Why this year’s plant shortage is a perfect storm

Reduced production before 2020, winter storms and increased demand has caused a plant shortage. (Photo: Cherrylake)
Reduced production before 2020, winter storms and increased demand has caused a plant shortage. (Photo: Cherrylake)
Reduced production before 2020, winter storms and increased demand has caused a plant shortage. (Photo: Cherrylake)
Reduced production before 2020, winter storms and increased demand has caused a plant shortage. (Photo: Cherrylake)

If you ask people in the green industry about obtaining plants, you might hear statements such as “unprecedented demand” or “the worst shortage in years.” 

Experts say this plant shortage predates beyond homeowners’ renewed focus on green spaces and the weather in Texas, back to the Great Recession, where many nurseries were left with an oversupply and slashed production, and many went out of business. 

“We’re starting from a place where we have 50 percent less production versus 15 years ago,” says Shireen Salehi, co-founder of GoMaterials, an online marketplace for sourcing plant materials for landscaping professionals. “Now you’re adding the compound effect of COVID, an already labor-short industry and the Texas freeze.”

With an already hot housing market in the Southeast and Texas and increased interest in gardening, the freeze just exacerbated an already tight supply for plant material. 

“Texas is one of the largest economies in the world, and it’s had one of our largest housing booms in America over the last 10 years,” David Kirby, executive vice president of Everde Growers in Houston, Texas, said. “When areas like Austin, Houston and the Dallas metroplex were hit with the storm, they have big populations and consume a lot of plants.”

Those cold temperatures killed or severely damaged plant material grown by Texas nurseries, which just added stress to an already tight supply. 

“At the same time that you had this surge in demand coming out of Texas, you had a huge reduction in the supply of material that would have been shipped from Texas nurseries,” says Timothee Sallin, co-CEO of Cherrylake of Groveland, Fla., No. 115 on the 2021 LM150, with $20 million in 2020 revenue. He says he’s heard anecdotally during the Texas freeze record-low temperatures damaged an estimated 60 percent of existing plant material. 

Difficulty sourcing material from Texas has lead landscaping companies like Maldonado Nursery and Landscaping in San Antonio, Texas, to source material from locations outside the state.

“We’re having to get plants from California, and Florida, and other places out of state that have more availability, which hits us on the freight side,” says Jerry Maldonado, corporate vice president of Maldonado Nursery and Landscaping. “There’s also long lead times that we are having to wait.”

 Maldonado says this has caused his company — No. 58 spot on the 2021 LM150 with $38,874,196 in 2020 revenue — to delay and postpone projects, substitute plant material for what’s available and even accept undersized material.

“We’re at the point now where we’re trying to let the customers know up front that it’s going to be a month or two months. Let them decide if they want to wait,” he says. “The only good news, I guess, is there’s a lot of work, but it’s a bittersweet deal.”

What you can do

In the meantime, experts say this is an opportunity for contractors to look at long-term contracts to source the plant materials needed for projects.

“We’re definitely in a position where we’re not going to be able to grow everything for everybody,” Kirby says. “We’re going to be selecting those customers who really want to work with us on a longer-term plan.”

Salehi says services like GoMaterials, available in Florida, Texas and New York, help contractors source wholesale plant materials through the company’s network of nurseries.

“We do everything from the availability checks, price comparisons, estimation, logistics organization and delivery,” she says. “There’s no membership fee. Landscape companies just need to sign up to have access to our service.

Salehi says contractors need to think ahead for plant needs.

“Especially now with the shortages, the more organized you are, the higher the chances that you get the materials you need on time,” she says.

How long will this go on?

The big question is how long is this shortage going to last? Experts say don’t expect to see any relief any time soon in sourcing plant material.

“I think it’s going to be more than a blip. It’s not just a spring 2021 phenomenon,” Sallin says. “This tight market is going to last, I believe, at least three more years.”

Sallin expects nurseries to play it safe during this time of increased demand as it’s hard to plan for an uncertain future.

“We make decisions when the market’s good and then we end up in a situation where the market’s bad with a lot of inventory,” he says. “If the economic cycle is three to five years, you should always be planting when things are bad and pulling back when things are good, but nobody does it that way.”

Christina Herrick headshot (Photo: LM Staff)

Christina Herrick

Christina Herrick is a former Editor for Landscape Management. A Journalist graduate from Ohio Northern University, Christina is known for sharing her insightful experiences on the road with her audience.

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