmers to set up a combined retail native nursery and farm stand on one of the farmer's properties. This seemed rather popular and while none of us were making much money, we were quite happy. Sure we faced various challenges, like the weather, bugs and lack of highway road frontage, but probably the most frustrating thing was trying to figure out what the customer wanted. Now the “popular” natives like Firebush, blanket flower, sunshine mimosa, and muhly grass would sell without fail (most of the time), but I would grow different plants people asked for, and when I had them ready for sale, they might sit there for a year before someone bought them. To this day I still have a few tough bumelia (Bumelia tenax) that I rescued and grew in 2007. Those are going to be donated next week!

When I grow 4” pots people want something bigger but when I don't have 4” pots someone wants them. I don't offer really large trees as they're simply too big to move, too expensive to stock, and too expensive to lose if the irrigation went awry. Most of the time people understand the benefits of choosing a smaller sized tree or shrub (smaller hole to dig, less expensive, faster to establish), but then you get a customer who wants a large shrub and wanting to help them, I spend a lot of time tracking down that large tree.
Naturewise Nursery's most recent location at a working farm.
Wanting to see my native nursery grow and flourish, about 19 months ago I moved the nursery to another farm that offered more open space, more parking, and a building to shelter us from the weather. It was a working farm, which attracted customers wanting to experience a true farm. We even brought in more growers to offer customers more choices in local food and plants. At first we did great and sales seemed to go up, but after time, even with all these new customers, plant sales seemed to decrease. We were selling a larger diversity of products, such as soil, mulch, and natural gardening amendments, but profits didn't rise. We tried to offer what people wanted, from classes to different products to new plants, but then I guess people change their minds.
A flood about a month after Kari moved into the farm location.

Now that we find ourselves having to move yet again, I ask myself, is it worth it to reopen my nursery one more time? Do I want to continue working 50 hard hours a week to run a part time retail nursery where I make less than half of what I made at my last “real job”? If I do, will you buy plants? Will you bring your friends?

Kari Ruder (facing camera) selling her precious native plants for $1,$2, & $3!
So to conclude, I'm writing this to ask you what you want out of a native nursery. When I say, “want”, I mean putting your money where your mouth is. Do you support native nurseries by actually buying plants or just like the idea? Why don't you buy native plants? What is it that keeps you from going to native nurseries? What do you want to buy when you are there? Certain types, sizes, or varieties of plants, other gardening products, something we haven't thought of? People love to tell me “You should do this…” So here is your chance. I'll bet you that we'll have already tried half of what you suggest, but let me hear it.

Kari Ruder
Horticulturist / Owner Naturewise

~ ~ ~


Thanks for all your hard work!
Ginny Stibolt


Anonymous said…
If average homeowners were to start buying more native plants over exotic cultivars, Lowes and Home Depot would mass produce them and mass market them. I hope this never happens because I feel sorry for the plants I see in Lowes. They are just a commodity, inventory to be maintained and disposed of when they don't sell or start to look bad. Plus, the vegetativly-produced native plant clones at the big box stores would have no genetic diversity and would not be from local seed sources. This is why I buy my plants from you Kari, or get them bfrom FNPS sales, Because I know they are true natives that have been raised with love. I don't know that a true native plant nursery can ever be very profitable. Perhaps the profit must be gained through associated services, landscaping, ecological restorations, consulting... I do hope you keep at it. Thanks for your post.
Thanks Kari, for enumerating these challenges and doing so graciously!

Folks, every native nursery in the state would agree with Kari and can add even more challenges. Famous quote from Brightman Logan, owner of All Native, which became the largest native nursery in the state but has struggled to succeed during the recent recession -- "Want to make a million dollars with a native plant nursery? Start with two million."

This industry is in its infancy and we need so much: more and better quality plants, lower costs of production, more customers willing to invest in the inherent higher quality offered by native plants, greater ability to serve urban customers who don't want to drive to the boondocks, stronger connections between future demand and supply ... on and on.

The good news: YOU continue to support us, there are more of YOU all the time, and in the long run, we will win this race. Florida needs our plants.
lindakat said…
Thank you for the opportunity to respond! Great post! I'm a new snow bird. I had been moving toward native landscaping up north for the last few years and would like to use natives in Florida, too. It's going to take me a while because there's a huge learning curve. I don't know the plant palette well enough to design my home landscape using natives. I would like to be able to see native landscape IDEAS or DESIGNS—combinations of plants that compliment each other. These could be actual gardens or designs on paper, or even lists of large, medium and small plants that would be aesthetically pleasing in combination. My community has a common area—a former "preserve" that no one cared for and which was leveled in the hurricanes. A few residents here have made it into a "butterfly garden" but they seem to have no direction, little money, and are just plunking in cast-off poinsettias and things on sale at Lowe's. Ugh! I heard about a native plant nursery at my FNPS mtg, made a trip there and bought some plants to donate to this effort, trying to lead them toward natives. I also bought a marlberry to start replacing the old developer azaleas in my foundation planting. Not sure it will work but... this is where i need that resource of design ideas! Some native planting design suggestions would speed up my process: for a start, how about lists of L/M/S plants for dry sun, dry shade, wet sun, wet shade?
Teresa Watkins said…
The reason that Home Depot and Lowe's don't mass produce natives is because of Kari's day to day experience. Mother Nature doesn't thrive under mass production. Natives need Florida-friendly principles of right plant, right place and proper maintenance afterwards. They need educated buyers.

So my suggestion is to treat it as the unique and rare opportunity to recreate beautiful habitats that increase wildlife and healthy landscapes in urban communities. Most cities and counties in Florida are now mandating a percentage of natives in the landscape for new construction, residential and commercial. But I will tell you that not understanding the cycle of natives (dormancy, soil conditions) was the problem 10-15 years ago, when natives became popular, were planted enthusiastically by uneducated builders/landscape companies and didn't survive well and got a bad rep among the building industry, realtors, and with homeowners.

Landscape companies in various counties have told me that they can't find enough natives to be competitive or do a complete installation.

Marketing your business locally to landscape companies that work with builders would be a good start. Find out what percentage of natives are required in your community for new homes. Speaking at home builders association meetings and to city planners so that they know what product is available in their county and how to use it and maintain it. Provide a local/regional native plant list and resources in your community to Planning departments. Learn what size plant product builders need for their new homes. For new communities, find out the HOA or Property Management company and tell them you'll write an article for their newsletter on the benefits of natives. Start with baby steps in not pushing an all native landscape but that they can be used with non-natives to have color all year round.

Partner with local Master Garden groups and Extension to have native plants featured during any festivals or events. Have the events at your nursery.

Write articles, posts, or provide interviews about the benefit of natives in your area. Have an open house once a month to educate on using natives in the landscape for new Floridians.

I think with the economy and home construction coming back slowly, it would be a good time to open back up. We need more native plant nurseries with plenty of plants so that having natives is not a "I wonder if I should" proposition but "I want more natives!"
Thanks for the thoughtful responses. There is a good resource on the FNPS website to help yo find natives that are suited to your county. Here's a link:

FANN's website has options to find a particular native plant or a member nursery close to you.
T said…
There is also the SJRWMD's 'Waterwise Landscapes' database, which I was involved with, that has all the Florida natives and their growing conditions. You can input your site's zone, sunlight, soil conditions, pH, and salt-tolerance if applicable and it will bring up all the native plants that will grow on your site. It has photographs and wildlife information. You can then export the Waterwise database list to an Excel sheet where you can print and take to a nursery. The website is .
Anonymous said…
Something I find frustrating in most nurseries is lack of information about a plant. I was at a nursery yesterday. They had nice, 5' tall sparkle berry in 5 gal pots and no ID. I would love to see something like a page out of "Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants" that tells me the landscape use, form, characteristics, culture, best features, companion plants, etc. If it isn't blooming laminate a photo. If you can get to your long-term home it would be great to plant samples of your standard offerings so customers could see how they are used.
Anonymous said…
Kari, First, I want to ask WHERE you are located, and at what hours? I converted most of my front lawn to Florida native plants in October 2011. I love it, and even though some of my neighbors are not big fans of the native look, AND even though I have found weed control to be a bigger problem than I would have predicted, I am still glad I did it. The bees, birds and butterflies love it. How about some scarlet milkweed and some blazing stars? If you have some, I'll be there. Have bought from Sharon and Brent Dolan in the past...they are awesome!! but, perhaps you have some plants they do not have??? Hang in there! Peggy in Melbourne
Annie Schiller - I deleted your comment as per your request... please feel free to re-type a response as you please =)
Hobo Botanist said…
Hey Kari, great article, and hang in there! I sympathize with you as a native plant seller too. Folks often don't understand what it takes to grow natives, seed collecting, germinating, potting, weeding, watering, and preparing for weather events, then disposing of stuff that doesn't sell. Bringing new natives into cultivation is experimental too, and plants in cultivation don't always look the same or perform as they do in nature. If you give away product that doesn't sell, or reduce the price of it, does it devalue your product? Do folks then think your product should be worth less than priced? I worry when I hear about sellers who are struggling giving away too much. It is a tough job seven days a week. Farmers such as yourself should be proud of your efforts, and the economy will turn around soon I think.
What a great resource! Thanks and more power to you.
Lisa F Davenport FL said…
I am a homeowner who "discovered" native plants a few years ago and strive really hard to make sure to find them for all my landscaping projects and spread the word. I think the hardest thing you have to overcome is ignorance by the majority of homeowners. I come in contact with people all the time who have NO IDEA what they are planting and just go with what's on sale or looks good whereever they are shopping. Doesn't matter that it is completely wrong for the conditions they will be growing them in, they want to plant something now and check it off the list of chores. If they can get the plant somewhere they are shopping already for other items, they will do it. When I talk to them about it, they understand the difference but not a lot of people go out of their way to do the right thing. Perhaps educational materials and advertising where they are already shopping will help. Probably best left to the FNPS there for mass education.

However, I liked the post earlier by Teresa Watkins Feb 7, 2013 about partnering with builders associations. It starts with educating the homeowner as they are purchasing the home. Realtors too could point out the landscaping options when they resell. We're out there wanting to do the right thing, just have to search hard for the places to purchase that aren't on the way to running other errands. I take vacation days specifically for gardening. I don't meet many others who do the same unfortunately.
We applaud your enthusiasm for natives and efforts to educate the public at large. Indeed, it is an uphill climb. Unfortunately, most construction - landscape and otherwise - is awarded to a low bidder, and that bidder wil be intent on making the most profit by purchasing the cheapest plants possible. In terms of economics, the more available a plant is, the more competitive its price will be; the opposite is true of those plants not commonly found (they are more pricey). Ideally, the solution would be to find a way to discourage nurseries from growing and selling invasive and exotic plants from the gitgo - perhaps with an additional tax or something. Thanks again for your comment. We value your feedback.
denise ann lee said…
Thank you for sharing your expertise. Another thing, in building a plant nursery you really need to start and find a large area for it. So that it will not be difficult to transfer from one place to another. Also, your place should not be hard to locate so customers can refer you to their friends and families who are fond of plants.
That is a great post indeed. I'm moving to a new place soon and I have a batch of plants in my house. I want to take all with me so I need more useful information on plants. Thank you for sharing your experience.
The plants you have shown in your nursery are very beautiful. Your post is very knowledgeable, you hvae cleared my all the doubts about plants. And your post will surely help many people to know about the same!

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