Construction Boom Allows Garden Industry to Flourish

Wed August 03, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

ORLANDO, FL (AP) The nationwide boom in housing and other construction is powering sales of sod, flowers, trees, landscape plants and garden supplies to record levels.

The “green industry” that supplies, equips and maintains all those new lawns and landscapes packs an economic punch of more than $147 billion a year, with Florida second only to California in terms of the financial benefits generated on a state-by-state basis, according to a national study by the University of Florida (UF) and the University of Tennessee.

What’s fueling the growth? Commercial developers are increasingly using masses of colorful flowers, known as bedding plants, along with other shrubs in their basic landscape designs.

Every new subdivision requires acres of turf grass, often produced on farms throughout central and South Florida.

And a staple of floral arrangements nationwide is the leatherleaf fern, a specialty grown in Volusia County ferneries.

“Development is so tremendous in Florida. It goes hand in hand with the industry,” said Linda Adams, a spokeswoman for the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association, a statewide trade group based in Orlando.

Baby boomers are trading up to “McMansions,” snapping up second homes, and spiffing up their yards with flowers and green things, said Robert Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

“We’ve seen a dramatic rate of growth,” Dolibois said.

The university study estimated that the horticulture industry accounts for nearly 2 million jobs nationwide and $64.3 billion in labor income. In terms of its “value-added” effect on the economy — that is, sales minus costs — Florida’s green industry contributes about $7.1 billion a year, second only to California’s $13.7 billion.

Texas was third at $6.1 billion, Illinois fourth at $4.3 billion and Pennsylvania fifth at $3.7 billion.

Researchers said the study was the first such nationwide look at the industry. They said it was designed to measure how much the thousands of nursery businesses, sod growers, landscape architects, lawn-maintenance firms, garden centers, equipment manufacturers and related businesses contribute to the U.S. economy.

UF economist Alan Hodges, one of the study’s three authors, said the horticulture industry has expanded steadily even during recessions, though regional markets have had their ups and downs.

In central Florida, one of the top regions in the state for the production of indoor and outdoor plants, last year’s hurricanes hammered the green industry. And area growers say that they are still recovering.

“Last year was a total mess,” said Scott Ritschard, manager of the 170-acre Gateway Gardens, a big grower of wholesale foliage in Oviedo. “The hurricane losses were terrible.”

Gateway Gardens lost $880,000 worth of plants drowned by rains or battered by winds, and it went about three months without income because sales essentially came to a halt for the rest of the hurricane season after the first storm hit, Ritschard said. Numerous greenhouses also were damaged.

Business has since rebounded, as many homeowners have replaced lost plants, but it’s too early to say how strong 2005 will be, industry specialists said. Summer heat takes its toll on foliage sales, which slack off as homeowners and landscapers focus on maintenance tasks such as mowing rather than on planting.

Spring and fall are the top sales periods for the state’s green industry — the equivalent of “Christmastime for retailers,” said Adams of the nursery association.

“We have two really good [sales] seasons in Florida,” she said, and the weather is warm enough for growers to produce plants year-round.

The horticulture industry continues to develop variety and sophistication, with new plants created every year to entice buyers. New niche markets also are being developed, such as “aquatic restoration,” said Jim Thomas, president and owner of Biosphere Consulting Inc. in Winter Garden.

“Homeowners realize they can enhance the value of their property” with quality landscaping, Thomas said.

Removing nonnative plants from around lakes and adding native, drought-tolerant plants and sturdy trees add to property values, Thomas said, while also helping to reduce pollution and improve the environment.

Thomas started a nursery in 1991, at first to grow plants for his lakefront restoration and mitigation projects. But the nursery has since expanded to 15 acres under cultivation, so that it now yields plants for homeowners as well, with Saturday-only sales of everything from native trees to shrubs that attract butterflies.

“Our sales have doubled in the last three years,” Thomas said, as homeowners snap up native winged elm trees, cypress, live oaks and other hardy trees and plants that are better able to withstand everything from hurricanes to droughts.

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