Southern Nurseries focuses on meeting the needs of landscapers

Bulk amended soil is loaded at a Southern Nurseries site.

Southern Nurseries in Nashville, Tenn., has evolved in size and focus from a lawn care business to a multilocation, wholesale landscape supply and retail business. Terry Flatt, president of Southern Nurseries, has relied on flexibility and innovation in developing a business model that has carried the company through growth and expanded business. That focus is serving Southern Nurseries well in the economic downturn that has drastically reduced new construction across the country in both residential and traditional commercial development.

Flatt started a lawn care business in 1983, which evolved to include landscape maintenance and installation, as well as landscape supply. By 1995, Flatt established Southern Nurseries, Inc., as a wholesale landscape supply company with a retail segment. His brother Ryan joined him, taking on the role of vice president in 1999.

Southern Nurseries developed a business model that is working for the company in light of the reduced landscaping needs brought about by the economy. Technology and market projection were used to develop the current business mix that focuses on supplying landscapers with amended soils and hardscape products, along with trees and plants, as well as a retail business for the homeowner market. Southern Nurseries also provides a professional landscape referral service of area landscapers to homeowners.

Changing focus

“Over the years, we were about 50 percent wholesale landscape supply and about 50 percent retail,” Flatt said. “We’re about 70 percent retail now, with about 30 percent wholesale landscape supply. Most of our landscapers worked with new home construction landscaping. We saw that our business model just wasn’t working after 2008 with the new residential construction market reduced,” Flatt said. Looking at where the market was headed, Southern Nurseries began focusing on landscapers’ needs as landscaping moved in new directions, with an emphasis on upgrade projects.

“Our main products are our engineered soils,” Flatt said. “We hold a federal trademark on our Holy Cow line of products.” Southern Nurseries offers a number of amended soils and products that can be used to amend existing soils.

“A lot of landscapers are working on projects to upgrade existing landscapes,” Flatt said. “People just aren’t moving, and there’s a big move toward outdoor living, adding outdoor living spaces that include outdoor kitchens, and many new hardscape projects.” Southern Nurseries increased its focus on hardscape lines that include pavers, retaining wall components and other products used to create outdoor living spaces.

Southern Nurseries operates at sites in Nashville and nearby Hendersonville. The Bulkyard, a wholesale and retail operation, is located at the Hendersonville site and carries an extensive line of soil mixes, mulches, gravels, natural stone, pavers and retainer wall systems, as well as outdoor living products, such as grills and fireplaces.

Soil removed to create the wetlands park is a source for amended soil sold by Southern Nurseries.

Stormwater management

Flatt holds a general contractor license under a separate company, Evergreen Development Group, that works on a number of environmental and stormwater management projects. These projects include wetlands restoration and wetlands creation, with the most recent a four-year project, Ewing Creek Wetlands Park, located within Nashville. “Cities are looking for ways to store water,” Flatt noted. He cited the creation of the wetlands park as a major way to store water that might otherwise flood areas. The approximately 30-acre wetlands park is being excavated to remove excess soil, and the nonnative plants will be replaced with wetlands plants that will absorb extensive water. While the wetlands will serve as a retention area, it will also be a wetlands park open to the public.

Amended soils are mixed at the Hendersonville site.

Amended soil focus

Amended soils or engineered soils have become a major focus for Southern Nurseries. Growing plants in shallow soil has always been a significant problem, whether the shallow soil is resulting from layers of bedrock at a shallow depth or in settings where the topsoil has been stripped away. Amended soils are often used for raised beds to grow plants that require deeper roots. Over the years, various amendments have been developed and marketed, and amended soils have become more widely used in landscape settings.

“It’s often an urban problem,” said Dr. George Smith, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Tennessee State University. He noted that shallow soil isn’t a problem in natural settings where native plants don’t require deep roots. The shallow soil becomes problematic when attempts are made to grow trees and plants that need to root deeply and can’t reach proper depths. Drainage is also often a problem in shallow soil that is mostly clay, and these soils work most effectively when they are amended with organic material.

Soil that is excavated from the wetlands project will continually be processed at the company’s Hendersonville site, which holds an industrial zoning designation. The amended soils from the processing facility include the Holy Cow line. The Holy Cow soil mix is targeted for various landscape uses, including serving as a medium for growing shrubs and trees and in raised beds. A Holy Cow potting mix is also produced that includes sand and is best used for container planting.

Southern Nurseries offers both wholesale and retail sales at its two locations in Tennessee.

Holy Cow soil mix includes worm castings, leaf compost and mushroom compost. Worm castings, a growing medium used by worm farmers, are purchased by Southern Nurseries after the worms have been removed from the growing medium. Southern Nurseries accepts leaves for composting at the Hendersonville site, and the compost is used in the soil amending process. Additionally, mushroom stems, which are left when mushrooms are cut for fresh and canned markets, are also used in the process.

Commercial development directions

While residential building has all but stopped in many areas across the country, including Nashville, some resurgence in commercial development is being seen. Flatt noted that commercial development projects differ from traditional commercial projects of the past. He cited smaller projects, such as warehouses and small discount retail businesses, as representing a substantial number of commercial developments in the Nashville area.

“Our city has urban forestry requirements in place that require developers to have certain amounts of green space and landscape plantings,” Flatt said. These requirements have been in place for about 10 years and help keep commercial development sites attractive. The urban forestry requirements are also a boon to the green industry. They increase the number of trees and plantings that are needed, as well as the work available to landscapers, which is an important aspect with the decline in new residential construction landscape work.

Looking ahead

Much of the country is reeling from the effects of the downturned economy, and Flatt cited the importance to nurseries and landscapers of a more stable economy that will support a residential market recovery. Southern Nurseries purchases trees and some of its plants from growers throughout the Southeast, and Flatt is worried they won’t be prepared when things start to turn around.

“One of my concerns is that with the market slowdown, growers are not replanting at a rate to provide sufficient plant material when our market does come back,” Flatt said. “That’s a special concern in material like large trees, though I understand the reluctance of growers to plant extensively with a lower demand at this time.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.