Growing the Plant Less Cultivated

Norman Cole forged his own path to success and, in the process, found a way to save the family nursery.

By Deborah Huso | Photos By Jamie Cole

In the mountains of West Virginia, Norman Cole has found his passion. It’s boxwoods, that favorite of landscapers and homeowners that’s oft used for bordering and hedges. In Cole’s case, the ornamentals became a means of saving his family’s third-generation nursery.

Cole has a quarter-million plants on his property.

Cole has a quarter-million plants on his property.

Cole, the proprietor of Cole Nurseries, Inc., in Pipestem, began exploring more exotic species of ornamentals after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1991. “My passion has always been new plant material,” he says. “If you grow what everyone else grows, you grow a commodity, and the market dictates your price.” Before the early ’90s, Cole Nurseries was growing and selling the same things everyone else sold. That included arborvitaes, hollies, yews, spruce pines, hydrangeas, viburnums and hemlock.

Today, however, “we’re a specialty boxwood producer,” Cole says of the nursery started by his grandfather in 1937. In addition to Cole and his wife, the nursery also employs three full-time employees and has a staff of 11 during high season. “We have control over our prices. It’s a large risk, but if you find an exotic plant no one else has and it’s popular, you can charge a premium.”

Investing in New Products

While you might not think of West Virginia when boxwoods come to mind, Cole says the Mountain State actually has the perfect “microclimate” for boxwoods. His farm sits at 3,000 feet. “The climate here offers a physiological rest for the plant,” he explains. “It cools down at night in the summer, which helps with photosynthesis.”

In addition to favorable weather, being a specialty boxwood producer takes time and patience. Cole has two plant patents and is in the process of acquiring two more. But here’s the thing: It can take eight to 10 years before you know if a boxwood you’ve established is worth patenting.

Among the boxwoods he’s developed is the Buxus Highlander, which grows at a rate of 24 to 30 inches per year. Compare that to the typical boxwood, which grows 3 to 4 inches in a year. “It’s basically a living privacy fence for a homeowner,” he says of the patented ornamental. Plus, it has the added benefit of being deer-resistant.

Cole just purchased a Massey Ferguson 4710 and has two more Masseys in the barn.

Cole just purchased a Massey Ferguson 4710 and has two more Masseys in the barn.

Currently, Cole Nurseries sells a little over 20 cultivars of boxwoods and is in the process of reintroducing a turn-of-the-last-century boxwood known as Buxus Aurea. Cole has 1,500 of the latter in production right now; that’s out of a quarter-million total boxwoods he’s currently raising on his land.

Specialized knowledge and experience are a necessity in this business, in which agronomy and propagation techniques are also a must, as is an understanding of market forces. While he credits his father and grandfather with providing him a lot of hands-on education growing up, he says, “I probably learned more on how to grow plants in college.”

He adds he’s learned to “always view a problem as something to be solved, not something to stop me.” The recent Great Recession was a case in point.

“Forty percent of wholesale nurseries in the U.S. went out of business,” he says. But Cole Nurseries hung in the game to no small degree because they were gaining great margins per plant as a result of occupying a niche market and because of persistently working to create new propagations for customers.

“We increased our propagation by 15% per year during the recession,” Cole says. “It takes five to seven years to produce a sellable plant, so we are now seeing the effects of those numbers combined with a stronger economy. I say it in jest now, but it was kind of like putting in all your chips in Vegas—I knew we were either going to go out of business a couple months sooner with the extra propagation, or we could take advantage of a recovery. I didn’t want to enter a recovery without inventory.

“I’m constantly looking for mutations to propagate and evaluate for a new planting,” says Cole. Any licensed propagators who grow Cole’s patented boxwoods must pay him royalties, which represents yet another revenue stream in addition to the largely wholesale operation he runs.

“Initially, we were a small local nursery,” says Cole. “Now we sell plants as far away as 350 miles. Instead of producing more plants, we’re able to get a lot more margin per plant,” he says of his boxwoods.

Against the Grain

Buxus Aurea is a turn-of-the-last-century boxwood Cole is bringing back.

Buxus Aurea is a turn-of-the-last-century boxwood Cole is bringing back.

It generally takes two years to propagate a plant and then three years in the field before he can sell them. That long cultivation time is part of what makes boxwood cultivation pricey. Cole says it costs about $30,000 per acre to produce his boxwoods, and he currently has about 125 acres in production.

A significant portion of that cost, says Cole, is a “strong, integrated pest management program,” which focuses on giving special attention to the boxwoods during the periods of the year when they are most susceptible to insect infestation. “We spray during those peak times,” he explains.

“We’ve also worked really hard to improve organic matter in the soil structure,” Cole adds. “Healthier plants are less susceptible to disease.”

The primary threats to his boxwoods are boxwood leafminer and boxwood psyllid. “We use some new insecticides that are absorbed into the plants to provide long-term resistance to insects,” he says. “The boxwood blight is the main disease of concern. It was brought over from Europe and originated in Australia.” Cole says he maintains a quarantine situation to prevent its infiltration onto his farm. “We don’t allow any off-farm equipment or boxwoods onto our property,” he notes.

At the end of all this trouble—if all goes according to plan—is a fairly profitable plant. A high-end boxwood will sell wholesale for about $225 and may retail for as much as $1,500. What goes with all that patience, however, is lots of know-how.

Cole says he’s been constantly increasing sales, having sold 25,000 boxwoods in 2016. He hopes to hit 28,000 this year, maybe more. He says the pace of sales increase has been about 15% per year since he started growing and selling them.

“Like every other farmer, what’s helped me the most has been the willingness to re-evaluate what I’m doing every year and be willing to change,” Cole says. “That’s served me the best. It got me from a wide spectrum plant mix to a very narrow spectrum. I went against the trends, and it’s been worth it.”