Customers drive their trucks around back to pick up mulch, women cart wagons of spring flowers to the sales counter and a 25-year-old parrot trundles along the floor in search of a drink before flying to a nearby tree.
It’s another busy day at Roozen Nursery in Fort Washington, which is among many of the Maryland gardening centers trying to remind customers that they can still enjoy the outdoors while minding their budgets.
“If the times are rolling, people make big purchases that take away from flower planting,” said owner Jos Roozen. “Now, they’re spending more time in their house.”
Many nurseries and gardening supply and equipment stores were anticipating a slump after slow sales in March, but traffic has picked up so much in the last two weeks that many businesses are finding themselves short of stock, said Jack Ford, president of the Maryland Greenhouse Growers Association and a sales representative at Maryland Plants and Supplies in Baltimore. The nonprofit trade group combines the knowledge of 100 horticultural businesses to promote general interest in greenhouse crops, ornamental crops and cut flowers.
Ford said some businesses are now scrambling after ordering only half of their usual inventory in anticipation of slow sales. He attributes the recent favorable weather to drawing out gardeners.
Roozen, who emigrated from the Netherlands in the early ’70s and runs his business with his brother, Eric, said his sales are up this year.
He also hosts “Garden Sense” on WMAL radio, which he said boosts the business with its audience of several thousand listeners. His business typically generates about $3 million in annual sales.
Williamson’s Nursery in Ellicott City just had its biggest Saturday in 50 years, said co-owner Diane Williamson.
“People are sick of hearing about the economy. They’re getting on with their lives,” she said. Fewer homeowners are hiring landscapers and are working on their own projects.
“Everybody is anxious to come out and start planting, to get away from the doom and gloom of the news … The winter has been so long,” said Delia Edelmann, owner of Crownsville Gardens. “We’re not ahead of the game — we’re still below expectations — but we’re not doing as bad as we were thinking.”
She said her store has seen perennials favored over annuals this year, as customers look to save money by not replanting as much next spring.
Low-maintenance flowers, such as the self-cleaning Easy Wave petunias, available in several colors, are also in demand, Roozen said.
“Color sells. If it’s in bloom, it’s selling,” Ford said.
Customers are cutting back in other ways, too, Roozen said.
“Some are spending $10 or $15 and piecing their garden together. They’re just not going to buy that $500 Japanese weeping maple,” Roozen said. “Maybe you can’t buy a new car, but you can plant petunias.”
Vegetable plants are selling especially well.
Brian Clark, extension educator at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, said more people want to grow their own food to save money, especially tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, which yield produce all summer long.
Seven million more American households plan to grow their own backyard produce this year than last, a 19 percent increase, according to the National Gardening Association. An average “well-maintained food garden” yields a $500 return on investment, according to the group.
Residential landscapers may be getting pounded by the recession, but commercial landscaping is still holding its own, said Phil Key, division vice president for Ruppert Cos., a commercial landscaper in Laytonsville.
Ruppert has been providing more consulting lately, as clients focus on getting the most value for their money, he said. While some clients have shrunk their landscaping budgets as much as 10 percent, a few have increased their budgets to better position their properties for sale.
“The economy and green movement are changing how people think about landscaping,” Key said.
But the garden centers still face some obstacles, Clark said, adding that many nurseries are limited by the number of migrant workers they can hire.
Ford estimates the Maryland gardening industry sales will be level with last year’s, if not higher. He said independent stores are doing particularly well.
“The weather’s been on our side,” Ford said. “Weather can kill the industry really quick.”