Our First Year, In Review
Is it the slow season yet??
Wow. What a year.
I somewhat reluctantly decided to try my hand at a native plant nursery business in July of 2020. We certainly planned on opening a nursery - someday. But we had three kids and a busy household, it was 2020, and I wasn't sure I wanted to take on anything else. We really really like nature - hiking, gardening, plant identification. Those were all the things my family and I already did for fun. We had been collecting seeds and test-growing U.P. native plants for my father-in-law, Vern Stephens of Designs By Nature, LLC, in Laingsburg, Michigan, for several years. And we had been reintroducing native plants to our old farmstead, heartened by the Little Bluestem we sowed back in 2008 spreading madly over our abandoned farm field. Vern enthusiastically encouraged us to try opening a native nursery and offered to mentor us in the native plant business, even help us order a greenhouse from his supplier that would work for our site. So I finally agreed. It would be fun, right?
Three days later, greenhouse parts started showing up Fedex.
Then the panic set in. Where were we even going to store a pile of greenhouse fans and louvers? How to find a contractor to clear a greenhouse site in the middle of a pandemic, and quick, too, because winter is never far away up here. And what about everything else? The financing, marketing, website design, business plan, nursery licensing, accounting...?
I tried to take it one step at a time and seek out the help I needed with all the new and unfamiliar aspects of business. Slowly but surely, things began to come together. A contractor we had used a few years before did a meticulous job preparing the site. My husband and Vern tackled greenhouse installation. My background as an environmental consultant came in handy interpreting rules, applying for licenses, and figuring out who to draw on for business help. I pieced things together over the fall and winter and Designs By Nature - Upper Peninsula Native Plants, LLC, became a reality in December of 2020.
We had a business! We had a greenhouse. We had seed. We had our test-stock overwintering near our old garden greenhouse. So far, so good.
We needed planting mix. Lots and lots of planting mix. And pots and trays and a million other things, every little expense an agony because we had no idea if anyone would want to buy native plants in the U.P!
The U.P. seems filled with nature. Would anyone care enough to pay money to bring bits of nature to their home? The answer is a resounding yes. Apparently I am not the only one who sees how much the U.P.'s native landscape has been denuded by logging and logging-related wildfires and farming and the bulldozing of land for suburbs and industry. Fortunately, a whole bunch of people see. And care. And are trying to help every way they can - save the bees, save the butterflies, feed the birds naturally, garden with hardy plants that don't waste water, embrace the beauty of our own nature instead of always striving for the exotic. But I didn't know you were out there, when I started. I didn't know how many wonderful people all over the U.P. and northern Wisconsin and a remarkable number of other places would be interested in local native plants. But lots of people were interested. I brought my website live on my birthday in late March. Orders and interest began to build. And build. And BUILD!
And then came the next worry. We had orders for plants that did not yet exist. Would we have any plants? By the end of May in the U.P.? What if nothing grows? I have never stared so intently at trays of dirt as I did that spring, praying to all the deities of nature that the plugs from last year would come back and the seeds would sprout. Vern and Designs By Nature Laingsburg had our back, which is the only reason I didn't keel over from the stress of watching those empty trays of dirt that first spring for signs of green. But they grew! And then we ran out of soil.
Apparently, while the rest of the country was recovering from a lack of toilet paper and various other supply chain issues, the gardening industry was quietly running out of peat moss production and shipping capacity. Add to that the fact that the suppliers we had been dealing with consider delivery to the U.P. only a tiny bit less exotic, and about as expensive, as delivering to Mars, and suddenly we could not order potting mix to save our lives. There were desperate phone calls to greenhouse supply stores all over the region as we watched our spring stockpile of potting mix dwindle rapidly.
It was the hydroponic supply stores that finally saved us. They evidently could still get soil, perhaps because they weren't shy about using unusual materials like coconut fiber. We were back in business, and the rest is kind of a blur. We froze our hands off in the greenhouse in April and May, potting things up. And then we started filling orders. Our calendar filled with pick-up appointments and plant sales, meetings, markets, and deadlines. Family time happened in the greenhouse and at plant sales. And then, as fast as it started, spring was done.
Whew! Finally the slow season, we can get back to our normal life, if anyone even has one of those after a couple of years of pandemic. The "slow season" lasted a week or two. Then the orders started picking up again, and kept coming. We juggled late sales, gathered seed, and planted things on our own land to grow for the future. Things finally tapered off when frost declared it was time to learn about overwintering. Then came the moving of all the flats and cleaning up from the chaos, reviewing what the heck just happened, and planning for next year. It was a learning curve for sure.
Based on our new experiences and local discoveries, there will be a few changes. We will be tinkering with our plant list and adding a number of new species, and maybe removing a few that are less consistent with our mission. I plan on redesigning the garden kits and adding several new collections. We are doing more plant sales all over the U.P. and looking at how we can fit in farmer's markets and still stay sane (watch the What's Happening page for details). I keep waiting for everything else to settle down so I can update the plant pictures and descriptions on the website. Any day now, surely. And then, very soon, it will be time to start planting.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your support. Thank you for caring about the world around us. Thank you for weathering our growing pains as we figure out how to produce many, many plants in bulk, fought with a website platform that didn't always do what was needed, and just tried to keep going and meet all the wonderful demand for native plants. And thank you, thank you, for making our first year a resounding success. I heard from a number of people that they were ordering last spring so we would stick around and keep providing a local source of native plants. It worked. We had a blast. And we are ready to do it again.
Watch our webpage for dates and new offerings. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram (search for UP Native Plants). Also, if you have any feedback, we have a new feedback page. Now is the time to let us know about anything we might want to tweak for next year, things that you wish we carried, or tell us about things that you loved and would hate for us to change.
We can't wait to see you in spring!