Organic Nursery Plants: A Big Deal or Not?


My article on the availability–or lack thereof–of organic plants for sale at garden centers ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday.  Read the article here. The bottom line is that while many garden centers offer a wide selection of organic fertilizers, potting soils, pest control products, and so forth, actually getting organic plants can be tough.  Local growers produce organic herb and veggie starts, but what about shrubs, trees, ornamental perennials, bedding annuals, and so on?

Unlike the cut flower industry, in which most flowers we buy are imported from Latin America, the nursery industry is still home-grown.  (Importing plants is more difficult because of restrictions on importing soil, among other things.)  Some of the plants you buy at the garden center were grown nearby by a small-scale farmer (maybe a farmer’s market grower who offers tomato seedlings in early summer), but some were grown by large-scale growers that turn out millions of plants for garden centers, big box stores, and even cut flower growers.  Among that second group, organic plants are almost impossible to find, and even plants grown under some kind of sustainability certification are scarce.  While many growers use IPM (integrated pest management) practices and other eco-friendly approaches, the plants aren’t labeled as such, so consumers can’t vote with their dollars.

Two programs aim to change that:  VeriFlora, the program that certifies cut flowers, is branching out to nursery plants, and Circle of Life, initiated by Ball, aims to help small growers be more sustainable and encourages garden centers to label and market these locally-grown, sustainable plants more aggressively.  This includes reducing plastics and switching to compostable pots.  (Speaking of pots, check out these eco-friendly pots made of rice hulls, a product that would otherwise be burned.  The owner told me they last for years.)

So–organically-grown plants.  Important to you personally?  Important from the broader perspective of the health of those workers in the greenhouse, the environment where the plants are grown, etc?  Would the plants themselves be higher quality if they weren’t fed with synthetic fertilizers, but instead fed with the good stuff and grown in microbe-rich organic soil?  And if we want organic plants, do we need to convince garden centers that we don’t require plants to be forced into premature bloom at the point of purchase?


  1. I doubt that WE require plants to be forced into premature bloom at the point of purchase but unfortunately, the general public requires blooms. Responds only to blooms. Is hopelessly bloomcentric.

  2. I’m not looking for the organic label when I’m looking for plants.

    When purchasing natives, I like to see the seed source. That suggests that the grower gives a damn.

  3. I’ve had really good luck buying perennials at little farm stands–possibly because they are not pumped up with vast amounts of chemical fertilizer.

    If I had a choice, I would definitely buy organic.

  4. I know when a plant is in bloom is not the best time to transplant it BUT I have started to buy some plants in bloom because of mislabeling, which seems quite prevalent. I have several clematis which were not in bloom when I bought them and are not the variety labelled, as well as some other plants. Some plants are fairly easy to match with variety without flowers, but others are impossible.

  5. Organically grown nursery stock ?
    On the scale of what’s important in the agriculture and horticulture business I would say it is rather low.

    As long as the employees are properly protected when applying fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers and they are managing their reclaimation systems to a high degree , as most do in my highly controlled area of Northern California , then this is not a subject that needs to be added to the ever growing list of dire enviromental concerns.
    There are other way more pressing subjects that have a far greater impact on the industry and the enviroment then expending great amounts of energy ( thus taking away resourses from those who really benefit from it ) .

  6. From ordering seedlings online, I know that pesticide drenches are sometimes required to ship plants with soil in containers to certain states. A couple of the nurseries I deal with specifically remove the soil and ship “bareroot” to these states to get around these restrictions, because they don’t want to use pesticides. Others enclose a copy of an inspection certificate stating that the nursery is free of pests.

    I think it’s more important to garden organically after the fact, but I am glad to see live earthworms and other critters in the soil of things I get, because it means I’m not exposed to pesticides either.

  7. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a website for Menzies Natives Nursery. I don’t know anything about them, but I bookmarked the site because they are the most organic nursery I’ve ever heard of. They have a good description of their practices at their home page:

    Oh, and about pots. I think it would be great if nursery’s could switch to compostable pots. Plastic pots don’t seem to last that long anyway (especially outdoors because the sun weakens their structure). And plastic, as a product of petroleum, is a limited resource and should be used for more important things like computers, medical equipment, and whatnot.

  8. This article has finally gotten me to step out of my silent reader status, as I have some personal experience with this issue as a seller of such plants. My partner and I run a very small farm on the Northwest coast of Oregon. Thus far we sell mainly at local farmer’s markets and festivals as well as a bit of on-farm sales to regular customers, so we have great direct contact with our customers. We are one of those ‘Not Certified Organic by Doing It That Way Anyway’ farms, and our customers seem happy with my explanations of how I grow the plants and what I do (and do not) use on them.

    I’ve found that the whole ‘Organic’ thing really only seems to matter to most people when they are buying plants that they plan to eat eventually. We have a very loyal following for our heirloom tomato plants, herb starts, lettuce and other leafy green plant starts, strawberries and so on. If it’s edible, people will ask super detailed questions- where did I get the seed, what fertilizers do I use, do I make my own potting soil, (with what ingredients and where do they come from), how do they continue to grow them organically, and even how often do I talk to the plants to make them so happy. (I’m not joking. And yes, I do talk to the plants. Doesn’t everyone??)

    When they buy non-edible plants, it seems that most people could care less whether or not it’s organically grown, certified or not, and really it is more about price than anything, or rariety. If I have some plant that they can’t buy anywhere else they will buy it, not because it is organic, but because of Plant Lust. (And to be honest, I would do the same if I really wanted a plant. I’m as much of a plant slut as the next gardener.) Don’t even get me started on the ‘In Bloom’ issue- no matter how many gorgeous color photos you show people of how the plant WILL look when it is blooming, they will still wait until one plant in the flat is blooming and buy that one, even if it is the least happy one. I get the whole issue of bad labelling, especially if you are shelling out good money for a clematis, but most plants, perennial or annual, that are brought into bloom in a 4″ pot (or god forbid a six-pack) are under some degree of stress, and the kind of chemical cocktail used on them to get them to look so nice for soooo long is pretty creepy.

    There is a very small group of people who want all of their plants, edible or not, to be organically grown, but I don’t think there are enough of them yet to cause the larger nursery industry to make any major shifts in how they do things just yet.

    We purposefully use a sturdier plastic pot for our 4″ plants, one that can be re-used many times, and many our customers bring their pots back to us for re-use, which I encourage. Compostable pots are great, and I wish they were more affordable to use, but they are just too expensive for our small scale, no one will pay enough to cover the costs for using them yet. And unless you are selling annuals, the fact that they break down quickly is not a great asset. Those eco-friendly rice hull pots are terribly sexy, and I long to use them, but again it is a price issue. We are working on being able to afford using them.

    Portland, Oregon has a great organization that helps gardeners recycle all those nasty plastic pots, and I wish every city offered this service:

    Sorry to rant on for so long, but this issue is a frustrating one for me- I want very much to do the right thing, grow organic plants, sell them in compostable pots, leave the smallest foot print possible. And people stop by our market stall all the time and say how wonderful it is that we are doing this, and many of them buy our plants because of how we grow them, but the number of them that balk at what we need to charge in order to do that is still significant. A nursery or farm is still a business in the end, and I have to make compromises on things like plastic pots if I want to stay in business. I think this issue will evolve just like the food industry- if people ask for organic plants, and demand less plastic, and are willing to pay the price for such things, the industry will respond.

  9. I would have to agree with the above comment by Teresa. Most people that want will raise them organically after they purchase, but most people will not pay the higher price demanded for the organic starter plants. This might explain our relatively good sales of organic fertilizers, soils, and pesticides, but the poor sales of organic seed and vegetable starts.

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