Economy putting a pinch on nurseries, landscapers

BRADENTON — At H&H Nursery, Sales Manager Scott Edwards has watched inventory stockpile at the company’s facility on State Road 64 East.

Shrubs, hedge bushes and trees have been a tough sell at H&H Nursery as well as at other Manatee County plant nurseries due to the decline in the construction industry.

The lack of demand for plants and landscaping services is causing sales declines for nurseries and landscapers, who in turn are reducing labor costs and inventory.

“Three years ago, I was looking for plants because sales were booming from construction and they were hard to find,” Edwards said. “Now everything’s just sitting there.”

Edwards estimated wholesale plant purchases, which account for about 60 percent of the H&H Nursery’s business, are down about 50 to 60 percent.

“Wholesale is off extremely,” he said.

Greg Taylor, co-owner of Ralph Taylor’s Wholesale Nursery, has seen sales decline by about 12 percent this year. In 2006, the nursery’s sales were only down 3 to 4 percent.

Now, Taylor’s customers — Home Depot, H&H Nursery and Turner Palm — are scaling back due to the economy.

“Landscapers have taken the biggest hit because of the home building, obviously,” Taylor said.

And, due to rising costs in chemicals, soil, fertilizer and plastic pots, Taylor said his business reduced labor costs as of Dec. 1 by cutting hours for the staff of 35 down to 32 hours a week.

In addition, the $10,000 the company spent on bonuses last year will not be possible this year.

“We have a great crew and we want to keep them,” Taylor said. “So we’ll go as long as we can without layoffs even if we have to go down to 28 hours a week just to keep our staff.”

Taylor, who also serves as president of the Manasota Chapter of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, said membership among the trade-only association has declined to 83 this year from 125 last year.

“It had been growing over the last couple of years,” Taylor said. “But because of the economic situation, people were pulling out.”

Membership costs are $350, $500 or $700 depending on the size of a company and its sales, said Jennifer Neils, public relations director for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association.

Neils said state membership has declined to an estimated 1,900 this year from about 2,200 last year.

“Our industry is definitely feeling the crunch because of the downsizing in the housing market,” Neils said. “However, growers are getting more creative and landscapers are definitely getting creative.”

Steve Neilsen, president of Critter Ridge Landscaping, said his business started offering more services such as landscape lighting and trimming services since sales are down.

In addition, Critter Ridge has cut the prices on some inventory by about 15 percent to compete for home improvement landscaping jobs.

“For medium and larger-sized landscaping jobs, people still see the value,” Neilsen said.

At Suncoast Nursery Inc., owner Ralph Garrison is hoping to tap into more landscaping projects at existing homes.

Suncoast Nursery’s niche market is growing plants for interior landscaping. However, the economy has hurt Suncoast’s sales as its client base of corporations reduces office plant supplies.

“We just lost a (corporate) account in California where we sold over 1,000 potted plants,” Garrison said. “The demand just isn’t there.”

As a result, Suncoast reduced its inventory by about 30 to 40 percent from last year, and its workforce was reduced from 17 employees to nine.

“I’m hoping for a high number of people re-landscaping their existing homes,” Garrison said. “I’ve been in business for 30 years, and I’ve known people who’ve been in the industry 50 years, and this is the worst we’ve ever seen it.”