Specialize and Thrive: The Secret to Success with Small Commercial Greenhouses

African violets

African violets

We live in a world of one-stop super shops, but don’t feel pressured to take your young greenhouse and transform it into a one-stop shop for everything growing. The idea of specialization may not be the most popular thing on the block, but that’s the very reason why it’ll work if you stick to it. After all, your customers expect you to know a thing or two about what you’re selling them—they’re going to come back and ask questions about their plants and seek advice to guide their purchases. When cultivating a specialty greenhouse your expertise more than makes up for the fact that you don’t offer everything under the sun.

Greenhouses must change to survive

Times are tough for greenhouses and not for small reasons. The economy is still rough, but that’s really not at the heart of it—after all, when people are worried about money, they tend to grow more of their own food and gift plants instead of buying these things at the store. Your biggest problem is the big box store—they’ve got a little bit of everything, all under one roof. You can go that route, but the diversity of species involved may require that you invest in multiple sets of equipment, advertise in several markets, juggle the needs of plants that may vary wildly and try very hard to keep up with big box store prices. As a small operation, it’s not a reasonable thing to expect to be able to do.

That’s why commercial greenhouses starting up in today’s market must give more in order to survive. With so much selection available through catalogs and big box stores, the age of the giant greenhouse is nearing an end, but everybody needs an expert from time to time. By starting your operation out with just a few species of popular plants for each season, you can demonstrate your knowledge to your customers and gain a loyal following as the word spreads about your exotic and unusual wares.

Starting out small

When choosing your plants pick species that are in demand, but have many varieties to choose between. Take, for example, the heirloom vegetable sector: there are literally thousands of plants you could start that are only available to resourceful growers who manage to find the seeds. Obviously, you can’t grow everything, but if you choose a dozen or so tomatoes in every shade under the sun, a couple of unusual peppers and eggplants along with a very limited selection of hybrids, people will catch wind of your special stock and search you out when they’re ready to plant their gardens.

Spread the word by visiting farmer’s markets, advertise your heirlooms in local publications and start talking about them to everybody who will listen. Figure out why people want heirlooms—is it for their robust flavors, their unique colors or just because they’ve heard that’s what they need to grow? Provide care sheets with your plants, either through your website or in the greenhouse lobby and understand the many benefits of your plants along with the drawbacks—you may be able to turn those liabilities into specialized products.

A good example of this is in the heirloom tomato plant market. Heirloom producers find that their plants are much harder to grow, especially in established gardens full of disease. Some of them have solved that problem by learning to graft their heirlooms to hybrid rootstocks, producing a healthy, disease-resistant heirloom that will sell for a premium to inexperienced gardeners who just want some beautiful tomatoes.

Of course, you can make the concept of a specialty greenhouse work with any sort of plant, provided that you’re willing to allow your business to grow slowly. I know of successful greenhouses that only sell African violets or carnivorous plants and have been using the same business model for decades. You don’t have to be everything to everybody, but if you’re something to a lot of people, they’ll be willing to reward you for your efforts.

[box]by Kristi Waterworth[/box]

image: chrisbb@prodigy.net (Creative Commons BY)

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