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Propagating Growth In Pender

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted Jul 1, 2022
Johnson Nursery Corp. owner David Johnson also established the Gardens of Southeastern North Carolina. The Gardens operation grows more than 1,500 different plants. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
The past couple of years, with early pandemic-related travel restrictions and rise in remote working, has brought a renewed interest in gardening. New plant enthusiasts gave it try, experienced gardeners expanded plots and invested in unique and diverse plants and homeowners spent time and money sprucing up their landscaping.
 
This year, though the nursery and garden center business is still strong, it has leveled off for Pender County nurseries. They are also facing a host of new issues, which has pushed them to adjust their business models so they can better meet customer demand now and in the future.
 
“COVID was a pedestal year,” said Jon Schwarz, owner of Pender Pines Garden Center. “We are off a little this year. People are going out and doing things now that concerts, movies and sports have made a comeback. Now we’re back to a normal pattern.”
 
That normal pattern includes plenty of local people who want plants for their homes and yards, so much so that demand far exceeds supply. The shortage in greenery is further exacerbated by the area’s housing boom, which Schwarz calls a double-edged sword. While new homeowners eager to buff up their yards bring in business, they also helps deplete the reserve of plants, trees, and shrubs.
 
“There’s a lot of stuff we can’t find or grow fast enough,” Schwarz said. “Suppliers are selling out of crop six months ahead of time. We sold out of the spring crop in the fall. It takes from one to seven years to grow a tree or bush, and some are not available.”
 
Even Mother Nature conspired against the plant industry this year. Both the cold weather in the Northeast in April and the hot and dry weather in North Carolina in May made for a poor growing season, according to David Johnson, owner of Johnson Nursery Corp.
 
Supply chain interruptions are also playing a role in the plant shortage, and that’s especially true for house plants, which is one of the industry’s hottest markets these days. Nursery and garden retailers are also unable to get staples such as fertilizers and pots for growing plants, and Johnson has taken to buying them a year in advance.
 
To overcome the plant shortage and supply chain issues, Schwarz has had to reach out to more out-of-state nurseries to get products. That means higher freight costs. Shipping costs, in general, are astronomical, Johnson said. That, plus inflation, means the cost of doing business has gone up, and prices for customers have risen accordingly.
 
Schwarz said he is taking steps to mitigate product shortage and supply chain issues impact on his business. To minimize his reliance on outside sources, Schwarz is growing 90% of his annuals, perennials and fruit and vegetables. And he is expanding his tree and shrub production. These measures, he said, would allow him to keep quality up, prices down and ensure he can supply customers with products that aren’t readily available.
 
“I’m trying to become as self-sustainable as we can,” he said. “I’d like to propagate, produce and create product on-site rather than rely on partners.”
 
Despite the vagaries of the industry and the economy, there are many signs that Pender County’s nurseries will continue to thrive. The county’s growth and its location make it a draw for local customers as well as those throughout Eastern North Carolina and South Carolina.
 
Also, both nurseries have long and respected reputations. Johnson Nursery Corp. has been in business for 41 years, and Pender Pines Garden Center for 26 years. Customers rely on them for plants and advice, and Schwarz predicts that loyal customers will turn to them whenever they are ready to redo their yards or shrubs or update their plants.
 
Another reason for optimism is that the industry is somewhat recession-proof, according to Schwarz. When new homeowners are settled in, they are likely to add to or redo their yards, he said. If hard times do come, people are more likely to fix up their home than spend thousands of dollars on vacation, he added.
 
These garden centers also provide something special in addition to high-quality plants and exceptional customer service.
 
For Pender Pines Garden Center, it’s animals. Customers can visit with a whole bevy of beasts: emus, a macaw, sheep, a boar and a donkey that got a bit too tubby from all the snacks children feed him.
 
“The animals are a huge draw,” Schwarz said. “It gives parents and beach people something different to do, and everyone enjoys the animals.”
 
Johnson is in the midst of creating the Gardens of Southeastern North Carolina, which officially opened in May. This 10-acre expanse will eventually feature cutting gardens, nature trails, nut and fruit orchards, hedge display, wildlife food plot and more.
 
“We believe we can improve lives,” Johnson said. “People can walk in the native hardwood forest in the Gardens. That is inspiring.”
 
Johnson also holds a variety of events such as Tour de Plants, Grain to Oven and the upcoming Pick Your Own Sunflowers event to give customers firsthand experiences with plant life.
 
There are a lot of unknowns that could affect Pender County’s nursery businesses Johnson, however, said he thinks the nursery and gardening businesses here will continue to be strong.
 
“I still believe people will value our product,” he said, “and that I serve a good industry.”
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