Plain as Dirt: Prices of plant material fluctuate |

Plain as Dirt: Prices of plant material fluctuate

Tom Glass
Eagle CO, Colorado
Tom Glass

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Ride the lifts and you’ll hear people talking about the fortuitous quality of the holiday snows that fell almost in response to our particularly seasonal needs. You’ll also commonly hear people speculate as to whether the success of the Epic pass was pure genius or something more along the lines of blind luck like epic December snows flying in the face of a warming climate.

Personally, in business, I don’t believe luck applies to strategic actions taken in response to apparent inevitable market forces. Thank you, Mr. Katz, you and your team get your proper due publicly from me. It was a good call.

Now, however, I have to make a call on the coming calendar as it relates to gardening in 2009, a hobby carrying all the importance of yesterday’s news and the similar emotional fervor for its practitioners as those of adherents to skiing. I’ve shuffled the tarot cards, dealt a hand and have found the cards reveal the same view as the crystal ball I dusted off – the vision of the future is a bit snowy.

Nonetheless, last year at this time I forecasted rising prices in plant material due to the increased costs of everything related to the production and delivery of plants. It was a slam dunk accurate call that could have been made by any half wit that purchased a tank full of gas on their way home from the grocery store.

Allow me to relate to you some salient stories that lead me to a view of the future likely favoring consumers of plant material and related services – particularly late in the season.

I went to a New Year’s party the other night at an opulent home with fantastic landscaping replete with custom-cast, imported bronze sculptures and boulder embankments high in the climes of Cordillera. The owners of the home said their season ending instructions to their landscaping and maintenance crews was for them to cut the bill in half in 2009. This action covered the costs of mowing, but left approximately a C-note in the budget for plants. So, no planting fun in the sun for anyone, a probable reduction in the cost of lawn care, and a slackening in demand for plants.

Conversely, last June I toured a Front Range greenhouse facility that has banked hard on the late season business provided by the mountain market in their backyard. The owner explained that the profitability of this late season turn of his greenhouse space was suspect. Despite his optimistic instincts, he planned to cut back a bit, maybe 10 percent, on this type of production because of the risk.

It seems that all of the mountain markets that he serves are known for being slow to pay their bills; consequently the maintenance on his alpine accounts is high. The reasons for this phenomenon he declined to speculate on, but, whatever the reasons, they caused him to serve unwillingly as a bank.

The uncertainty of payment cuts deeply into his peace of mind and somewhat his profits despite the fact that typically he is paid, albeit late, and the products grown for our market consume little natural gas because they can be grown late in the season.

I suspect this to be at worst inflationary for us, but, more likely, simply a missed opportunity for valley dwellers as these abundant late season crops were often priced favorably at wholesale.

Nationwide garden market wholesalers and retailers have been short on profits for a number of years. Labor costs rose, fuel costs rose – every cost of sales had risen while demand from an aging population of gardeners shrank. Some of you may find this hard to believe, but the bedding flower market has been served by overproduction for the past 10 years.

Today, the cost of fuel is down, and domestic labor is no longer in short supply. Does this mean that prices will fall accordingly? No. The overriding factor here is plainly that those producers and marketers serving this happy little valley have been living close to the bone as it is, and there is little room for reductions in prices on the goods they sell.

Landscapers, on the other hand, have enjoyed strong years due to continuing construction of new homes and the aging of a population that wants a fine lawn and landscaping without the attendant sweat in the hot sun. Nursery producers serving them ramped up production to meet a continuing demand. Well, anyone standing near a chairlift can accurately tell you that the new home market is in a stall. This would seem to indicate that there will be an oversupply of woody nursery plants available – which it does – if you live elsewhere.

There are two types of trees planted here: Colorado blue spruce and aspen. Furthermore, any landscaper worth his salt will choose Colorado grown spruce and aspen. They are best adapted to our high light, arid environment.

Last July, finding two competing suppliers in Colorado with a good supply of either tree possessing the quality befitting a million dollar home was, to say the least, difficult. This coming year the supply of Colorado grown blue spruce and aspens will simply meet demand. However, the price of other woody ornamental plants will be lower – probably much lower – as the season progresses and growers in Washington and Oregon compete fiercely with the growers in Colorado on plants that are less susceptible to the affects of altitude.

In short, prices for bedding plants and woody ornamentals should remain the same for the coming year. The upside for consumers will occur when toward the end of the season, steeply discounted pricing will appear early in response to an oversupply of plant material.

Tom Glass writes a weekly garden column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this column to

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