Rhody Native: Propagation for Sustainable Landscapes
The two year Rhody Native™ Propagation Workshop Series encouraged growers to diversify their offerings to include local ecotypes of genetically diverse native plants, through a learner-centric native plant propagation training program. The coordinators developed a two-year pilot workshop series scheduled to mirror seasonal growing activities. The workshops included presentations from local horticultural experts, experienced growers, landscape designers/architects, the head of the state agricultural division, a university professor and a botanist, providing information on growing native plants for a commercial market. This included discussions on design, identification, propagation methods, restoration needs, and marketing. Each workshop series featured round table discussions on indoor seed production and native plant marketing and demand.
Participants of both workshop series received binders with propagation information and access to an online website for continued self-guided research. Workshop presentations are also archived on the web site for future viewing. To date, 21 local nursery growers and garden centers have received donations of plants, or seed and cut stem materials for propagation. The figure includes 5 non-profit organizations (including the Rhody Native initiative) and 13 nurseries and garden centers who participated in the pilot workshop series. Sales records were obtained for participants receiving plant material, and indicate that over the course of two years, plant sales from the pilot group have totaled $22,733.47, with an average yearly sales figure of $1,367.80 per business. The attached excel sheet does not reflect the revenue for garden centers that purchased from the wholesale grower, as this was beyond the scope of reporting for this grant.
As a result of the growing and sales efforts of the original 13 participants, 8 additional garden centers have purchased plants to sell at retail. Additionally, by leveraging funds from an additional federal grant, the Rhody Native initiative was able to provide contract growing opportunities for the 2012 growing season, to three of the wholesale growers, resulting in an additional $15,000.00 in total revenue in 2012. In 2013, the initiative added 3 growers who had not participated in the pilot workshop series, whose sales totaled $4,138.25 in 2013.
As a result of this program, there are approximately 60 species of Rhode Island native plants of local ecootypes available for sale in southern New England nurseries and garden centers.
10 growers will each begin propagating and cultivating 2,500 locally collected native plants in the fall of 2012 – winter 2013.
18 growers and garden centers combined, propagated and cultivated 60 species of Rhode Island ecotypic plant material in 2013. 11 of the businesses were garden centers, located in Rhode Island (8) and Massachusetts (3), 4 were commercial growers selling plants at wholesale (2 also sell at retail), and 3 were non-profit organizations with a native plant focus.
The same 10-15 growers attend part two of the educational seminar offered in February 2013. Growers will learn native plant marketing tips and local sources of demand, seed stratification and scarification methods, winter cutting propagation, greenhouse and seed bed culture.
In place of two separate seminars, a complete workshop series was held in October/November 2012 to accommodate grower schedules. This was attended by 31 growers.
20 growers will fill out a survey in November 2013 describing the effect of the program on net farm income over the first year of growing.
18 total growers were surveyed in 2013 for their sales information to garner net farm income.
Over the course of three years, twenty nurseries will diversify their products available to consumers by each growing 2,500 plants, native to Rhode Island, for a total of 50,000 plants. All plants will have been collected from Rhode Island seed or stem cuttings and propagated locally. A total of 50 native plant species will be available to the consumer, including trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials. The average net increase in sales at each nursery will be $25,000.00.
Over the course of three years, 21 nurseries and garden centers diversified their products by growing plants, genetically native to Rhode Island, for a total of 18,000 plants. All plant material used for propagation were collected from Rhode Island seed or stem cuttings and propagated locally. At present a total of 60 native plant species are available to the consumer, including trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials. The average net increase in sales for the two years over which plants have been sold was $1,367.80 per business. Two of the wholesale growers involved in the original pilot program, were particularly successful at growing the plant material, and because of their established reputations (one as a large wholesale seller and the other as a native plant nursery), had better than average sales success. Average income from the sales of Rhody Native™ plants for the two growers in 2012 totaled $1,886.50, and in 2013 the average earned nearly doubled to $3,787.38.
The growers who received donations of locally-sourced seed for propagation worked with the Botanist and Rhody Native™ Coordinator to determine which species they would propagate. We exceeded our target number of growers in attendance at the various workshops as well as the number of native plant species available to the consumer with 60 species available in 2013. We also exceeded our target number of growers participating with 21 entities total growing and cultivating native species for sale.
We did not, however, reach the milestone of an average net sales increase of $25,000 at each nursery. Our initial assumption about the horticulture industry in Rhode Island was that a greater percentage of growers incorporated propagation from seed into their business model. We have learned, over the course of the three years, that seed propagation represents a niche within the horticultural component of the state’s agricultural growers. As one goal of the initiative is to produce genetically diverse plant material, this represents an imbalance for getting the plants to market. Additionally, as many garden centers cater to customers who purchase mature plant material, several have chosen to grow out their plant material to mature sizes, and thus have not reflected sales of these plants in their reporting. Several of the growers are growing woody plant material, which takes 3-7 years to reach a saleable size, and so also are not contributing at this point to overall sales figures.
Another challenge has been the timing of sales and the bloom time and availability of plant material. While many of the native species selected for collection early on in the program are most aesthetically pleasing in late summer or fall, the busiest retail season is spring. Another facet to this is that the business model of the primary wholesale grower involved is oriented to selling his product early in the season. In reviewing sales with one of the largest garden centers, it was revealed that the preference for their business is to purchase plants from wholesale growers throughout the season based on customer demand.
A critical negative impact to the program has been the economic downturn on Rhode Island’s nursery industry. At least four local nurseries who may have been involved in the program closed or significantly reduced their businesses since 2011. Additionally, the economic climate has reduced the willingness of many growers to devote space to untested species, relying on staples that consumers are familiar with and are proven to sell. One of the difficulties that this project faced has been demonstrating demand for the production of a highly local product for a local market. Another challenge for growers came in the form of impatiens downy mildew Plasmopara obduscens, in that this pathogen significantly reduced income from a staple crop, thus reducing the willingness of certain growers to take the perceived risk of growing natives. Additionally, many of Rhode Island’s growers focus on selling plant material entirely, or in part, to out of state customers.
One unanticipated result of this project was the decision for the Rhody Native Initiative to fill the niche of providing locally-sourced plant material for growers and garden centers, thus increasing the diversity of species available for growers and garden centers that wish to respond to the demand for native plant species. See the “Impacts” section for more details.
In addition to the above milestones, the online Rhode Island Native Plant Guide is scheduled for launch by March 2014. This interactive database will connect consumers to producers with the intent of improving the demand and availability of native plant species. It will provide an accurate listing of Rhode Island native plant species (a demonstrated knowledge gap among consumers and some horticulture industry professionals) with searchable cultural and practical information such as height, shade tolerance, whether the plant supports pollinator and bird species, photos of the plants, etc. A crucial component will be the availability column that lists the garden centers and growers that stock each species. Customers will be able to contact the growers directly through the site. This column can be updated regularly by the growers themselves, allowing for an accurate and current listing, clearly demonstrating the gaps in availability, and extending the impact of this project far beyond the grant period.
As the demand for native plants among retail garden centers, landscape designers and contractors, restoration practitioners and home gardeners continues to grow, this tool will serve to promote local growers. When the RI Native Plant Guide is complete in early 2014, the project coordinators will launch a marketing campaign to educate about the tool during the annual URI Master Gardener Program Core Training, garden symposia and workshops, and through email listservs of over 10,000 people, website listings, social media and mailings.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Two of the wholesale growers involved in the original pilot program, were particularly successful in growing the plant material, and because of their established reputations (one as a large wholesale seller and the other as a native plant nursery), had better than average sales success. Average income from the sales of Rhody Native™ plants for the two growers in 2012 totaled $1,886.50, and in 2013 the average earned nearly doubled to $3,787.38. The native plant nursery in this example successfully generated $2229.85 in net farm income over the previous year’s sales. This nursery had an established reputation as a native plant specialty nursery among designers, landscape contractors and the general public prior to the initiation of this grant, and became an early adopter of the propagation methods and advocate of the Rhody Native™ brand. Their propagator attended the Rhody Native™ workshop series in 2011 and 2012, and excelled at propagating a diversity of native species from seed. This enabled the nursery to propagate and sell significantly more local ecotype native species than other garden center and nurseries. However, this garden center does not foresee its business model shifting toward that of a wholesale producer of native plants.
Another success story comes in the form of the community of ecological restoration practitioners as sources of demand for local ecotype native plant material. The City of Providence, Rhode Island, partnering with federal agencies and local non-profit environmental organizations, coordinated a restoration effort along the shorelines of two of the ponds within Roger Williams Park. The City, working with Rhody Native™, contracted 4 growers to provide over 3500 local ecotype native plants for water quality restoration plantings. Additionally, several smaller restorations occurring in 2013, through a combination of federal and state funds, created demand for local ecotypes of native plant material, totaling sales of an additional 304 plants. The genetically native and genetically diverse plant material being offered through the Rhody Native™ initiative is preferred for habitat restoration projects and thus represents a a potential growth area in demand for native plant material.
Seven (including Rhody Native) organizations have taken on the commitment of growing out trees and shrubs, which require 3 to 5 years of investment before they reach a marketable size. There are a total of 1494 trees and shrubs in stock at Rhode Island nurseries and garden centers as of December 2013. This plant material will be available in the coming years as the plants mature to a saleable size, further increasing the net farm income.
Conversations with state and federal agencies who oversee and encourage habitat restoration in support creating wildlife habitat buffers and corridors, see greater demand in the future for native plant seed (grasses etc.) to establish beneath plantings of native trees and shrubs. This interest represents a new direction for the initiative and one which may prove beneficial to small food producers and growers in the agricultural sector of the industry.
Finally, through this grant, the Rhody Native Initiative was able to find its niche as a producer of genetically local native plant material. In an effort to continue to make local ecotypes of native plants available to consumers, 2014 will represent the first year the Initiative will be actively growing plants for sale. An additional intended outcome of the decision to grow, will be sales and production figures, which could be incorporated into a market analysis to be shared with the broader horticultural community. A detailed market analysis of the demand for, and sales of, genetically native plants in Rhode Island is needed to take the next steps in creating a viable business model for growers. The data collected and shared with local growers will be an important step in encouraging many of the growers who have been hesitant to take the risk of diversifying their stock and are seeking adequate consumer data.
By growing plant material for sale as seedlings (starts), the initiative will take the first step towards providing a better fit for the business models of local nurseries and garden centers. Over the course of this grant period, we have learned that it is more common for businesses to purchase small plants and pot them up for retail sales, than to propagate them from seed. The new model will provide garden centers with a wider variety of sources of native plant material at different points during the growing season, allowing them to meet their customer demand for native plants without having to purchase from out of state nurseries. In addition, the needs of landscape contractors and habitat restoration practitioners for small plant material for their large scale plantings will be met through the production of genetically native plants through the Rhody Native™ initiative. Rhody Native™ is an initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, whose mission includes education and monitoring of the diversity of species in Rhode Island. A long term goal for Rhody Native™ is to facilitate the ability of Rhode Island’s growers to be key players in creating sustainable and genetically diverse landscapes in Rhode Island and southern New England.
Professor of Horticulture
215 Woodward Hall
Kingston, RI 02881
Office Phone: 4018745372
3 E. Alumni Ave.
Kingston, RI 02881
Office Phone: 4018747142