Seeing Green In Nursery Business

Winston Porter runs a 10-acre wholesale tree nursery with his wife in the back yard of their Paeonian Springs home.
Winston Porter runs a 10-acre wholesale tree nursery with his wife in the back yard of their Paeonian Springs home. (Photos By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

A corner lot in the Glynn Tarra subdivision a few miles north of Leesburg is home to plants from many states. The new garden beds are crowded with day lilies from Suffolk, Va., "Knock Out" roses and wisteria from Georgia, Yoshino cherry trees and Sioux crape myrtle bushes from North Carolina, and a Fat Albert spruce all the way from Portland, Ore.

Although Loudoun County's roots are primarily agricultural, none of the new greenery -- which was planted by Meadows Farms, a Loudoun-based landscaping company -- is locally grown.

As farmers look for ways to stay in business despite rising property taxes, they needn't look much further than the thousands of new homes cropping up each year, each requiring a lawn, shrubs, garden beds full of flowers and trees, said Lou Nichols, Loudoun's agricultural development officer.

"I think the nursery business has the potential to become one of the most profitable things that people can do out here," Nichols said.

Tree farms and greenhouses that grow annuals and perennials are high-return, land-efficient operations that can bring in several thousand dollars an acre, compared with hundreds of dollars an acre from such traditional commodities as grain and cattle, Nichols said.

But so far, even with customers willing to pay $10,000 to $20,000 for landscaping, it seems that few farmers have begun growing anything for their new neighbors' new yards. The county's rural economic development office's Web site lists fewer than 12 farmers who grow annuals, perennials or shade trees for sale.

One reason for the slow adaptation to the nursery market could be because many landscape contractors are willing to travel across the state and the country to find cheaper plants. One significant exception is sod, which has a two-day shelf life and must be purchased locally.

"You do like to support the people close to home as much as possible, but on the other hand, you have to buy the best product for the best price," said Dave Reed, vice president of Chantilly-based Meadows Farms, which has 20 nurseries in the Washington area and a landscaping division that sends out 65 crews a day. "We're large enough; we can bring in truckloads from pretty much everywhere," he said.

Nichols said Loudoun farmers can't compete in volume and price but can offer more exotic plants or bigger trees, which are more expensive and unwieldy to transport but can appeal to newcomers who don't want to wait years for a four-foot cherry tree to provide shade.

Another advantage to buying locally is that trees and shrubs grown in the same soil and under the same weather conditions can survive better in their new yards, said David Lohmann, manager of Abernethy & Spencer Greenhouses nursery in Purcellville, which has a large selection of native plants and trees.

For some homeowners and for contractors who aren't landscaping entire shopping centers or subdivisions, such considerations can be important.

"There's two markets," said Winston Porter, who runs a 10-acre wholesale tree nursery with his wife, Linda, in the back yard of their Paeonian Springs home.

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