Bio about the author: Victor Flaherty-Owner Plants for All Seasons
Victor Flaherty was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1951 and luckily arrived in Texas in 1953. He went to St. Thomas H.S. and Sam Houston State University where he was a Printing
Management Major. He started Plants For All Seasons Nursery in 1973 and has been loading mulch for customers ever since.
Its been well over a year since I have written and posted a blog here. I had been fairly active prior to April 2011 with sharing experiences and telling anyone who wanted to know what was happening at the nursery. What happened to my active blog posts? Facebook happened...that's what.
I had already been somewhat active on a personal level on Facebook with friends and then many family members that somehow found me from across the country. Then I got a friend request from Trey Pittsenberger who is known as "The Blogging Nurseryman" and the man that inspired me to start this blog on my nursery website. After I accepted his friend request he invited me into a group called Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries (IGCN). This group consists only of garden center owners and employees. No one else allowed. You can't work in the garden center of a Lowe's or Home Depot and be in this group.
IGCN group has members from about every state I can think of and we all ask questions of each other and try our best to share pertinent information amongst ourselves. This is what I was doing last year with my spare time. Then Jim Monroe, a former member from IGCN, started IGC Talk. Same requirements for membership but with a twist. Jim invited 4 consultants to monitor the groups posts and comments and they can jump in and contribute to the dialogue. John Stanley, Sid Raisch, Charlie Hall and Lloyd Traven. All respected and sought after speakers... nationally and internationally.
In the next blog I want to to relate many of the things I have learned from these groups and how it will translate into improvements at the nursery and future benefits to our customers.
Azaleas have been the premiere evergreen flowering shrub in Houston for many decades. We have sold all of the popular old varieties since 1973. In 1997 one of our suppliers, Flowerwood Nursery from Mobile Alabama, introduced the Encore Azalea series . We were told that all Encore's would re-bloom in the Fall season. We jumped on the bandwagon immediately and brought in every variety that they offered at the time. I believe that we were the first retail garden center in the Houston area to carry them. At the time Flowerwood Nurseries was the only grower of Encore Azaleas. I use to travel to Mobile every January and tour Flowerwood Nurseries. I would talk to Keith Winger, our salesperson, about plants, varieties and everything concerning business horticulture in the Southeastern US. He had an amazing amount of knowledge of plants and the people. I told him that some of my customers were told by my competition that Encore Azaleas didn't grow well here in Houston. I told him which nurseries allegedly made those statements. He said that one of those nurseries could not get credit with them and the other had never bought anything from them. Since the Encore's were just introduced I took all comments from their detractors with a grain of salt. It is now fourteen years later and I have much more experience and knowledge of Encore Azaleas and how well they do here in Houston. I have come to a simple conclusion. If you can't grow the older varieties of azaleas you won't have any better luck with the Encore's. If you don't water them well in the summer they will suffer and die. If your soil is not acidic enough any azalea will be chlorotic and yellow. If you place them in an extremely low light area they will not be able to be lush with foliage and will be sparse in bloom. They are azaleas and require what azaleas require. I have them in my front yard and they are lush and in full flower. They get all the morning sun but shade after 1pm in the summer. I fertilize them with MicroLife for Azaleas. A great product for you organic gardeners. What spurred this blog was an exchange of information from 2 ladies in my nursery this week. One lady was in the Encore area and had loaded some on a cart. Another lady mentioned to her that she heard from another nursery in our area that they didn't grow well here. The customer told her that she had been growing Encore's for years and had great success with them. That's why she was buying more. She convinced the other lady to actually buy some. WINNING! lol Here is what I think happened. Nurseries in my area couldn't or wouldn't carry the Encore's. Customers asked for them and their excuse for not having them was fabricated. They don't do well here. We are saving you from making a mistake. We are the good guys. I have a customer, Pat Koester, that extolls the virtues of Encore azaleas. She has grown them with success in Lakewood Forest and High Meadow Ranch for 13 years now. Pat told me she spoke to the owner or manager of these nurseries and confirmed to them that they do well here. They did not want to hear that from Pat. It seems odd that those nurseries would have negative first hand information about plants that they never carried, Amazing actually. I really feel bad for what they did to themselves. They fouled the water with an untruth and now can't admit to what actually happened and start selling the hottest selling azaleas around. It's a tangled web they have created. Lying to customers is a dead end. We plan never to go down that road.
Vinca , a warm weather annual, back in the 80's was suddenly hit with a disease problem in Texas. Aerial Phytophthora blight was killing them all over the state. We saw this in our plantings at the nursery. The advice from the experts at Texas A&M was to not plant vinca early when the weather was cool. Wait until late Spring or Summer to plant them. We took that advice and refused to sell vinca until late April or May. Of course, our customers who had not experienced this disease wanted vinca. They did not understand that we were trying to do the right thing by not offering them until it was the "proper time". The customers that would not wait for us to bring them in shopped elsewhere for vinca in early Spring. We lost sales but we believed we were doing the right thing for the customer.
After about 5 or 6 years of paying attention to vinca and this disease we noticed that even planting late the vinca still started dying off in June. Plant in May...die in June. We also noticed something else. Vinca planted in March didn't die until June also. Obviously, not every vinca died that was planted at either time. We concluded that if the vinca that you are going to plant might die in June then why wait to plant them in May? Plant them in March and get 4 months out of them...not 30 days or less.
We are now selling vinca varieties that are resistant to aerial Phytophthora blight. The Cora series are much less likely to die from this disease but they are not totally immune. Cora vinca can still succumb to this disease especially if overwatering or poor drainage are issues. I have found that planting vinca and applying Actino-Iron in the soil at the time of planting is an insurance policy against that disease and it makes the plants strong and beautifully dark green.
I read an email blast from Randy Lemmon, host of the popular Gardenline radio program, this morning. He was explaining a question he received from a listener. They asked him why vinca was being sold already by some nurseries. Inferring that that was a bad practice by those nurseries. Randy explained that nurseries didn't want to lose sales. That was his only explanation. I have no idea if the listener was talking about my nursery or not. Randy was partially right. I don't want to lose sales but I still stand by our decision to sell vinca in March...it is the smart thing to do!
You know how you really like a certain plant and you try again and again to grow it...but can’t. Two plants come to mind for me. African violets and gerbera daisies. I gave up on trying the violets a long time ago when we took in a kitten that wouldn’t allow a plant in her house without destroying it. I keep trying the daisy year after year with very poor results. Stunted, yellow, mildewed or rotted. Iron, sulfur, fertilizer, fungicide were used all for naught. I was reading a blog last summer from Brenda Buest Smith....The Lazy Gardener. Brenda had the same experience as I did until she planted gerbera's in pots and then planted those pots in the ground. That was 5 years ago and Brenda still has a healthy, lush flower bed full of gorgeous daisies. Brenda learned this trick from one of her blog subjects. This Fall I planted up my front flower beds with cool weather annuals. I decided to plant one gerbera daisy as a test plant. We had quite a few gerbera’s in 6” pots so I picked out my favorite color....orange. I left it in the pot it was grown in and planted it in the ground. It has been 3 months and the foliage is still lush and green with vibrant strong flowers. That’s what I planted it for....it's beauty. Finally! We are going to plant a grouping of them in front of the nursery this Spring. Some in pots and some planted in the ground just to confirm that this wasn't a fluke. I am guessing they like to be root bound and kept away from tight soils which we are known to have here. I'm sure I will have to re-pot it into a 12" pot later this year. I will be happy to do that for the rewards I have been waiting so long for. Our cat has passed and I plan on giving the African violets another try. I'll be searching for a blog titled "African violets for Dummies". Wish me luck.
I was planning to blog about brown patch fungus in September when the nights usually cool down a little. That's when it tends to pop up in St. Augustine lawns. I have to write about it today because it popped up all over my neighborhood yesterday. We have had rain every day the last four days in North Houston. The temperature stayed in the low 80's yesterday and last night cooled down from there. These are the conditions that this disease flourishes in.
I am often asked where it comes from. Rhizoctonia is the name of the naturally occurring fungus that does the damage. When the conditions are right and the fungus is present it becomes active. In the spots I saw today the fungus was lying dormant all Summer when it was hot and dry.
If the spots look just like the photo below then you know that you have this disease. Brown patch is usually circular. It often has a patch of green grass in the center of the circle. The leading edge of the circle is kind of an orange-yellow color when the fungus is active. Be sure to never fertilize a lawn with active brown patch. The fertilizer will fuel the growth of the fungus.
If it looks different than my photo then be sure to read my blog on chinch bugs. Brown patch, left untreated, will not kill your lawn. Chinch bugs, left untreated, will kill your lawn. Both are active in the lawns at this time (August-September). If you are not sure which one you have take a grass sample(one foot square) with soil to an independent garden center. Have them show you the chinch bugs if they tell you that you have them.
If you choose to treat brown patch organically then apply cornmeal at the rate of 20 lbs. per 1,000 square feet and dry molasses at the same rate. Cornmeal works better as a preventative so try to apply it in August before brown patch becomes active. 10% Terraclor is a great curative fungicide. The product we used to sell was Nitro Phos Total Brown Patch Control but was taken off the market in 2010. Now we recommend F-Stop by Fertilome. Because fungicides are so expensive I suggest you treat only the areas affected. Applying a fungicide over 6,000 square feet is cost prohibitive as a prevention because the prevention will last only about a month. Brown patch is a problem for about 5 months from August thru December.
I got a call this week from Kevin Carroll from Greenleaf Nursery, a large wholesale grower. Kevin is VP in Sales for the Texas Division in El Campo. He told me that Plants For All Seasons had made their wine list. I questioned what that was and he said we were going to receive wine as a token of their appreciation this Christmas. Kevin went on to say that our store bought more trees and shrubs from them than any other, one store, retail garden center in a 10 state area. Greenleaf is one of the largest growers in the country so I was quite surprised....and pleased. I asked him to clarify that statistic and he stated that there were 3 other single operation garden centers that bought a little more than we did but they also did landscaping and re-wholesaled plants to landscapers from those operations. Our store sales were pure retail. 38% of our tree and shrub inventory came from Greenleaf this year.
I have to give a great deal of credit to Greenleaf for our success in selling ornamentals this year. Our Greenleaf sales rep is a very savvy young man named Chance Alldredge. Chance worked at his Dad's garden center, Alldredge Gardens, for many years in Midland Texas and he understands retail. This Spring was crazy busy and Chance went above and beyond for us. Then there was their quality. I can't adequately convey to you how impressive their plants have been this year. Every load was amazing...large, lush, colorful and healthy. One of their production managers, Drew Tidmore, was a weekend high school load up for us, many many years ago. That production team is doing a fantastic job. It's so important for retailers to have great suppliers like this supporting us.
Greenleaf Nursery hasn't had the financial difficulty that many large growers have experienced lately. Greenleaf sells very little to the mass merchants or the box stores and has concentrated on the independent garden centers and re-wholesalers. That strategy may have cost them short term sales and growth but their conservative business plan has paid off well for them in the long term.
About two years ago I launched RateANursery.com . This is a nursery ratings website for Houston area garden centers. Plants For All Seasons did very well in the ratings in 2009. We were the highest overall rated nursery and had the best service rating. Growers Outlet had the best quality rating and Buchanan's Native Plants had the best selection rating.
This year we were rocking along at #1 in the ratings until mid August. Our ratings plummeted in 2 days. We went from 1st to 6th place. In the Comments Section we had 3 really negative comments that day. What was odd is that we had not had a comment posted about us in over a year and then in one day we had 3 negative posts. Because I am the webmaster I get to see who registers and where they live. In the two days that our ratings plummeted we had 10 new registrations. Only 1 registrar lived near us. All the rest lived 20+ miles away. Mostly in the inner loop of Houston. I can also see who they rated. Generally....they rated my nursery and one other garden center. The other garden center's ratings went way up. I am pretty good at numbers. Their ratings couldn't have gone up that much unless they got perfect scores. My ratings couldn't have gone down that much unless we were rated at the lowest that anyone could be rated. The garden center who sabotaged us is currently way down in the ratings. They only had so many friends, employees or acquaintances that would do their dirty work. Not enough to bring them to the top but enough to bring our ratings down.
I want to state, for the record, that my nursery has never laundered illegal drug money nor has ever been a front for illegal gambling. Just like Richard Nixon said...."I want to make this perfectly clear".
The front of the nursery is getting a lot of attention in the last week. Our real grass was removed and artificial turf was installed from the street to our flower beds. Approximately 3,000 sq. ft. It is deep green, perfect looking and the answer to helping save a precious resource...water. Houston and the surrounding water districts have had to go to surface water because all the well water we were pumping was causing subsidence along the Gulf Coast. Water is now more expensive than ever and water bills have risen dramatically. Turf usually takes up more square footage than the house and the flower beds and most of our water bills are spent on watering our lawns. I believe synthetic grass could be the answer to problem areas in your yard especially in back yards. Getting approval from homeowners associations might be a problem for installations in the front yards.
Terry Stricklin from Strickly Green Grass approached us a month ago about installing this turf. He is the sole authorized supplier for SYNLAWN in Texas. He is betting that there is a big enough market for homeowners that don’t want to mow, water or fertilize a lawn or pay to mow, water or fertilize a lawn to make a go of this business. He is confident enough to install all this at no cost to my nursery. Terry is expecting this to be advertising for his new business. A place for potential customers to visit and see his product perform over time and in a real setting.
Artificial turf will not be for everyone. Purists will scoff at it’s use. It is not inexpensive and it’s monetary benefits will have to be amortized over years. There has been a lot of interest this week with men over 50. They have been the ones to stop, ask questions and express the most positive opinions. Actually in the last 7 days it has been installed I haven’t heard a negative comment. This Winter when all the lawns are brown we will have a green oasis of perfect grass. The photo below is from the SYNLAWN website. I couldn't get the right size photo from my camera for some reason. Come by and check it out
I was in my office today answering phone calls and balancing the checkbook. The glamorous job of a garden center owner. I got a call from a woman asking if we had any pansies in stock. I told her that we don’t have any in yet. She said “that’s weird, I was at two nurseries yesterday that had them”. She asked when we were going to get some in. I told her I wasn’t exactly sure when. The woman stated she could not understand why some nurseries had pansies but we didn’t. I said to her “we are a different nursery from them” She said “ I know that....whatever!” and she hung up on me. She thought I was being rude and condescending but I didn’t get to finish. I wanted to tell her it was still a little early to plant pansies and we like to bring them in when it is a good time to plant. That’s why most local growers plan their first crop to be ready later in October. Pansies can rot or stretch in the heat. I am very sorry that I made her mad.
A half an hour later I got a call from another woman that asked questions about what I could suggest for her garden. After I answered her questions she mentioned that she moved about 60 miles away last year. She told me there is a nursery about the same size as us fairly close to her but no one knows about gardening there and they can’t help her. She wanted to let me know that she will drive 60 miles to shop with us for the service and knowledge we provide. That was very nice to hear after the previous call.
I have previously written about the new Franchise Tax that Texas implemented in 2008. I paid the tax that was due in 2009. I get a bill from the State Comptroller, Susan Combs, this July that told me to pay $4,300 more which included almost $800 in penalties and interest. A letter stated that I need to pay that amount and could then protest the charge to try to get my money back. They stated that their research indicates that we are not a retail garden center and we need to provide documentation to prove that we are. I immediately sent them a check and then had to ponder what documentation would prove that we are indeed a retail garden center.
I decided to send them 3 things. #1--I sent them a packet of invoices from my suppliers from 2008. #2--I sent a copy of my current Nursery/Floral certificate from the Texas Dept. of Agriculture. The third document I sent was my Sales and Use Tax Permit issued by Susan Combs from the State Comptrollers Office that states that we are a retail garden center since 1973. (See below).
I really feel odd sending them a document that they issued to me. Crossing my fingers because if they don’t believe my evidence then over the next ten years this tax would cost me 80-100 thousand dollars more than it should. I wish I had more confidence in this bureaucracy... or any bureaucracy.
8/18/2010 Update--Comptrollers Office called me today. Someone sent them a link to this blog and they clarified a few issues. Still more work to do. The internet is a powerful thing.
10/25/2010 Update--Everything resolved. They agreed that we are indeed a retail garden center and sent our money back.