Supplies are short and prices are bonkers. What’s behind the issues in the supply chain, and when will they end?
By Bradford McKee
Don’t worry, it’s not just you. The supply chain chaos that has dogged the whole economy the past couple of years is hitting every point of the uniquely perishable process of building landscapes. If someone in the landscape business says they aren’t having supply problems, they likely aren’t working. The many ingredients that landscape architects pour into realizing their designs are delayed, unavailable, on a boat somewhere, waiting for a truck, waiting for one little piece, and in general harder to price these days—and if you manage to get the thing, you can all but count on a higher cost.
This spring, one landscape architect in New York had been waiting eight months for five gallons of resin to bond a gravel surface at a Manhattan park.
The head of a site furnishings manufacturer in the Bay Area said that in recent months he’d seen the price of the cold-rolled steel he needs for his products rise by 246 percent over that of January 2020. He said that overseas shipments of raw materials that once arrived in six weeks were now taking four to five months.
At another furnishings company, in the Pacific Northwest, an operations manager said that ordinarily, price quotes from raw metals suppliers were reliable for four to five weeks, “and now they’re valid for one day.”
Anybody who needs plastic products—piping, parts—can also expect something akin to day-trading in prices for common items; prices will be unusually high if the raw plastics are even available. At a California irrigation systems company, a marketing manager said he was troubled about plastic but just as troubled about the microchips that run the systems’ timing and controls; they simply aren’t arriving as needed.
In the world of brick, a manager at one custom clay paver manufacturer in the Midwest says the company can readily make its pavers but is struggling to find the wood pallets to ship them on because everyone has been chasing wood they can’t find or afford.
Lumber prices, reflecting availability, spiked to a near-historic high of more than $1,600 per 1,000 board feet in spring 2021, for material that seldom floated above $500 before 2018—though this spring, it had dropped at least briefly to the $800-something range.
As for plants, the nursery industry is clearly driven by love and not money or ease as growers struggle with multiple blows to their businesses. Plant shortages are said by industry lifers to be as bad now as they’ve ever seen.
Since the pandemic began upsetting the flow of commerce, compounded in 2021 by a freak winter storm in the South, the slow business of landscape architecture has been changing fast. Some prices and product flows have eased here and there, though sometimes not for long. The hardest thing to find now is certainty. Christopher Lyon, the president of Tournesol Siteworks in Union City, California, who lamented the steel and shipping situations, says, “In our world today, as a manufacturer, there is unbelievable volatility at every point in the supply chain.”
At Victor Stanley, a landscape furnishings company based in Dunkirk, Maryland, the sales manager George Blevins says the current supply chain challenges are the worst in the company’s 60 years in business. “We are adjusting our production schedule daily to accommodate each new reality, and, so far, managing to maintain the flow of materials and production,” Blevins says. “Still, these are unlike any supply pressures we have previously encountered.”
Landscape architects may understand the new abnormal, but their clients don’t, suppliers and consultants say. Project owners are still surprised to learn that what they want will cost more than they want, and that they’ll get it when they get it. “Owners have been relatively inflexible in recognizing the circumstances that surround these projects,” Lyon says. Brian Todhunter, a sales manager at Urban Accessories in Tacoma, Washington, says, “There’s not one thing you can point to. Many moving parts are just not working in a way we’re used to.”
Ask an estimator, the person on the front end who figures out what a project will cost, and they’ll tell you the job has all new dimensions. Derek Ryan, ASLA, is a partner and the lead estimator at Alpine Construction & Landscaping Corporation in New York City. He’s the one waiting on the bucket of resin. “People are good with honoring what they quoted earlier,” he says. “The price of lumber and steel edging is going up a lot, but it’s almost all the raw material. It’s an overall industry issue.” He adds that he can get plastic drainage pipes in four-, six-, and 12-inch diameters, but “you cannot get 10-inch drainage pipe.”
In Milwaukee, Pamela Linn, FASLA, is trying to game the limitations. Linn has more than 90 play and sports projects to run for Milwaukee Recreation, part of the city’s public school system. The design and development team, she says, starts scoping new projects by focusing on which parts could be the hardest to get. “Those are conversations we didn’t have two years ago,” she says. Right now, Linn is waiting overtime on windows and doors for several field houses under renovation. “Fencing,” she says. “We used to just be able to go buy fences. Now we’re calling every day for two or three weeks trying to secure fencing.” Synthetic turf, lighting, and play equipment are delayed.
The causes of supply strains vary by industries and items. A lack of labor underlies them all. Nearly every business from here to Asia is having trouble finding workers. If a product is produced, moving it is another thing. Container shipping has crawled. Ports are backed up. On land, there aren’t enough truckers. Where there is a trucker, there’s more costly fuel.
The labor shortage is hitting hard in the nursery business. Alec Charais, the chief marketing and product development officer at Bailey Nurseries, a fifth-generation grower based in St. Paul, Minnesota, says finding enough workers is the “number one” challenge for the company, which has growing operations in Illinois, Oregon, Washington, and Georgia. And hiring is difficult for growers of Bailey’s licensed plant brands, such as Endless Summer hydrangeas. Bailey has relied for more than a decade in part on the H-2A visa program to bring foreign nationals to the United States for seasonal or temporary agricultural work. The program requires employers to provide housing and transportation to workers. “We certainly expanded that strategy going into this season, and a lot of licensees are doing similarly,” Charais says. But, he adds, “It’s not an unlimited resource.”
Timothee Sallin, a co-CEO of Cherrylake, a wholesale nursery of ornamental trees in Groveland, Florida, also says labor is his number one problem. Cherrylake and its sibling company, IMG Citrus, together have 600 employees, 250 of whom tend its ornamental plants. “It takes a lot of labor to grow nursery plants,” Sallin says. “There’s not a lot of labor available—not legal labor.” His company, like Bailey, recruits some workers with temporary visas—about 100 in all—which involves compliance with multiple federal and state agency rules, “because that’s the only reasonable option.”
Some nursery professionals trace the current plant shortages back to the collapse of the economy in 2008. Many wholesale growers let their starter plants, known as liner stock, die rather than raise plants toward maturity for consumers who wouldn’t be buying (see “Sold Out,” LAM, June 2013). Now there are fewer trees and shrubs at the impressive sizes designers seek. But a bigger problem endures in the numbers of nursery growers nationwide who went out of business permanently during the recession. The U.S. Census of Horticultural Specialties, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows a 23 percent drop in the number of nursery operations nationwide from 2009 to 2019, to about 6,500 nurseries. The decrease was 4 percent among all horticultural specialties, which run a spectrum that includes, among other products, aquatic plants, cut flowers, and Christmas trees.
Bud Powell is the vice president of sales and marketing at Plantbid, a plant brokerage in Madisonville, Louisiana, that finds large quantities of plants from growers for buyers with landscape projects. With most of its business in the southern United States, Plantbid has felt the loss of growers up close. Florida lost 21 percent of its nurseries from 2009 to 2019, according to the USDA Horticultural Census, and Texas lost 31 percent. “The ones who stayed in business weren’t excited about buying liners and keeping the pipe full of next year’s crop,” Powell says. The loss of growers and plants nationwide created a huge gap in available material. “We’re just now processing through that.”
At the same time, plant sales to the trade are up against the huge boom in home gardening brought on by the pandemic, which drew millions of additional customers to retail garden centers. Retailers “sold more plants from late spring to fall 2020 than they really ever had,” Powell says. By the end of 2020, “a lot of tree farmers were selling their spring 2021 crop. That huge demand absolutely pushed everybody’s inventory really low.”
Tom Ryan, FASLA, of Ryan Associates Landscape Architecture and Planning in Waltham, Massachusetts, says he has had more trouble recently finding soil, some lumber types, and PVC irrigation pipes and has definitely seen a far tighter supply of larger plants for sale. “On the East Coast, [growers] are not holding stock to get bigger but selling it off,” he says. “They’re eating the seed corn.”
In February 2021, amid the unusually brisk pandemic-driven market, growers in Texas and Louisiana were hit by a historic, weeklong deep freeze and ice storm that ruined plant crops and damaged greenhouse facilities during widespread power failures. A survey of 176 growers by the AgriLife Extension of Texas A&M University and the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association found total plant-related losses from the disaster worth $124 million, subtracting from an estimated $414 million worth of total inventory beforehand. “Wax myrtles, Indian hawthorns, Pittosporum, Dianella, you name it…just got hammered,” Powell recalls. He immediately began calling growers in Florida in hopes of securing plants for orders he predicted Texas and Louisiana growers couldn’t fill and learned that other buyers had already begun doing the same, “knowing what Texas was going to do to their orders.”
There is yet another crucial shortage stalking the nursery business: a shortage of the plastic pots in which many plants are commonly shipped and sold. Charais, at Bailey Nurseries, says that normally,
orders for plastic plant pots went in six to nine months ahead of when they were needed. Now, “we as growers are being asked by pot producers to give commitments one or two years in advance,” he says. “But unfortunately, the problem is there have been delays in shipments. So, for a lot of growers, you get notified your [plastic] container shipment is going to be delayed a month. The pressure on planning for the grower is tremendous.”
The pot shortage aligns with a scarcity and higher costs of plastics in general, a problem that’s part of the heaving in global petroleum markets but is also tied more acutely to the Texas freeze. Many petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast that churn out raw plastics for PVC pipe and other polymer parts lacked enough warning of the freeze to shut down their operations intentionally, as they do before hurricanes, so they suffered extensive damage from power outages and prolonged deep cold. A report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said that following the February storm, the price of plastics and resins rose 9.1 percent in March 2021, the greatest monthly spike in a data series started in 2011. Across the country, fabricators of plastic products felt the supply shortages and the extra costs.
At Hunter Industries in San Marcos, California, the engineering and purchasing teams had to begin looking for new sources of the raw plastics the company needs to make its landscape irrigation products. Bryce Carnehl, the specification support manager, says the company can’t just go strike up a new plastics source off the street. Hunter usually takes three to five years to qualify new suppliers of raw products “to make sure we can meet our spec offer,” he says, including for such factors as structural wear, bursting, freezing, and heat tolerances. The fast-track qualifying of new raw plastic sources to meet market demands has cost a lot, “but we don’t want to increase prices [because] irrigation will get typed down” to an efficient but less fancy version if it doesn’t meet the bid.
And this is where the estimators go crazy. A process that ran on reasonably predictable rates and contingencies for materials and components 16 to 18 months ahead of schedules is now all over the place. Price quotes for specified products are now considered all but imaginary. Tournesol makes a wide range of products using metals, concrete, plastics, and woods. Lyon, the president, says he and his staff have been frustrated by the inability to get dependable, lasting quotes for component materials, not least because once they quote prices to their own customers, they try to stick to them. “If you’re asking me today what my price is, and it goes 246 percent higher, I can’t give you a number without taking a massive risk to my business,” he says.
Linn, in Milwaukee, is staring ahead at warmer weather, when her department needs to give a bunch of neighborhoods across Milwaukee places to play. “I’m waiting for 22 video scoreboards,” she says. “We’ll see how that works out.”
Bradford McKee is a past editor of LAM based in Washington, D.C.