[PDN SUN] Plant Delights Update - Heronswood Nursery Closing

Tony Avent tony at plantdelights.com
Tue Jun 6 16:27:31 EDT 2006

Greetings PDN'ers:

Most of you have probably heard by now about the closing of Heronswood 
Nursery in Kingston,
Washington.  Heronswood was one of those very special nurseries that 
comes around only once
in a lifetime and we are all lucky to have been able to partake of the 
horticultural treasures that
Heronswood made available. 

Heronswood fans have reacted with anger, not just at the loss of such a 
special nursery, but at the
poor way in which the closing was handled. Nursery faithful were left 
with no chance to say
goodbye, or to visit and purchase plants for one last time.   At this 
time, I'd like to take a few
moments to reflect on Heronswood, Burpee, and mail-order in general, and 
of course, how it
relates to us here at Plant Delights.

The closing of Heronswood is a terrible loss for horticulture, but not 
one that was unexpected...at
least by anyone who studies horticultural businesses.   All the signs 
were there.  In 2005, the first
color catalog appeared, but instead of a full plant listing, only a few 
hundred plants were
chosen that followed no rhyme, reason, or price point strategy.  In 
2006, Burpee discontinued the
main catalog to save money...in spite of the fact that this was the main 
source of income.  The
scant selection of plants for the 2006 color catalog were even more 
bizarre, being obviously
selected by a catalog designer with no plant knowledge.   The website, 
was also outsourced to India
and not only appeared 3 weeks late in a crucial January season,  but the 
re-designed "artsy" site
was so bizarrely unfunctional that even web veterans couldn't make sense 
of it.  Anyone who
didn't see the end coming was looking through rose-colored glasses.

Heronswood and Plant Delights lived their horticultural lives as 
"sister" nurseries on opposite
coasts.  Dan and Robert purchased their property in 1987 and we 
purchased ours in 1988.  We
both began with on-site sales and both began mail-order in 1991.  The 
set-up of our operations,
including a botanic garden to test and display plants were amazingly 
similar.  Over the years,
Dan and I have been fortunate to travel together on month-long plant 
expeditions and have
visited each others operations many times.  It is rare that two 
businesses would
have such a parallel development, but this undoubtedly lead to our 
long-term friendship.

Both Heronswood and Plant Delights specialized in unusual plants, 
Heronswood focusing more
on wild seed-grown woody plants and some perennials, while our focus was 
on perennials, with an
emphasis on selected forms.  Our catalog offerings also reflected our 
differing climates.  While
we probably killed as many Heronswood plants as anyone, that never 
stopped us from ordering
with the hopes of finding a percentage of the plants that would enjoy 
our more hot, humid

We both used humor as an important tool in our catalogs, although our 
writing styles were
dramatically different (esoteric vs. redneck).  Our catalogs also 
evolved differently, with PDN
opting for color photos and a smaller number of offerings in the printed 
catalog, while the
Heronswood catalog became a veritable literary encyclopedia with over 
2500 listings.

We both also wanted to create businesses that would engage a personal 
connection with our
customers.  When successfully done, this creates a very loyal base of 
customers, but the down
side is that it makes the loss of a nursery like Heronswood like losing 
a friend, or in our case a
sibling.   Since we fully expected that this would be the last year for 
Heronswood, we spent
several days at Heronswood last June (2005), lecturing for one of their 
wonderful garden
seminars, purchasing an obscene array of plants, and saying what proved 
to be our goodbye to the
wonderful Heronistas (Heronswood Staff). 

Our two nurseries were almost identical size in June 2000, when George 
C. Ball of the Burpee
Holding Co. purchased Heronswood.  Around the same time, George also 
purchased the remains
(URL and mailing list) of the defunct Garden.com in January 2001 for the 
reportedly absurdly high price of
$2.4 million).  Burpee had also built 4 mega-garden centers in 
1999/2000, which were all out of
business by the following year.  By September 2001, it became obvious 
that George had
overextended himself, when the Burpee Holding Company filed for Chapter 
11 bankruptcy. 

So, who is this George C. Ball?  The story starts with George J. Ball, a 
pioneer in commercial
horticulture.  The George J. Ball Corporation was an umbrella 
corporation that eventually
included several companies such as Ball Seed, Pam American Seed Co., 
Ball Flora Plant, Ball
Publishing, and Burpee.  The company was started by George C.'s 
grandfather, George J. Ball.
George J. had 4 sons who took over the business in 1949 when George J. 
Ball died.   One by one,
the four brothers died or went in different directions.  The remaining 
brother Carl, eventually
retired in the mid-1990's and divided the company among his three 
children, George C. Ball, his
brother Dexter, and his sister Anna. 

The George J. Ball Corporation was split among the siblings with Anna 
getting Ball Seed, Pam
American and Ball Flora Plant, which she ran under the umbrella 
corporation, Ball Horticulture.
Dexter took a buyout, while George C. formed a separate company that 
included Ball
Publishing and Burpee, which George J. Ball Corporation had originally 
purchased in 1991.  
George ran Ball Publishing a short time, but then sold it back to his 
sister, Anna. 

George continues today as President of Burpee and as outlined earlier, 
also went on to
pursue other less successful ventures under the umbrella of the Burpee 
Holding Company
(no business relation to Anna's Ball Horticulture).  With the failed garden
centers, the story goes that George poured huge amounts of money into 
each garden center,
which in turn lost huge amounts of money.  George then showed up himself 
to fire the staff and
lock the doors.  Sound familiar?

Many of us questioned the motive of the Heronswood purchase, since it 
was clear that the
purchase was not good from a business investment perspective.  For the 
price that Burpee paid
for Heronswood, and the expected yearly cash flow, the payback of 
principle would have
neared a human lifetime.  There is no banker in the world that would 
rate this as a good
investment for financial return.

So, why did Burpee purchase Heronswood?  We can only speculate, but this 
is not the first large
corporation to buyout a smaller nursery.   Most of these buyouts have 
not proven profitable for
the larger profit-minded corporation and have been maintained only as a 
five-year tax loss write-off.  
I have never met George Ball and have not spoken to him regarding the 
Heronswood purchase.  I
know that Burpee had laid out grandiose plans for Heronswood at the time 
of the purchase.  The
plan included a 20-acre production facility, a tissue culture lab, and 
much more.  The
Heronswood gene pool certainly had a value for the Burpee breeding 
program, but of more
interest was probably the position that Heronswood Nursery held within 
the nursery industry.
Heronswood was constantly featured in magazine articles and television 
shows.  Dan and Martha
Stewart were good friends and purchasing Heronswood no doubt meant some 
access to that
world for Burpee

Having closely followed the Heronswood deal from the beginning, I have 
no question that both
parties made the deal with the best of intentions, but as we all know, 
not all relationships work
out.  Granted, divorce is usually a better option than the more 
aggressive spouse killing off the
weaker one, but unfortunately, this relationship didn't live up to 
expectations and the results led to
a very messy ending.

I have read newspaper reports that indicate that Heronswood will re-open 
for mail-order on the
East Coast.  Yes, and I've got some well-draining swampland in Florida 
for sale.   None of us
know for sure what will happen with their nursery stock or even the 
nursery display gardens.
None of us know if Dan and Robert will start a new nursery venture.  I 
expect they don't even
know at this point if another nursery is in the cards.  At least, the 
type of non-compete
agreements in place have generally been ruled void by the courts.  I 
think it would be great if the
City of Kingston would purchase the gardens and open them as a public 
garden.  Better yet,
George Ball could recover a bit of good will if he donated the property 
to the town of Kingston.
If you never visited Heronswood, you missed out on one of the truly 
special botanic gardens in
the country.

What would have happened if Heronswood had not sold to Burpee? No one 
knows.  What I can
tell you is that most mail order nurseries have a life expectancy of 
10-15 years.  I can count on
one hand those that have lasted longer than this under the same 
ownership.  I'm talking about
when a mail-order nursery is run as a business (a industry standard 
salary paid to the owner) as
opposed to a hobby mail-order nursery.  Why is this the case?  In 
reality, it is a combination of
factors, from mental stress to fiscal stress.  While it may seem hard to 
believe, it is very difficult
for a mail-order nursery to be profitable.  Remember, I'm talking about 
those run as a business
with real business overhead.  Some of the largest mail-order nurseries 
in the country are suffering
mightily and one came within days of being closed quite recently.

Could Heronswood be purchased and run as a mail order nursery again?  
The answer is no... if
you actually wanted to make money.  Burpee purchased Heronswood for far 
more than it was
worth.  After the purchase, Heronswood sales began a gradual decline 
that continued through this year.
This decline in sales made the nursery worth dramatically less than when 
it was originally
purchased by Burpee.  During the same time, the value of the nursery 
land has dramatically
increased in value.  Today, the land is worth several times what the 
nursery is worth.  You can
see why purchasing the existing site and running Heronswood as a nursery 
again doesn't make
financial sense.

What's the lesson here?  If you have a favorite nursery, patronize it.  
Are you one of those sitting
there wishing you had sent in your Heronswood order earlier?   Lesson 
learned...if you see a
special plant at a mail-order nursery, don't wait because tomorrow may 
be too late. 

So, is Plant Delights planning to go anywhere or sell out?  The answer 
is emphatically, No.  At
least, the answer today is No.  We are in our 16th year in mail order 
and we have indeed reached
the typical life expectancy of our type of business.  One of the things 
that make us a bit different
is that we love the business part of running a nursery as much as we do 
the plants.  None of us
know what tomorrow will bring and one day, our time will come, but it is 
our sincere hope to be
around for quite a while.  Thanks again for your support and best wishes 
to Dan and Robert in their next venture.


Tony Avent
Plant Delights Nursery @
Juniper Level Botanic Garden
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, North Carolina  27603  USA
Minimum Winter Temps 0-5 F
Maximum Summer Temps 95-105F
USDA Hardiness Zone 7b
email tony at plantdelights.com
website  http://www.plantdelights.com
phone 919 772-4794
fax  919 772-4752
"I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself...at least three times" - Avent

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