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Originally published Friday, March 29, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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Nurseries evolve to survive and thrive

Digital technology has changed how people pursue plants and gardening information.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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Val, I couldn't agree more in the assessments. Having owned a nursery for 20 plus years... MORE
I am curious why the demographic change occurred. The flower and garden shows used to... MORE
There are smallish local operations all over--many of them do show and teach... MORE

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THE NURSERY industry has been hard hit not only by the economic slump but also by changing demographics and dismal spring weather. Some nurseries never made up the income they lost to last spring's sodden weekends.

The state's Department of Revenue statistics tell the story. Our nursery and floriculture industry had gross revenues of $182.9 million in 2006, which fell to $134.2 million by 2009. There's been a slight recovery, but the first two quarters of 2012 came in slightly below the same period in 2011.

We see the fallout. Emery's Garden in Lynnwood shut down after 15 years in business. Now we refer to nurseries by their past lives, as in Urban Earth, formerly Piriformis, and Emerald City Gardens, formerly Fremont Gardens. Breanne Chavez, executive director of the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association, says nurseries are adjusting to the new normal. Some have had record years, others are struggling.

"I pay close attention to what customers want," says Susan Petersen, who bought her urban nursery in Wallingford off Craigslist two years ago and renamed it Urban Earth. She specializes in edibles, small-scale plants and dwarf conifers. She's expanded her gift shop to include local artists and invites garden clubs to meet at the nursery. "I'm a small nursery that tries to be a big one," says Petersen. "I see things improving; I did better this year than last."

Heidi Kaster of Dragonfly Farms Nursery near Kingston runs a design and landscaping firm, invites customers to explore her ever-expanding display gardens, and stocks the nursery with practical as well as unusual plants. "We're all plant nerds before we're salespeople here," says Kaster of her helpful crew.

Kaster invites small specialty nurseries to set up and sell plants in her pasture, and she hosts a garden art festival every summer. She's built raised vegetable beds to demonstrate how to grow edibles, and hosts egg and book swaps in the little sandwich and espresso shop she recently added. "I'm out in the sticks," says Kaster. "You have to be creative out here."

Long a destination nursery for those seeking the newest and coolest plants, DIG Nursery and Garden on Vashon Island is changing with the times. "Younger gardeners don't have the same passion for plants," says owner Sylvia Matlock, who is putting less emphasis on unusual plants and more on dramatic-looking but easy-care ones. Digital technology has changed how people pursue plants and gardening information; they go online rather than seek out local nursery experts. To combat the trend, Matlock's "survive and thrive" strategies include stocking up on drought-tolerant succulents and hardy cactus, creating inspirational displays and planting ready-to-go containers.

Innovation, community-building, responsiveness to customers and the times are all clearly demonstrated by these dauntless businesswomen. But why isn't our Northwest industry out front on eco-gardening and sustainability? Could we replace those landfill-bound black plastic pots with biodegradable containers? How about changing growing practices so containerized plants aren't so amped up on chemicals that they struggle to adjust when planted in garden soil?

I'd love to see how far leadership in clean, green gardening would go to attract that elusive generation of newer gardeners and propel our nursery industry into the future it deserves.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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