There are plenty of ways to start a nursery business, and it didn’t take Erik Rosenbaum long to figure out what worked for his family. His daughter Annette Fentress, who helms the business today, explained how Sun Nurseries began.
“My dad and his brother were selling azaleas out of a truck,” said Fentress. “Then my dad realized he could grow azaleas and learned how to propagate. He also did landscape design and installations, and that’s where it really began. Once he got the property, he started to grow his own stock.” Fentress credits her father’s drive and enthusiasm as well as her mother’s work behind the scenes for getting the business off to a good start.
The Rosenbaums started their nursery business in the mid-1970s after saving enough money to purchase a farm in Woodbine, MD. Both parents continued to work off the farm as they established the nursery.
Fentress said other than azalea propagation, her father started with almost no experience in horticulture. “His background and career in electrical engineering gave him the drive to make things work,” she said. “My mother helped him and handled customer service.” There were successes and failures along the way, but persistence won.
Although Fentress obtained a degree in electrical engineering, she returned to the family business with a renewed love for plants. She said spending time away from the business was beneficial. “Knowing I was first successful on my own gave a sense of value, especially in the beginning,” she said.
Sun Nursery’s main location includes 20 acres and a retail store. Production space includes 60 polyhouses, seven of which are heated. “We have one propagation house for our own cuttings,” said Fentress. “It works well for both annual and woody plants. By the time we’re ready to start annuals, winter propagation is rooted and we can move them out.” They also maintain a 97-acre farm for tree production.
In January and February, the nursery crew is busy potting liners and bare roots as well as propagating. Starting in March, planting annuals is the number one job. “We do high-end hanging baskets,” said Fentress. “We also do some eight-inch pots with multi liners that match the hanging baskets for people who want to just plop them into a container.” Sun Nurseries strives to use environmentally sound practices, such as using coco liners instead of PF plastic.
Bareroot trees arrive in February. The crop cycle for most trees is between four and five years. They’re planted in the field in summer and evergreens are planted in autumn. Fentress said holding young trees in containers allows for daily irrigation, makes them more resilient. Once trees are in the ground, they’re under drip irrigation for the first few years to push growth.
Fentress said she and her staff strive to offer trees that will thrive for customers. “It’s customer service all the way,” she said. “We don’t want to sell something that isn’t hardy in this area.” She added that it’s common for customers to visit Sun Nurseries with a particular species in mind, then change their mind when they see the options available.
Sun Nurseries offers a wide variety of woody perennials, some of which remain colorful throughout winter. Their most popular woody plant is cherry (Schip) laurel, which Fentress said is an outstanding plant, but the nursery is stocked with plenty of colorful woodies and trees that appeal to buyers.
“Black gum has the most remarkable fall color,” she said. “They’re slow growing but they’re lovely.” Shrubby dogwoods, including red twig dogwood, have exceptional autumn color and winter interest. Clethra is another popular native woody perennial. “It’s bright yellow,” said Fentress. “It’s a tough plant – it can tolerate extra water or drought.”
Fruit trees have become more popular for home gardeners, so Fentress and her crew make sure there are ample choices including apples, peach, plum, pear, persimmon and Asian pear. Some purchasers may not be prepared for the level of care such trees require, so Fentress often suggests apple or Asian pear as easy to grow starter fruit trees.
“I told our operations manager we need to be sure the entire staff is well-versed on all the fruits and vegetables,” she said. “This winter we’ll have several in-house seminars to bring people up to speed on fruit trees.”
Signage throughout the retail area is handled in-house. “We do our own signage because it’s difficult to find something that has everything we want to say and includes all the varieties on it,” said Fentress. “We work on signage in winter – as many employees as we have in spring, we won’t have enough to explain everything. People have to be able to help themselves. By spring we’ll have signage for everything we’re going to sell.”
The goal of signage is to ensure customer success. After viewing a signage guide in front of the outdoor section, customers can read a description for the plant and learn about optimum exposure, bloom time and mature height and width. Additional symbols indicate whether the plant is a native species, attracts birds and or butterflies, whether it’s deciduous or evergreen or tolerates wet or dry conditions.
The business keeps the landscape crew and other employees busy year-round and maintains a reliable group of seasonal employees. “We have seasonal people who have worked here in the past and now have jobs on their own but still want to help during the busy season,” said Fentress. “They work one day of the weekend in spring and fall. It’s wonderful for them and for us – they are very knowledgeable.”
Fentress takes pride in her staff, noting that all the managers have been working for Sun Nurseries for 20 years or more. “The knowledge we have here is phenomenal,” she said. “There’s a wonderful synergy among us – we complement each other.” Team spirit was especially evident during COVID when the business had to regroup and figure out how to operate. While Sun Nurseries didn’t close, Fentress and her staff were careful to allow ample space for shoppers. Regular gardeners were thankful they were still able to shop. The business also saw a lot of new gardeners.
“We are responsive to customer demands,” said Fentress. “When people come into our company, I make sure they understand to think of it more as customer service than a business. It’s so important to meet customers’ needs, and I make sure people I hire have the same mentality. The people we hire are very interested in plants, and that’s important. Customer service is important but equally important is a love of plants. It’s our language.”
Fentress said it’s difficult to train employees to express the amount of information they should provide to customers. She teaches employees to keep the information simple but informative. “We try to make sure we’re only providing what they’re asking and looking out for them,” she said. “I tell everyone to treat every customer like they’re your grandmother. Be thoughtful and helpful.”
Visit Sun Nurseries online at sunnurseries.com.
by Sally Colby