Friday, February 23, 2007

Designing Your Product Choices

Friday, February 23, 2007

I've been away for most of the week and just getting back home finds me facing a long list of things in various states of completion. I had to stop at the wood stove store in Montpelier and gets some advice on a cleaner for the Vermont Castings stove we have. It's building up some creosote inside the wood box and I don't want to see that continue.

The salesman at the store said he worked at Vermont Castings back when it was a start up and customer service had 50 employees. Gail worked there at about that time I think. When I picked out what I needed, I looked over the new Defiant enamel coated stoves. Lots of new features but the price tag of $2900 is a little difficult to take. I think I'd go the outdoor furnace route before I made that big an investment for a new interior stove. That kind of money makes you study a little least it does with us.

As I drove home, the wind was coming up steadily and snow was blowing off the top of the snowbanks and straight across the road. Visibility wasn't good in places and it was good to get closer to home. En route I was in a line of traffic coming into Marshfield so I had no choice but to slow down and look at the new land, complete with three feet of last week's fresh snow. It was quite a site. The snow erases lots from the canvas of the land but it still affords a look at the high and low points. I'll have to get back this weekend and take some pictures because I'm in the mood to begin planning the hosta gardens.

When your are thinking about starting a nursery, you should really do a little market research first.There's no sense growing something that is either not in demand any more or is readily grown by others, or produced cheaper than you'll have to sell it for. When we moved our gardens to Marshfield from Shelburne, Gail and I decided to slow things down to 3-4-5 plant groups from the dozens we had been growing before. By reducing the scale, it forced us to learn our numbers better and we've never forgotten those lessons. Things would probably look different now if we had learned the importance of numbers years earlier.

Hostas are plants which we have grown for years. It was only in more recent years when the hosta bug got me that we got more and more carried away with the number of varieties we grew. They are a great example of an approrpriate plant to sell in Vermont right now because they are receiving fine publicity in gardening magazines. Since Vermont is reported to be the third shadiest state in the continental US, this plant is even more appropriate. These are things you can market as you talk to customers and these comments do sell plants.

Hostas are not readily available at Vermont nurseries.....well....... I shouldn't say they aren't available, but should say there are fewer than a couple dozen varieties typically available. This translates to good sales and a customer base which grows quicker than normal once people know you have an above average selection for sale. Over the past few years we have ramped up to over 150 varieties for sale and that is a fare selection for a state without a lot of commercial hosta growers.

When you settle on any product to sell in your business, you have to understand the supply chain. Now days people come to know a business for certain items and if they see something once, they might not buy it that time but they expect to be able to make a purchase later. The supply side of gardening is important because you want a good quantity of anything you advertise or list on your web page. You have to track this carefully because if you sell out, it's difficult to get back-up stock at diffferent times of the summer. Since it's also a lot cheaper to reproduce your own plants instead of buying them in, growing and reselling them, you have to have plants in various stages of market readiness. With hosta, there's great variation in the time from planting to plants being market size so there's lots to learn and remember.

One thing we stick kind of close to is the surveys which the American Hosta Society does each year. Members are asked to rank hostas and we try to grow close to the rankings, knowing that the list will appear in garden magazines and people will want what they become familiar with.

How people pick plants for their garden is an interesting thing and deserves some study. Some people do it by color, some by height, some by alphabet. Some people buy every plant they can find by specific hybridizers and some come with the annual populatiry poles and start at the top of the list and buy towards the bottom until they get what they want or fulfill their financial quota for the day. You have to be prepared for this behavior and take advantage of it.

There's more to growing hostas for sale than I can quickly write here but here are a few summary thoughts worth remembering. Hostas are available from hundreds of sources on the Internet. There are some great wholesale level growers out there and it just takes a little time on the Internet to determine where to buy. Some companies are one-person shows which grow their own stock, sometimes including their own registrations. Those people might be a tad more expensive but typically give really good stock.

There are tissue culture labs which crank out flats of hostas in plugs by the thousands. They still command a good price even though the hostas are small and might require another year or two before being market ready. There are companies which sell in quart on up to gallon pots and their are wholesalers, predominantly from Europe which sell large divisions of bareroot field grown stock. It doesn't take long to learn the places and the prices which make you happy. We purchase from a mix of such places but we try to go to some of the smaller guys similar to our operation. One of those "help your fellow man" things.

The knowledge you have about your product is critical to the success of your business. The considerations we suggest about hostas can be transferred to other plants and other products. Once you know how to grow a certain plant and want to offer it for sale, think through the issues we described.

The wind must be gusting to 25 or 30 mph right now as it pounds against the house. A long day on the road has made eyes cross and I think it's a bigger issue than the greasy finger print on my left eyeglass lens. Rest in the prone position sounds great.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where "rest" is synonymous with "nice" least for tonight.

With garden planning wishes,

George Africa

Saturday, February 10, 2007

New England Grows, VFF Grows!!

An even zero degrees here at Vermont Flower Farm this morning. The sky has a smoke grey tint as the sun rays reluctantly shake off last night's sleep and reach for the top of Hooker Mountain and surrounding ridgelines. The temperature will begin dropping any minute now but I expect it will be a nice day.

Gail just headed out with Karl the wonder dog. She seems to always end up talking with someone passing by the place no matter what time of year it is. This is the time ice fishermen speed by. They're in a hurry to get to Peacham Pnd and find a parking space as close to the ice as they can. Within less than half an hour we'll be able to hear the burr-r-r-r of ice augers cutting holes for tip ups. Peacham Pond has a population of brown trout that's not half as respectable as it was when we first came here but fish and water quality is yet another discussion.

Hands down, Vermont is a great place to live and garden. It's the best in our book. Nonetheless, if you are going to operate a business now days, you have to keep current on what your industry is doing. The Internet is a fantastic way to learn what's going on but you need professional opinions and you need to see what people are doing outside of Vermont. Many businesses in this state have excellent products but until the market external to Vermont is developed, the true potential is often unknown.

Anytime people stop and ask for help about starting a new business I tell them to get reading. I have no idea how many magazines I read in a month but winter time is catch-up time and Gail and I read constantly. From spring on it's difficult to read much and magazines stack up waiting for winter to approach and the comfort of the woodstove and the wing back chair.

The green industry produces mountains of magazines. Many are free, some are expensive, some in between. One great idea from a $50 a year subscription pays for the annual cost and more. That's the way you have to think about magazines. An Internet search can get you going and after you're established for a while, new offers will frequent your e-mail or mailbox.

Branch-Smith Publishing is "big" in the horticultural world and puts out 4 magazines that are quite good. Greenhouse Production and Management, Garden Center, Nursery Management and Production and Garden Center Products and Services will get you started. Ball Seed Company and Ball Publishing produce Green Profit and that's free too. Meister Media Worldwide produces Greenhouse Grower, and Scranton-Gillette Communication puts out Greenhouse Product News and a number of other lawn and garden magazines. These are professional magazines and meant for the trade. They are published through trade advertising and provide a nice monthly summary of what's going on.

We subscribe to American Nurseryman too and think it's a good investment. It is published 26 times a year and has a good cross section of plant material stories, the latest in insect invaders and possible controls and timely articles about new trends. It always features successful nurseries and greenhouses and that's very important too.

There's nothing like a trade show to jump start your mental energies and New England Grows in Boston is an annual show of great merit. This past year it won another award for it's rapid growth as an industry leader. The show was this week at the Boston Convention and Exhibit Center and it was well worth the trip and the entrance fee. There were over 700 vendors present and the show catalog couldn't have said it better "One Show, A Million Ideas".

It's 198 miles from here to the convention so the trip affords time to think about plans for the coming year. I always make a mental laundry list of vendors I want to speak with and I include things that I want to see first hand that I've only seen in magazines before. In addition to the displays there are ongoing lectures and demonstrations which put you in touch with some of the finest information specialists in the business.

In coming weeks I'll write about some of the things I saw at the show. I noted some great new nursery stock tempered for New England's varied climate, new hosta varieties, perennials with exiciting new leaf color and texture, and some interesting specialists growing plants for forest, river and wetland restorative planting. In the meantime, if you're not a garden magazine subscriber, stop at a good bookstore and try People, Places and Plants Magazine, Fine Gardening, Garden Gate, Horticulture or any of the many special issue releases on garden design. I'm not sure that these will conjure up a million new gardening ideas but they will certainly help you reevaluate your current gardens or help design the ones you've only been thinking about.

Writing from the mountain above PeachamPond but thinking about our new endeavor along the Winooski River on Route 2 in Marshfield.

With gardening thoughts,

George Africa

Monday, February 05, 2007


Monday, February 5, 2007

Gail is in the kitchen putting together a turkey pot pie, Karl is snoozing in front of the wood stove like only a wonder dog can, and the only birds left on the feeder at 4:30 PM are Juncos. The wind is blowing so hard that even their little feathers are heading every which way as they peck at the millet seed. The sun is sinking and so is the temperature which is now at 3 below. No idea how low it will go tonight but the wind today was just brutal. I'm sure the wind chill was below zero all day.

This time of year I make myself go through thousands of pictures taken during the summer. I'm learning to take pictures and have a long way to go so I take lots of pictures. I try to give a self critique during winter when there's no one to hear my comments but me. At work today, someone asked me if we grew hollyhocks. I gave my stock answer "Buy a pack of seeds." which no one believes, and then I did the obligatory explanation which no one wants to hear. I explained that these plants have a fibrous root system, are susceptible to years like this one with lots of freeze-thaw-freeze, wet,wet,wet, frozen. When the person got to the "Maybe I can find some plants at WalMart next spring" I brought the conversation to a quick stop and got on with other things. I didn't want to share my thoughts and mumbles about Wal-Mart with someone I didn't know very well.

Hollyhocks have been with us for a long time. Every farmhouse back door, barn milking parlor entrance, outhouse in New England probably had hollyhocks in close proximity at some time in the past. People in my generation and older remember these beauties and if they see any in our display gardens, they want some. Our problem is we don't grow them to sell and don't plan to start because the root system is typically frail for the size of the plant which develops over time. If you can find a place that grows them in deep, narrow pots such as tree band pots used to grow tree seedlings, you might stand a chance. In contrast, a package of seeds in fairly plain ground will do very well. Being a biennial it will take this season into the next to see some flowers but if they like your soil enough to dig their feet in, you'll have them for some time. They self seed nicely and produce enough new plants from seed that even bad winters/springs don't knock them all out.

Years ago I got into this dried flower thing and I decided to give hollyhocks a try. I gathered flat boxes and mixed borax and cornmeal with a little fine sand and used that as a drying agent. It worked very well and the flowers stood up nicely when completely dried. I can't recall the proportions but 50-50 on the Borateem/cornmeal will do just fine. The borax leaves the flowers with a residual insect chaser which is kind of nice.

Hollyhocks are part of the "bones" of many gardens because they grow tall and bloom for a long period of time. We intend to plant them in the new gardens along the fence lines so the masses of color help paint a backdrop of color visible from Route 2. This plant has a couple less than desirable traits which make planting as a backdrop a more sensible idea. Hollyhocks lure Japanese Beetles from near and far. In short order the beetles eat holes into the large leaves and make a mess of the plant. The flowers still stand out but in a close garden setting they just aren't pretty anymore. Hollyhocks also get a rust which stains the leaves before they begin to brown, blacken and curl up. Cornell University has a good fact sheet Hollyhock Rust: Puccinia malvacearum. It describes the rust and treatments. Neem is an organic product which apparently is helpful but you have to tap your savings account before buying any.

Despite a couple shortcomings, these are a nice flower that will stimulate lots of conversation. They are widely used as the subject of paintings. Georgia O'Keeffe painted a black hollyhock over 70 years ago, long, long before Alcea niger became popular on the American market. About eight years ago I purchased a couple hollyhock prints at the Laudholm Craft Festival in Wells, Maine. I'm vague on the artists names now and over time the prints have faded a bit, hung in too much light. Schott and Gallant are coming back to me but I'm not as clear on the names as I am clear on the beauty of these flowers. During what's left of Winter 2006-7, maybe you will want to research the varieties and purchase some seeds for spring planting. If you do, they'll look really nice in 2008.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where 24/7 cold has grabbed tightly to Vermont for the next 4-5 days to come. Warm drinks, comfortable chair, toasty fire, and garden catalogs will get you through. Hollyhock......Alcea.........Nice.

George Africa

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Organizing a Company

It's a beautiful morning here on the hill, 5.6 degrees with a mild wind that reminded me to tuck in my shirt when I took Karl the wonder dog for his morning walk. It was a short walk for him, his choice, but it gave me long enough to notice the stars turning off for the night as the sunlight grew stronger from the east.

Sun rises tell me it's time to get moving. A sunrise as beautiful as this morning's encourages a good attitude and a good day. Some folks even get fanatical about sunrises, traveling back to certain places, taking pictures and movies....that kind of thing. My favorite place other than Vermont is Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park in Maine. There's something special about sitting on that granite mountain and looking towards the harbor and the ocean and watching the sun. Here in Vermont, Cabot Plains is an easily accessible place with great sunrises and sunsets. Good or bad, you cannot question your sense of beauty when you can often hear shutters close on nearby cameras of all sizes.

Sunset isn't on my mind today, finishing our 2006 taxes by sunset is. I already have some other commitments at both ends of the day so I may not make my goal...... but I'll be close. It keeps reminding me that my last post Tax Time Beckons didn't explain sole proprietorships and limited liability companies. I should have mentioned them.

If you decide to put together a nursery business, or any other business, you need to register the business within your state. Choosing business names is a topic in itself. A name that is available for use within your state and on the Internet, and a name which any number of people don't already use in other states has to be considered. Many people have this thing about names and pick the name first, forgetting that it may already be taken. A business card with your name on it is nice, but a business card does not a business make.

In Vermont the Secretary of States Office is very well organized, consumer friendly, Internet oriented and just plain helpful. You can even find a real person to talk with by telephone. Their site has a database of registered names so you can begin to see if your name makes sense. As I say, this is a topic in itself but the process has to be respected.

For some reason people including a lot of paid business consultants think that small business translates to sole proprietorship. I don't agree. In today's age I feel that you have to protect your business as well as your other valuables and to that end a limited liability company is the way to go. Although attorneys may charge $300-$400-$500 to do this for you, in Vermont the process and form are readily available on the Internet on the Secretary of State site. I suspect this may hold true in other states too. Starting this year you can even file annual reports and make annual renewal payments on-line.

An LLC separates your personal and your business resources so if the business runs into financial difficulty, it is clear what goes with what. Something to think about for you but not really a choice as far as I am concerned. No one likes the thought of financial distress or being sued for a business related event. We seldom hear of problems in Vermont but it's more prevalent than you think and is important to be prepared for anything.

If you're interested in a nursery business, and live in the east, there's an event this week that you have to consider. New England Grows is a three day trade show held annually at the convention center in Boston. I shouldn't just say convention center, it's the one off 415 Summer Street. This is a fun show with over 600 exhibitors and daily presentations about relevant nursery topics. It's the single best place to find out who sells products you need for your business. It's also the place to meet people face to face, find out what's new and get other folk's opinions on challenges you will face.

If the entrance price seems steep, you may not have been to a show lately. Just pay the price as it will pay dividends over time. Also remember to keep your receipts and travel info as it's all tax deductible. Oh yes, don't forget a good pair of walking shoes and in the first hour pay attention to places to sit down. At some point you'll want a break and it might just be at the same time everyone else has the same idea. The show runs Tuesday through Thursday. Say hi if you pass me on the floor.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where the sun is up and the temperature is down. That happens most days but is more noticeable in winter.

Good Gardening thoughts,

George Africa