Tree Shortages In The Nursery Industry

This article was originally published in March 2015.

Oh, so sad!!! So sad it is to hear me sing about the cold hard truth of shortages of young trees in nurseries. I know it is hard to fathom but the shortages may be worse than my singing!

Ever since the mortgage market collapse in late 2007 led to the recession in 2008, nursery and landscape businesses have suffered. Most of our businesses had to make adjustments to compensate for the decrease in sales activity. Many good people lost their jobs. Several nurseries went out of business. And most of us in the green industry had to find ways to save money.

The poor economy had a dramatic effect on the plant supply stream, creating huge excesses of plant materials, starting with the liner suppliers and moving up to the finished plant growers. Many nurseries greatly decreased the amount of plants they were putting in the ground because of this. Some stopped putting in liners (young trees) altogether in some years. Most if not all nurseries had to destroy large parts of their plant inventories that weren’t sold as expected.

This behavior was a survival tactic that had to be implemented by most growing operations. Now as the economy has turned around, the industry is seeing ramifications of this adjustment in the form of nursery stock shortages. The major tree whip producers, primarily in the Willamette Valley in Oregon are selling out of stock of many varieties of trees in the last two years. Many were sold out of stock before the trade show season began in January. So the B&B growers, who had decreased planting during the recession, are having difficulty fulfilling their needs to build up their inventories now.

The point of all of this historical nursery production information is to tell you that we are in a period of plant shortages in the nursery industry. In all likelihood, it will get worse in the next few years before I expect it to stabilize in about two years. The liner (young tree) growers are gearing up now, although labor shortages may hamper this to a certain extent. Plug producers and small seedling growers can ramp up relatively quickly. It takes tree whip producers a couple of years and finished stock producers a few years more.

The reality is a lack of availability in 1-3/4” to 2-1/2” shade and ornamental trees in the market currently. Large-sized container material is also hard-to-find for many cultivars. Tree liners of many of the popular varieties have been difficult to get in the quantities necessary for spring planting.

I think this is a good problem to have in some respects. At least it indicates an uptick in business relative to the recession years and is a needed adjustment of inventories as a result of the recession. I also think this has made most if not all of us smarter business people. We had to make adjustments because of the circumstances and I think all of us have learned from that. So what can we do about this, now and into the near future to make our businesses successful?

Be Flexible

Even though there are shortages of plant materials in many varieties, there are still plants available in bigger sizes and in alternative varieties that can be used effectively. For instance: Two genera of plants that are outstanding for our area and are not being used to a great degree are upright Junipers and Hawthorns. With the drought, we had 3 years ago and the first-rate performance that both Thornless Cockspur Hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli var. inermis) and Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum), displayed, I think these plants should move up on the list of preferred plants for use in Southeast Wisconsin. I especially like the Hawthorns for their horizontal forms in the winter. After a fresh snowfall, there are stars in the landscape. Each branch is highlighted by the snow. Few plants are more beautiful at this time. The fruit on Washington Hawthorn is great for attracting birds in late fall and early winter. Its orange-red fall color is second to none.

Oh, so sad!!! So sad it is to hear me sing about the cold hard truth of shortages of young trees in nurseries. I know it is hard to fathom but the sho…

Upright Junipers are another group of plants that are numerous in many sizes in our fields. I can’t figure out why they are not used more, especially in these times in which the deer population has decimated many evergreens in the landscape. Most upright Junipers are deer-resistant. Another great characteristic of this group of plants is their salt tolerance. They can be put in some tough environments, where most plants would struggle. They thrive. I love looking at the native upright Junipers growing along the Milwaukee County freeway system. It amazes me how wonderful they look and that they freely propagate themselves in one of the most inhospitable places in Southeast Wisconsin. I admire that. I know many of you are wondering why I am recommending Junipers after all the burning that occurred last winter. Well, I must admit it was tragic what happened but my opinion is that was an aberration that will likely only happen once in our lifetime. Heck, I never saw that happen before in my 35+ years of observing woody plants. I doubt it will happen again, at least very soon.

Another tactic to deal with plant shortages is to consider larger-sized materials. Several tree species are currently sold out in the 1-1/2” to 2” size ranges. However, larger sizes of these species may be available. It is very difficult if not impossible right now to find smaller sizes of ’Skyline®’ Honeylocust or Bur Oak. However, 2-1/2” to 3” plants are available. So if you can up-size certain materials you are looking for, you may have more success finding the varieties you want.

Plan Further Ahead

Another strategy for getting plant materials you want in these times of shortage is to order further ahead than you normally would. For instance, there is usually another crop awaiting growth to become the next 1-1/2” to 2” plants of a particular cultivar. If you order now for fall or next spring you will have a much better chance of obtaining the plants than if you wait to place an order.


Perhaps the very best way of getting the materials you need is to regularly communicate with your supplier. Availabilities are changing all the time. The salespeople have a really good read on what plants are most popular and the most likely to sell out. I understand people’s trepidation with believing everything that a salesperson tells you. I often have reservations myself. But, I also know that when I meet a good salesperson who knows their business and their product, they can be incredibly important to my success. At Johnson’s, we require our salespeople to have these qualities. If you talk to them regularly, you can take advantage of their knowledge and helpfulness.

The current situation presents a completely different set of challenges than we have seen in the previous 5 years. If we realize they are here and are going to be with us for the next few years, we can deal with it to our advantage. Contact us at any time to let us help you fulfill your plant needs. I promise not to sing!!!