9 Tips for Starting a Nursery

Want a great return on small acreage? How about a nursery? See our best tips for getting started.

By Deborah Huso | Photos By Jamie Cole

  1. Determine financing needs and get what you need. “It’s hard to start a business where you can’t recoup your investment for two to three years without strong financial backing,” notes Cole.
  2. You need a tillage tractor and a secondary tractor for planting. “We do all of our plantings with machines,” Cole says. “And we do all of our spraying with a refined airblast orchard sprayer.”
  3. You need at least 40 acres to put into production. If you’re a container nursery, you can probably get away with 10 to 15.
  4. It’s easier to keep an existing customer happy than to acquire a new one,” Cole remarks, particularly when it comes to specialty plants.
  5. That being said, trade shows probably offer the best marketing opportunity for nursery growers. Cole says he acquired most of his customers through the Baltimore Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show.
  6. Strive for perfection. Cole says in 2016, he had complaints on less than 100 of the 25,000 plants his nursery shipped out.
  7. Referrals are key. Cole admits to being “a dinosaur” and doesn’t use social media and makes very limited use of websites. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful, but he believes referrals and repeat business are best.
  8. Don’t be deterred by location. “Every area of the country has a microclimate,” Cole points out. “There are nursery industries everywhere.” He advises finding out what grows well in your region. “Texas, for example, does a lot of roses. In Maine, they do evergreens.” Bonus tip: Cole thinks there is opportunity in groundwater capture markets—providing plants for naturalizing and wetland planting.
  9. Don’t overlook the power of native plants. “Focusing on native plants is an under-utilized area of the nursery industry,” Cole says. “Don’t try to drive a square peg in a round hole. It easier to work with Mother Nature than to fight her.”