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

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