Lessons learned when starting an online plant market

Lessons learned when starting an online plant market

Some day this story will be written into the archives of horticulture history and be a chapter in the story of Yew Dell. Personally speaking, I think it needs a catchy song, similar to the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. “Sit right back and hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip.” We have been fortunate that it hasn’t been a fateful trip though! Rather a wild rollercoaster of lessons learned and incredible people along the way.  We can certainly end the song though with “a professor and Mary Anne!”

The ever-popular Spring Plant Sale here at Yew Dell has changed over time with the beginning being an excellent assortment of local plant growers setup as vendors to in more recent years being stocked with plant material brought in from other plant growers and sold by Yew Dell. When I started at Yew Dell in January of 2018, we skimmed the wholesale availabilities and put together a super fun list of plants that would be for sale that April. At the same time, we started the discussion on building the nursery and growing many of the plants ourselves for our plant sales and the gardens here at Yew Dell. This set into motion a transition of the plant material offered being grown by us here at Yew Dell instead of other growers from around the country.

Building an Online Plant Market ... Quickly

Early, early on in the discussion of what we wanted the nursery to be here at Yew Dell, I mentioned to Paul, “You can buy anything online these days, we should think about selling some things online.” We both agreed that it was certainly something to look into and we should proceed slowly and dip our toes into that water down the road at some point. Right about two years later, March of 2020, we cannonballed into the deep end of the pool with that idea and are still trying to dry off. We went from talking about our in-person setup for the Opening Day Hellebore Sale two weeks from the event to building an online market page on the website, writing descriptions, finding photos, and other things in the blink of an eye!

We knew exactly what we were doing. Ha! Far from true. There weren’t even CliffNotes available about “Online Plant Sales for Dummies.” Even if there was, we wouldn’t have had time to read it. Off we went and within a few weeks, we had sold our first plants online and started to figure out how to get the plants bought to the people who had bought them. This was the part I was most nervous about. I imagined a nightmare scenario where no one would show up and we would have all of these orders that had to be kept separate and taken care of for months. You all proved me so wrong, it wasn’t funny! At the designated date and time, you lined up like well-behaved children heading to recess. I’m sure it helped that there weren’t many other things going on in April of 2020!  I’ll never forget the experience of helping our staff orchestrate such a colossal undertaking and seeing people pickup plants that put a smile on their face in such an uncertain time. A career highlight moment for sure!

After we had everyone thinking that we knew what we were doing, we continued to sell online through 2020 without any in-person plant sale events unfortunately. It gave us time to figure out order fulfillment and pickups though! Sidenote, if you had any idea of how many times I have typed the words “pickup” and “pick up,” you’d buy me a cookie. Everyone has trouble with learning certain grammar-related things. Well, I have many, but confusing the noun pickup and the verb pick up has been a personal battle of mine the last few years!!!

Behind-the-Scenes

A huge load of online orders getting being pulled for pickup
A huge load of online orders getting being pulled for pickup

Anyway, on to 2021. This is where things got extra tricky on the back end for us but out of view of the public eye. We continued to sell online, but had to figure out how to go back to in-person events too! Right off the bat, we learned one thing that has stayed true through this spring. Online sales have changed the atmosphere of our in-person plant sale events. In a good way for the most part. The crowd has simmered down because they aren’t running and elbowing their way to the plants when the doors open. Many have had the opportunity to peruse online and buy early from the comfort of their home. It has turned the in-person sales into a much more laid back atmosphere that allows more questions to be answered by our staff and volunteers. For those first time visitors to a plant sale, it has also kept them from thinking, “Who are these crazy people running and elbowing to get a hellebore?!?!”

Inventory Management

First weekend of tomato pickups in May of 2024
First weekend of tomato pickups in May of 2024

The tricky thing has been the balance of inventory. It is quite the arithmetic problem. “If we order 200 ‘Vino’ Coleus in February as unrooted cuttings, they ship us 207 to root, 205 of them root great and are transplanted into 5” pots. Sayde wants 175 for the gardens, Jacob steps on 1 and breaks it, 24 are put online to sell in early April to be picked up AFTER the Spring Plant Sale, and 17 sell online. How many can we put out for sale at the Spring Plant Sale?” Cue the jeopardy song. That leaves 5 plants able to be pulled for the sale that aren’t spoken for or stepped on yet. Now, if I pull 6 for the sale or I step on another 1, either Sayde or a customer is going to be without 1. Believe me, I have most certainly gone into the garden and pulled up an annual, or a couple dozen, over the years that Sayde had just planted that was needed to fulfill an online order. With all of that said, I sincerely thank all of you who have had to have a plant refunded on an online order and not given us a hard time about it!

Inventory will always be a challenge for us as we continue to grow. It sure would be easier if we were selling hammers and I couldn’t break them, they didn’t die, or wouldn’t get eaten by monarch caterpillars! That would be boring though. We will stick to dancing the delicate dance of growing awesome plants for you and our gardens while trying new things and learning not to step on too many plants along the way. Who knows, maybe in a couple of years I will be able to follow up this article with one about how we started to include shipping bareroot plants that were ordered in our online plant market…

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