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Nurseries that source their plants locally can give you an even greater connection to your garden.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Recreational gardener Cheryl Heisey selects plants for her yard at Crow’s Nest Greenhouses in Blacksburg. Crow’s Nest owner Jay Smith started the business in 1996 and grows about 85 percent of all the plants sold there.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
“I’m not a businessman first,” says Crow’s Nest owner Jay Smith. “I didn’t make any money my first year. ... I would never have considered doing this without selling what I’ve grown myself.”
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Geraniums for sale at Crow’s Nest Greenhouses on Brooksfield Road in Prices Fork. Owner–operator Jay Smith grows the plant from seed or cuttings, and is very particular about watering. “I let the plants get bone dry before watering,” he said.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
The locavore movement has taken off with foodies in recent years as folks balance their love of good eating with a desire to be environmentally conscious. Have you ever considered that the benefits of buying local extend beyond the tomato to the tomato transplant?
Many garden centers actually grow very few of the plants they sell, but instead purchase their plants from specialty nurseries that do the growing. Plants may come from across the country or, in this area, may come from local growers.
Gardeners can do their part to garden in an environmentally responsible way by seeking out locally grown plants at garden centers and nurseries. Ask where the plants are grown, and patronize those garden centers that source their plants locally and regionally.
Not only will you be supporting a local business, but you’ll also be building an even greater connection to the plants that you grow.
Advantages of local
Just like locally grown food, a locally grown plant is going to be much easier on the environment. Transportation and fuel costs are lower, and carbon footprint emissions are decreased. Plus, without a need for the special packaging to ensure a safe journey across the country, less packaging ends up in a landfill.
Beyond the environmental impact, when you buy a locally grown plant you usually are buying a healthier plant. It will already be accustomed to our native soils and growing conditions. And, with less travel time, the plant is less likely to be stressed by excessive handling and is less likely to be over watered or over fertilized.
New gardeners can be assured that they are buying a variety that grows well in our climate, as local growers supply what grows here. The plant will be put out for sale when it’s actually time to plant, not when a buyer across the country wants to sell it to you.
One local grower
Although the number of garden centers that grow their own plants has dwindled greatly in the past decade, there still are some locals who grow what they sell.
One such retailer in the New River Valley is Crow’s Nest Greenhouses in Blacksburg. Owner Jay Smith started the business in 1996 and grows about 85 percent of all the plants sold there.
What he doesn’t grow himself — mostly plants that take a lot of room to grow, such as trees and shrubs — is sourced from nurseries in Virginia and North Carolina.
Smith said he knew from the start that he would grow most of what he sells.
“I got into this business because I like to grow,” he said. “I’m not a businessman first. I didn’t make any money my first year. … I would never have considered doing this without selling what I’ve grown myself.”
Crow’s Nest sits on about 6 acres of land, and, with the exception of the owner’s house and the parking lot, is fully used for growing plants. Five greenhouses, including one used as a cold frame, grow a huge variety of vegetables, herbs, annuals and perennials, while 1 1⁄2 acres are used to grow the fresh produce that the business also sells.
The large variety of plants available is a big part of the draw for gardeners. More than 300 varieties of perennials are sold here, along with a large selection of annuals and vegetable transplants. Thirty-two varieties of tomatoes alone are sold, with an emphasis on heirloom varieties that you won’t find in big-box stores.
Annuals are the biggest moneymaker for the nursery, but being local, the owners know what their customers want and can respond to local customer demand.
For example, in this area, there is a high demand for cool-season vegetable transplants in the fall, but try buying them at a garden center that doesn’t source locally and it’s doubtful you’ll find any for sale. Crow’s Nest sells a lot of fall vegetable transplants, probably because it’s one of the few places you’ll find them.
Local growers also can be more responsive to local weather conditions. Although they go by normal planting times when starting seeds, they are able to react when there’s a cooler than normal spring like this year and take steps to slow down the growing process a little.
Crow’s Nest has become one of my favorite area garden centers, partially because of the selection and partially because of the staff — all gardening enthusiasts themselves. Gardeners like to help other gardeners, so I’ve found this to be a good place to get my gardening questions answered.
I will admit that I find it hard to come here without purchasing something because the entire place is eye candy for gardeners. And so, we will be growing nine varieties of tomatoes and 10 varieties of peppers this year.
My yellow knockout rose came from Crow’s Nest, the first garden center where I had actually seen the yellow variety outside of a magazine. If they don’t have an unusual plant that you’re seeking, they’ll try to source a particular variety from a regional grower.
Becoming a local grower
Show me a passionate gardener and I’ll show you a person who has dreamed of owning a business growing and selling plants. Most of us dreamers really don’t understand how much work goes into making a business like this succeed.
Smith said that Crow’s Nest does about 80 percent of its annual business between April and June, and that he normally works 80-hour weeks during spring. When it comes to success or failure, the business is subject to the same constraint as any farmer: “It’s the weather,” Smith said.
A cool, wet spring like this year can really hurt business. Although Mother’s Day weekend is traditionally the biggest weekend of the year, demand for garden centers is expected to stay strong through early summer as gardeners are finally able to get outside and plant.
Plant sales do continue beyond the spring selling season, but slow down greatly, so garden centers will often look for other ways to supplement income.
Crow’s Nest, for example, sells fresh produce that it grows on-site and has U-pick fields. They also take advantage of holiday demand by selling seasonal pumpkins, poinsettias, wreaths and Christmas trees. Those are very small-margin items, Smith said, but they do help bring in customers beyond the fall.
Crow’s Nest also supplies bedding plants and baskets to the towns of Blacksburg and Christiansburg, and transplants for Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm, a research and teaching facility used by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
When the greenhouse closes to retail business in January and February, it’s time to sow seeds for spring sales — and for a long overdue vacation.
Crow’s Nest is not the only local garden center that grows what it sells.
Vaughn’s Nursery in Dublin, Third Day Nursery in Christiansburg and Walter’s Greenhouse in Hardy are a few of the local businesses that grow a substantial amount of their plant offerings themselves.
Come learn more about local growers and share your favorites on my gardening blog at blogs.roanoke.com/downtoearth.
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