When spring is delayed

Enjoying our first day above 55 F in quite a while here in mountains of Southwest Virginia. We’ve had far-below-average temperature and three significant snow events over the past four weeks.

Saturday, April 7, 2018 at our farm (Newport, VA).  Not making me want to garden.

For much of the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Midwest, spring has been very slow to arrive. The jet stream has been riding mighty low, and is taking another dive next week. For gardeners, this is frustrating (see above), though here in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b, we’re still well within the “last freeze” window.

For ornamental plant nurseries, greenhouses, and retailers/garden centers in these regions, this is darn close to devastating (the South has fared much better).  For growers and retailers, spring is the busiest time of the year – many see 70-80% of their annual sales between March and early June.  Of that amount, at least 50% of retail garden center sales will happen over the weekends.  IF it is nice.  Folks stay away in droves when the weather stinks. And this has repercussions down the supply chain.

Chris Beytes, the editor of GrowerTalks and GreenProfit (two highly subscribed-to publications within the greenhouse and garden center sector), has been keeping track of spring sales for years.

Growers and garden centers self-report a weekend rating on a scale of 1 (dreadful) to 10 (can’t keep product on the shelf, happily exhausted, planning vacation in Tahiti).  Not all states end up represented – either they’re too busy selling (Florida!) or too depressed to report (possibly Ohio!).

Here’s last week’s map (click for a link to Chris’s newsletter column)

Lots, lots of gray.

Closer to home: I took my Ornamental Plant Production and Marketing students on a field trip last Friday. We toodled up I-81 to visit a container nursery (woody plants) and a wholesale greenhouse focused on quality bedding plants and baskets for the independent garden center (IGC) market.

The greenhouse was absolutely packed to the gills with market-ready annuals, herbs, veggie transplants, and hanging baskets.

And it was eerily quiet.

A Friday afternoon in April, and the only folks in a wholesale greenhouse…were the owners. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.  There should be workers, carts, trucks, beeping, yelling, transplanters cranking, etc.

Weather over the previous weekend and early week had been spectacularly crappy. Because the garden centers across the region had not moved enough product to restock, there was no shipping. Because there was no shipping, there was no space freed up to put anything else.  Because there was no space, no transplanting could occur, and seedlings/liners were still in their trays.  Calls were probably being placed to the propagation greenhouses that grow the plugs/liners, asking them to hold off on shipping until the finishing grower could clear out the backlog of plug trays.  Plus perfect plants stay perfect only so long. Pesky things tend to grow/flop/get pests and pathogens.

I love for students to see the real-world hustle/bustle/insanity of spring that growers face each year. The act of growing plants is what sparks the interests of the students – but  understanding the supply chain and market behavior is just as important. We did get great tour – along with a  lot of fodder for class discussions.

Hopefully things will warm up; garden centers across the regions will be jam-packed, and all will be well. If this paralysis continues much longer, the window of opportunity will start closing.  It gets warm/hot, schools let out, folks go on vacation…and lose that got-to-garden feeling.

You can help repair this logjam (yes you can!). Regardless of the weather this weekend (because you’re a tough cookie/Garden Professors reader), get thee to your favorite garden center or retail greenhouse this weekend. And buy! Buy! Buyyyyy!

11 thoughts on “When spring is delayed”

  1. Different segments of the horticultural industry certainly will look at things differently. For me and my plant health care business, the wetness has been an issue but the cool weather (here in southwest Ohio) has greatly slowed down the phenological progression and kept my life sane. Nothing more insane in plant health care than a series of 80 degree days in March with plants and insects going through their phenological progressions in hours rather than weeks. We had that about 6 years ago, with black locust trees coming into bloom in early April compared to the average of mid-May. That was a nightmare! So, I am mostly enjoying this spring, at the expense of garden centers, I guess. I suspect orchards in my area are happy that most fruit trees will be budding late. Thank you for the information, as always, it is helpful to read these different perspectives.

    1. Great observation, Ronald! Despite my disgruntlement at not being able to work in garden, an upside is our Northern highbush blueberries (2.7 acres of you-pick) are still holding reasonably tight – though some buds are popping – and we were 28 F last night. Last spring was entirely too warm too fast, and there was a lot of damage to orchards across Virginia when a not-that-unusual freeze of a couple days in a row occurred mid-April.

  2. A garden center in northeast Kansas – latter half of March the over-wintered stock comes out of the hoop houses. The semi’s start unloading new stock. April 1 – Cold, snowy, 19 degrees overnight. Everything goes back into the houses. A few days later, it’s warm, and everything comes out again. April 7, another cold front – mid 20’s overnight. Everything goes back in. It warms up, and a lot – but not everything this time! – comes back out. April 14th – mid 20’s again, everything back in.

    Besides a lot of weary employees, we are many 10’s of 1000’s of dollars in sales off track from last year. There is an old saying in this business – you never make up a lost weekend. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is very disheartening…

    1. Brian, I am so sorry. Most nurseries in the Mid-Atlantic would have normally removed their poly film by now (many haven’t), so I can’t even imagine how behind things are in Kansas. And I do believe that saying – especially the farther into “spring” this cold weather is pushing. Gardening has become such an “OMG SPRING” thing for so many people, that if those purchases don’t happen prior to Memorial Day (or schools getting out), it just doesn’t happen. More experienced gardeners, of course, realize it’s a multi-season effort (to reap year-round rewards!) but again, garden centers and retail growers do rely on that spring-impulse crowd for a good portion of sales. Thanks for the report, and best of luck for the rest of the season!

  3. Southwestern Ontario here. We have been experiencing a colder than normal spring so far. I have been going to the local nurseries seeking reassurance that spring is coming. They hardly have anything out to purchase yet.

    1. Right-o, and see Brian B.’s great comment regarding the nursery/hoophouse factor. But thank you for your efforts!! Keep trying!

    2. Thank you for your efforts, Margaret. Hang in there! And see Brian’s comments regarding the hoophouse struggles.

    1. I saw that as well. We had snow last night (again). Currently hunting for small bit of real estate in Florida (that won’t be underwater in 20 years). Sigh.

  4. I own a small garden center in Central Oregon,which is in the high desert area (we’re a solid zone 5.)
    Much of what Brian said applies to us as we overwinter a lot of stock Outdoors we have just had to hold off in getting too much product from our Growers, this is just crazy so far. My poor hanging baskets in our on heated greenhouse usually are doing great by now they’re barely blooming.

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