Taking Your Gardening Dollar

The Good Times in Hard Times Nursery

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For years, I’ve bought perennials from a charming little stand next to a handsome federal house on Route 153 outside Salem, NY.

That’s on the road between my country house and the wonderful nurseries of Dorset and Manchester, Vermont, nurseries I visit a few times every summer to treat myself. Still, you cannot make an entire garden out of $40 tree peonies and $16 perennials bought from fancy nurseries. At least I can’t. So it was really nice to stop at this stand once in a while and stuff a couple of dollars into a coffee can for the healthy stalwarts sold here at $2 apiece.

This year, the perennial stand suddenly professionalized. There was a greenhouse now. There was a shop building. There were tables of perennials available. There was a sweet arching golden sign that said, “Laura’s Garden.”

And yes, the prices rose–to $2.50 for a good-sized field-grown perennial.

Img_1886_2That seemed more than fair. In fact, it seemed like a godsend. After five years of gardening in super-sandy soil in Saratoga Springs, I’ve come to the realization that many things just don’t grow very fast in my yard, and everything looks much better if I stuff the place with tough front-of-the-border plants. All summer long, I filled up the jump seat of my wagon with trays of campanula carpatica ‘White Clips’ and alchemilla mollis from Laura’s Garden. Meanwhile, over the hill in very rich and very stiff Dorset, the same campanula was $8 a pop.

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Last week, I stopped to shake hands with owner Laura Dunham and ask her the rude question: Why doesn’t she charge $8 for a campanula?

“People sometimes try to give me more money for my plants,” she laughed. “I have to explain that no, I really am making a profit. It’s just that my overhead is low.”

Her husband Pete does all the construction. She puts in the 60 hours a week required to run the place herself. Nothing’s trucked in expensively from anywhere. They own the land.

Nice, low-carbon alternative to that other place for frugal gardeners, Home Depot, no?

Img_1885Laura’s business began with her giving away divisions from her own garden. Somebody suggested that she sell the excess. So she ran the stand for years while working for country-products catalog Vermont Country Store, before deciding to make the nursery her day job.

Now she’s expanding. Next year, she’ll be selling dried flowers in the shop. She’s heating the greenhouse this winter for vegetable seedlings.

Laura tells me she knows what her customer base can afford and is glad that so many of them seem so happy to be shopping with her.

“Gardening shouldn’t be so stressful,” she smiles. “If something doesn’t work out, it shouldn’t wreck the family budget.”

She didn’t just explain her business. She put her finger one of the things I love most about rural Washington County, NY. Live and let live and let’s enjoy ourselves and not make everything so entirely commercial, shall we?

Meanwhile, in a dark city downstate, the Dow tanked.

Posted by on October 10, 2008 at 4:48 am, in the category Taking Your Gardening Dollar.
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13 responses to “The Good Times in Hard Times Nursery”

  1. Goes to show you that farming (growing ornamentals is a kind of farming) can still be done and be done profitably

    Nice post and best wishes to the farm stand.

    The (grow baby grow) TROLL

  2. Bob Vaiden says:

    Nice story! Wish I had the nerve to try something like that kind of business… More power to them!

    I know a local man who financed most of his kids college education by selling wildflowers.

    Maybe when I retire…? Hmmm…

  3. Becca says:

    I just want to hug and kiss this woman-and I have a HUGE body bubble! Thank you for the feel good story on this dark cold Friday.

  4. Kim says:

    You are lucky to have Laura’s Garden, and I wish we had a place like hers here. I, too, appreciate the feel-good story, and please tell her that gardeners from far away are hoping she prospers and is able to spread her philosophy far and wide.

  5. Gail says:

    I am glad she has a thriving business. You are very fortunate. I just discovered another small nursery bit the dust here…It was the last of the nurseries that carried decent fall bulbs. You could get very nice colchicums, Cyclamen and interesting daffs. Thank goodness for catalogs.

    Gail

  6. jgh says:

    My dad has a nursery/plant brokerage in florida and is trying to decide whether to go retail. I think I’ll send him this article – it sounds like what lot of people are looking for these days.

  7. commonweeder says:

    What a great post. As we move through these perilous financial times we might all have to ask ourselves anew, what is Enough? What do I Need? Hooray for Laura and her wisdom. In our area there is a woman who holds a Plant Swap every other week. People pay $2 to attend and can take away a dozen plants because dozens of people attend each session. Or they can stop by her house anytime to buy $2 or $3 plants from her own garden.

  8. Leona Sargent says:

    I want to thank you, Michelle for the great information on Laura. She is my daughter and I was thrilled to read this and see your pictures of her and the house. She is a transplant herself; from eastern Washington State to New York many years ago. She has thrived and blossomed there. Thanks so much .

  9. mj says:

    oh gawd I just love these posts, they bring out the rant in me. First off, I applaud her, she’s starting out right, thats the way all good business should start, with a coffee can, but surely when she starts heating that greenhouse the price of plants will creep upwards, if she wants to remain a viable business, and not a hobby. Love the hobby nurseryfolk, it’s always what Everyone would Love To Do when they retire.But it’s not so good for the young people without a trustfund or a spouse with a killer job, These people are trying to compete with a hobbist that doesnt have to make a car payment or save for retirement while selling $2 plants. Do the math on how many $2 plants you would have to sell to live at your current comfort level. Selling 8 dollar perennials doesnt make you “commercial”, it keeps your business viable. If you want to see commercial, you should read some of the publications Amy writes for and the crap they are pushing on independent garden centers. If all garden centers believed we would have to do everything they say to stay in business, your perennials would cost 30 bucks apiece. Go Laura, keep it up, and dont let get discouraged when people start to whine about ‘how spensive’ things have become!

  10. Old Kim says:

    I think I’m not that stupid so I try to give people the best plant deals and they still shop everywhere else where the crowds go. It makes me feel bad when they could have saved bucks with me but they choose to shop Walmart or Home Depot. Guess my plants aren’t as entertaining ala natural.

  11. jenn says:

    Oh, that’s beautiful. Wish I had a similar place nearby!

    Go Laura!

  12. jenn says:

    mj, Laura may not need to heat her greenhouse.

    They provide months of a head start and late season protection with just passive solar heating.

    And I’ve read about salad Gardeners up in Maine that double up their greenhouses – one inside the other – and get fresh marketable greens all winter long, no extra energy costs needed.

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