University of Vermont Extension System
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Commercial Ornamental Horticulture (COH) Leaflet 30

Starting a Greenhouse or Nursery Business

Leonard P. Perry, Extension Professor

Many people like to grow flowers or do so well, and so they think they could do this for a business. Changing from a hobby to a vocation involves all the aspects of business though, including money management, marketing and possibly even people management and all the government (state and federal) regulations that must be followed for hiring and serving people (such as the American Disabilities Act). Below are a few tips to get your thinking on this started, and Frequently Asked Questions.

What can I expect to earn?
This will vary obviously with your market, drive, desire to earn, abilities, resources and other factors. In general though the industry as a whole (segments vary, for instance the landscape industry in more closely tied to the housing industry and its growth), seems to be growing about 10-20% a year (increase in income over previous year) during this past decade. Overall for the industry, it has grown most of this century. People need plants. When times are tough, they stay around home more and so garden although they buy smaller and less expensive (perennials vs shrubs for instance, or bedding plants and maybe not as many). When times are better, they do more, buy more, and do those bigger landscape projects they've been dreaming about. Of course your market also varies greatly whether you are selling to a permanent population vs. summer homeowners, rural vs urban, or other demographic groups. As with many similar businesses, it often takes 5 to 7 years to show a profit.

In Vermont as of the last survey in the early 1990's, production was valued at about $28 million, putting it third to dairy and beef. If all the service aspects are included, such as landscape which is the largest segment of the industry, it's value is $104 million. There are over 200 state listed producers, over 1000 firms total including all aspects from arborists to florists. These employee upwards of 4000 who earn over half their income from this industry.

You say many earn half their income, what about the rest? What do people do in winter?
Many get into the business part-time-- for instance spring bedding plants or summer cut flowers. This is often in addition to another ag (eg dairy, maple) or even non-ag business (eg sales, medical). Those that do work fully in this industry often put in 60-80 hour weeks or more during 6-9 months, and so are eager for a few months off in winter (some work ski areas, some landscapers plow snow, other firms get ready for spring and take their vacation then and go to meetings). For these latter, figured over the whole year, they work at least full 40-hour weeks.

What is there a market for? What should I sell?
It depends on your interests. You should LOVE what you do in order to do it well and make it a success. Time and again firms have shown that even though a market seems to be saturated, you can succeed by either doing better than another and taking market share away from them, or by expanding the market. Having a "niche" market-- something that you specialize in that few or no others do such as a certain genus of perennials like hosta, a certain type of landscaping such as night lighting, or plants such as for wildlife-- is one and a key way now of expanding the market. It is also about the only way to compete with mass marketers. DO NOT COMPETE WITH THEM ON PRICE--YOU CAN'T. You have to offer products they and others don't. You also have as a small business the ability to change products fast, and should do so as others take them on. And as a small business you can offer a broader product line, a wider selection. The main key may be TOP QUALITY SERVICE-- perhaps the most endangered aspect of the current retail and service industry. To do so, read all you can, take courses, become certified (see below), join professional organizations and attend meetings.

In particular, bedding plants seem to show little limits to popularity. This of course requires a greenhouse and some costs such as heating. Other crops are possible, but if grown during cooler months may not justify the extra heating costs. The production methods vary from starting and growing the plants totally (more labor but less direct costs) to buying them in and growing on a few weeks (more up front costs, less heating and labor costs) to just buying in and reselling (the main key here is to have quick turnover such as supermarkets). Many have success with perennials as this area has so many to chose from and specialize in and is quite popular still. It's much harder to compete with nursery plants as southern locations can grow them longer in their climates and so cheaper. Cut flowers have fairly saturated most local markets with many starting with these the last decade, and many now getting out of them.

In service, landscaping is a main area for many as it is inexpensive to start. There are many doing this though, and often with little background or knowledge. Property maintenance merely mowing and trimming (not pruning--to do this well takes some knowledge/experience) is not landscaping which involves art and design as well as proper planting and care techniques. Similar knowledge applies to being a good florist (attend regular design classes, join a wire service) or arborist (tree care and proper pruning and safety practices, not just operating a chain saw as in forests).

What do I need to start?
In addition to knowledge as outlined above:
Secretary of State--trade name
State Dept. of Taxes--tax number, filing forms
State Dept. Agr, Plant Industry--listing, pesticide training (good to have even if not using them)
Town--register, building and other permits
Bank--possible loan (need a business plan, talk to them about this), account
other depending on your business eg commercial pesticide license, truck permits
VT Assn. Professional Horticulturists--state assn., newsletter, meetings, suppliers, certification
other trade groups and meetings (get on our Extension list--address below)

Where do I get more information?
For a complete free packet of information (primarily on trees, but being expanded), contact the government agency ATTRA at 800-346-9140. Once you've started the above, for specific questions relating to operating/growing in Vermont contact me at Dept. Plant and Soil Science, Hills Bldg, UVM, Burlington, VT 05405; phone 802-656-0479 and leave specific message with your name and address; FAX 802-656-4656; email is best and quickest at Also if you have internet access, check out my web pages with links to other commerical sites and information at .

Return to Perry's Perennial Commercial Page

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. Lawrence Forcier, Director, UVM Extension System, Burlington, Vermont. University of Vermont Extension System and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone, without regard to race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, and marital or familial status.