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Nurseries assess demand as young gardeners buy plants

Issue Date: June 15, 2022
By Kevin Hecteman
Salvia plants grow at American Takii Inc. in Salinas. Nursery operators say demand is rising for water-wise plantings as customers consider installing drip-irrigation systems amid the drought.
Ag Alert file photo

As drought tightens its grip on California and COVID restrictions ease, nursery producers find themselves adjusting to a new normal of sorts: Business is off from the 2020-21 peak, but still well above pre-pandemic levels.

Some nursery operators say the spike in gardening brought on by COVID shelter-in-place orders has shown staying power through sustained customer demand.

"We did introduce a lot of new people to gardening," said Nicole Walker, manager of Armstrong Garden Center in Anaheim Hills. "A lot of those people have stuck with it, and our demographic has changed. It used to be between the ages of 45 and 60, and now it is significantly younger."

Andrew Emmert of Folsom-based Green Acres Nursery and Supply agreed.

"I think the gardening interest created by COVID is still holding for sure," Emmert said. "We have seen a softening in sales this year in certain categories that were heavily influenced by COVID—things like décor, pottery, furniture, houseplants, succulents and fruit trees."

Scott Klittich, who runs a family nursery in Fillmore, said business has tailed off since the first of June.

"Most of our clientele is wholesale to garden centers and construction and landscapers," Klittich said. "I've seen things slow down. Hard to tell if that's the typical slowdown of the season, though, because oftentimes we do get a slowdown by Father's Day because summer's coming in and people are going on trips."

In 2020 and 2021, "people were frantic to get material," Klittich said. "It didn't matter if it was rooted. It didn't matter if it was small. It just mattered it was green and alive, and it was going out the door. And the price was no object."

Now, he added, customers are choosier about their plants and more sensitive to prices—as is Klittich himself. He's dealing with soaring costs for labor and supplies, assuming they're even available. A recent attempt to get 1-gallon pots, for example, led to the supplier promising delivery months after Klittich actually needed them, he said.

"It's really challenging," Klittich said. "When you find something, you tend to just buy it. There's no place to shop around. You're just lucky to get the product." Redwood shavings for soil mix are seeing more availability, he noted, "but the suppliers that I use, they all say, get it now while you can because it's going to get slower as the end of the year comes up."

As for labor, he doesn't have enough people to go around, so most of the staff is working overtime.

Even with the higher prices, "they still want to get the plants," Klittich said of his customers. "They still enjoy gardening. They enjoy working in the yards."

The plants going into those yards are increasingly of a less-thirsty kind.

Randy Baldwin, chief executive of wholesale nursery San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara, said he's selling a lot of succulents, but his customers also are showing strong interest in Mediterranean-climate plants such as South African proteas and California natives.

"We have been focusing on such plants that are appropriate for our climate for a long time, and periods of drought definitely help to promote and sell these types of plants," Baldwin said. "Still, it gets hard to plant anything when one doesn't have enough water to really get them established. Succulents can generally be planted with good success without having to water much at first, but it is always best to plant the other plants in the fall and then pray for rain."

Emmert said he doesn't hear customers talking about the drought as much as he would have thought. "I honestly think that's because drought has become normalized to some degree, and people have been adjusting their buying habits towards more water-wise plants anyway over the last couple of years," he said.

In some quarters, "water wise" applies to the customer as much as it does to the plant.

"The drought has been making people super aware of watering needs," Walker said, which presents "a "good opportunity for us to talk about appropriate maintenance and watering scheduling of normal plants."

Walker said about 70% of her employer's inventory now consists of low-water-use plants, a trend going back to 2009.

"Now that the drought is happening, everybody's like, 'I need a water-wise plant.' I'm like, 'Great. Here's the whole nursery—what would you like?'" Walker said. "When we say water wise, I think I try to tell people that eventually that means once it's established, once-a-week deep watering."

Klittich said while water districts might be telling people to knock off watering lawns, "they've also said to keep the trees alive, which is good, and to keep the shrubbery alive, which is good," Klittich said, noting that his nursery sells mainly rose bushes and fruit trees.

"That is good for us," Klittich said, "because people can still water those things and maintain them, and keep them around for years to come."

Part of that will be changing irrigation methods. "A big push on that is drip irrigation," Klittich said. "That will put water where it's needed, not on the sidewalks or driveways."

Walker called drip irrigation "the biggest trend that we're trying to get ahead of," beginning with converting the store to the method and training staff.

"Everybody should be using drip irrigation at this point," she said. "It just saves so much water, and it's so easy to set up. I expect a lot more people to be interested in drip."

Walker called the drought "an opportunity for us to help people just take good care of their often-existing plants."

"We just want to give people actual information about what care and maintenance is of all kinds of stuff," Walker said. "I think that's more helpful than just overreacting and putting in rock."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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