This year the weather has been perfect and it has made a huge difference. —Kathy Harbin
SALT LAKE CITY — For the past few years northern Utah has jumped from winter directly into summer, bypassing the spring season those who make their living from the soil so desperately seek.
It's a different story in 2012 for the lawn and garden industry.
"It's been a night and day difference from the last couple of years," said Loren Nielsen, owner of Wasatch Shadows Nursery in Sandy. Weather impacts the business even more than the economy, he said.
"(When) the two combine against you, weather sinks you and the economy is the knife twisting in your back," Nielsen said.
But, after a few years of wetter and cooler than normal springs resulting in declining revenues, the landscape and garden industry is again blooming.
"A good spring like this … kind of brings hope back," he said. Sales at his store were up 60 percent to 80 percent in April over last year.
He said that approximately 30 percent of his revenue is generated in the three-month spring season as homeowners set aside time to plant their flower and vegetable gardens. The focus typically changes right after school breaks for summer, and families plan vacations and spend less time tending to their yards.
"A good summer won't maintain booming sales," Nielsen said. "You see an almost instant 20 to 30 percent drop (once summer starts)."
He said sales during the eight to 12 weeks of spring usually determine whether his business makes a profit or loses money for the year.
"(Spring) is absolutely critical," he said.
The importance of the season is similarly strong for those in the lawn care and maintenance business.
"It seems like this year, we're busier than ever," said Don Conroy, owner of DJ Landscapes. He said when he bought the business 12 years ago, there were about 50 clients. Today, he services about 160 accounts.
During that time, his annual revenues have jumped from slightly more than $100,000 to approximately $400,000. Much of the growth has occurred in the past five years despite the lagging economy, he said, with a 20 percent increase in the last year.
Conroy could not pinpoint a particular reason for the increase other than to say he offered good work and a fair price. He said all his business is "word of mouth" referrals, he does no mass marketing.
Nationally, home vegetable gardening is on the rise, while other segments have struggled somewhat recently due to the economy, similar to Utah's experience since 2007.
According to the National Gardening Association website, in 2011, consumers spent nearly $3 billion on food gardening while sales for other types of lawn and garden activities saw a slight decrease.
In 2009 and 2010, sales for vegetable gardening, fruit trees, berries and herb gardening totaled $2.9 billion. Total sales for all types of do-it-yourself lawn and garden activities fell 5 percent in 2010 to $28.4 billion from $30.1 billion in the prior year.
The number of households hiring lawn care and landscape services also declined last year by 8 percent. The nationwide average amount spent on all lawn and garden activities in 2010 was $363 compared to $355 in 2009.
In Utah, however, business is now improving thanks to Mother Nature. For the most part, the weather is the major contributing factor in determining how successful any business will be from year to year, according to Kathy Harbin, general manager of Cactus & Tropicals.
"This year the weather has been perfect and it has made a huge difference," she said. "We're busier than we've been for several years."
She said the economic downturn also impacted the industry locally with fewer people spending money on their lawns and gardens.
"When the economy changed direction a few years ago, we really felt it," Harbin said. "Our traffic dropped off significantly."
She said that while the revenues have not yet returned to pre-2007 peak levels, this spring has seen a distinct double-digit improvement in sales.
"When the weather is perfect like this, it makes everybody excited about getting fun gardening stuff going," she added.
Both Harbin and Nielsen said that 2007 was the last "boom" year in which spring was ideal with adequate rainfall and moderate temperatures resulting in increased sales revenues.
"That was before the economy tanked," Nielsen said. "Then 2008 started the slide … and 2010 and 2011 were devastating weather years."
Last year had record precipitation and record cool temperatures, he said.
"That's not a good combination for the nursery business," Nielsen said. But this year's "more normal" spring has been a "lifesaver for everybody in the industry," he said.
He said due to the decline in the home building sector, his nursery lost a lot of its commercial business as fewer contractors were able to purchase landscaping products and foliage. But even that segment is starting to improve. However, most of the increase has been due to residential customers.
"People want color in their yards," he said. "Annual flowers, perennial flowers, hanging baskets and container planters."
He said orders are coming in on a daily basis and "stuff is flying in and stuff is flying out."
Nielsen said average annual sales for his business are in the $2 million range, though last year was well below that level.
With those lean times fresh in his mind, he said having a "normal" year is especially gratifying.
"Sunny weather just brings (the best) out," he said.