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Growers see sunny economic forecast
Garden stores battered by drought hope for turnaround
Bobby Herring with Waypoint Nursery loads a cart with plants on Saturday at the Spring Garden Expo at the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center. - photo by Tom Reed

It may be a brighter spring in the gardening business this year.

As Georgia climbs out of an epic drought, plant nursery owners who brought their wares to the Spring Garden Expo at the Chicopee Woods Agriculture Center on Saturday were looking for a few rays of sunshine in the form of a turnaround in plant sales.

The industry has been hit by a double whammy of drought and recession. But things may be changing.

"I’m hoping we’ll have a lot better spring this year," said Scott McMahan, owner of McMahan’s Nursery in Clermont, adding that early sales are promising.

McMahan acknowledged that nursery owners have weathered tough times in recent years.

"Retail sales were really down the last few years, and a lot of us have not survived," he said. "Those that have are smaller businesses that are able to shift gears more quickly, adapt and offer more drought-resistant plants."

Drought-resistant and native plants have been best-sellers at garden shops since the drought’s grip tightened on the state. But a winter and early spring of welcome rainfall has brought most regions of Georgia back to stream flows and soil moisture well above adequate for planting. Only the basins of Lake Lanier and Lake Hartwell remain in a moderate drought. Although, at about 10 feet below full pool, the conditions around Lanier are not as bad as the extreme drought of 2008.

Nursery owners said they are hopeful that outdoor watering restrictions will be scaled back dramatically, further boosting their sales.

"I really think it will be a more colorful spring," said Jeff Ayers, owner of Hillside Nursery in Mt. Airy. "I really feel flowers, annuals and perennials will be popular for most people."

Ayers said even in a down economy, people will buy plants to spruce up their homes.

"They may not have the $3,000 for the vacation, but if they have to stay at home, they want it to look good," Ayers said.

And more homeowners with tight budgets are doing the work themselves instead of paying landscapers, he said.

"Nurseries need to have knowledgeable staff because people are asking a lot of questions now," he said.

One way some households cut costs is by growing food-bearing plants, Ayers said, which seems to be on the rise this year, too.

"That is really going to be popular this year," he said. "We’ve already had trouble getting fruit trees."

Where some homeowners may have been inclined to plant annuals in the backyard before, "now they may do a raised bed and grow a vegetable garden," he said.

And aside from the practicality of growing your own food, vegetable gardens are exempt from watering restrictions, Ayers said.

Chip Fink, owner of Mystic Farm in Greenville, S.C., said his customers see plant-buying in a different light than "throwing away money going out to eat or buying a new wardrobe. They get more lasting pleasure from (plants).

"They’re still looking to get that smile on their face in the morning when they look out and see those flowers," he said.