Plant Sales in the Time of COVID
While COVID-19 raged and folks were quarantined at home, the world around us changed quickly. Gone were the days of going out for meals, casual shopping and visiting with friends face to face. Many of us quickly said hello to months stuck at home with our fur babies and families. All of a sudden, Zoom meetings were the only way we communicated with work and school colleagues, online shopping and food delivery became our desired choice for grocery shopping and retail therapy, and we found ourselves with time to fill that would normally have been filled with more social connections being surrounded by people.
What did we do to fill that time? We learned to crochet, we painted, we made TikTok videos, we cooked (oh goodness, did we cook. Anyone need some sourdough starter?), watched everything available on Netflix, just to name a few …
And we gardened.
We turned our backyards into havens of blossoms and vegetables. We sowed seeds and planted containers of herbs and flowers. We spent the money we planned to spend on that trip to Italy on our landscapes and our landscapes flourished.
We also spent more time online. We read books, newspapers, magazines and online articles. We garnered a newfound love of nature, wildlife and plants. We took interest in books specifically about gardening and the ecosystem. We followed our local Audubon chapter on Instagram. We fed the birds. We learned about native plants and how they help our local ecosystem by providing food for our bird populations and habitat for small mammals, and we discouraged the continued spread of nonnative, invasive species. As much as general gardening took off in the age of COVID, I firmly believe that the native plant trend rose by leaps and bounds.
A Major Growth Spurt
As a small business owner of a native plant nursery in western North Carolina, we saw our sales rise exponentially in 2020 and 2021. Local retail garden centers and landscapers also spoke of having the best year they’ve ever had.
Carolina Native Nursery deals mostly with wholesale clients all over the East Coast. We sell to retail garden centers, landscapers, landscape architects and re-wholesalers. We specialize in growing straight species native plants and native Azaleas, Kalmia and Rhododendron from seed. At our inception in 2003, although we were a wholesale-only nursery, if we had a retail customer show up to buy plants out of our two greenhouses (one of which being a propagation house) we would kindly help them out, mark up the price of the plants a little bit, load up their vehicles and send them on their way.
It is often hard to find straight species natives at garden centers and we wanted to make sure everybody had access to high- quality straight species native perennials and shrubs for their landscapes, so we didn’t mind when a retail customer strolled in. It wasn’t until 2017 that we realized that we were leaving a ton of money on the table by not offering retail clients a place to come get their native plants.
At that point, we built tables, made signage and hauled a handful of every species of plant we grow to one central area and opened our “Bee Native Plant Shop.” The first couple of years were hit or miss. Some days we’d have five customers, and a lot of days we had none. Then we ramped up our social media presence, started doing more advertising locally, and hosted garden clubs and master gardener groups to tours of the nursery.
We were slowly gaining traction and by word of mouth and a lot of Facebook posts, the customers started showing up more and more. From 2017 to 2019, we went from $50,000 to $55,000 in retail sales, still less than 6% of our total yearly sales. We were happy with those numbers and then COVID hit, and BOOM! Our retail shop blew up!
In 2020 we saw an increase of 47% in retail sales and last year we blew all our records out of the water and have done a whopping $158,000 in total retail sales registering a total of 14% of our yearly sales for 2021 both wholesale and retail. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. We now have 59 greenhouses and five propagation houses and we’re growing more every year.
At Carolina Native Nursery, our hope is that — after COVID subsides and it’s safe and responsible to live life like we did pre- pandemic — our love of gardening and landscaping will continue. May we continue to plant native plants for the birds, build raised beds and fill them with veggies and herbs, cultivate flowers and ferns, and harvest apples and plums from our backyards.
Not just for our bottom line but for the joy and peace of mind it brings!
Shelby Jackson is a member of GPN’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2018.