Will There Ever Be Enough Trees?

Posted on: January 26, 2018

Back in July of 2015, I wrote a blog discussing the ongoing shortage of trees on the market.  At the time, I predicted that trees would remain in short supply through at least spring of 2016.  As we steamroll towards spring of 2018, I am disparaged to report that there appears to be no end in sight to this industry problem. If anything, the problem seems to be getting worse, rather than better.  But why?

Recalling my earlier blog, I explained that the shortage of trees on today’s market was born from the economic downturn in 2008 -2010.  During this time period many nurseries (Ruppert Nurseries included) cut back on the number of liner trees planted as a cost savings measure.  Many nurseries planted no new trees at all during those years.  Still others shuttered their doors going out of business altogether.

In 2012, the US economy began to rebound and has been performing steadily ever since. Housing starts, new construction and institutional expansion continue to grow and so the demand for trees continues to outpace the available supply. Growers are still trying to recover from the last recession. Tree nurseries, unlike other industries, cannot simply “make more” to meet the demand. Our product usually takes a minimum of 3-4 years before we are able to bring a tree to market.  Ruppert Nurseries is intent on having larger caliper trees available for sale as well, thus further prolonging the time that it takes to have a salable 4.0”, 5.0”, 6.0” and larger tree available to sell. It takes patience and lots of land (both of which we appear to have an abundance… although my husband might say otherwise about the former!)

Ruppert Nurseries started harvesting a small number of trees from 2015 blocks last fall.  We expect those blocks to be productive by fall 2018.  And still, we will not have nearly enough trees to satisfy the demands of our customers.  We continue to see plant lists with enormous quantities of 3.0” trees specified. Architects with whom we frequently work tell us that they are busier than ever, a good sign for our future business prospects.

So, when will the shortage finally be over?  Will there ever be enough trees on the market to satisfy the industry? I’m sure the answer to that is yes.  For those of us who have been in this industry since trees were planted using mules; we remember the days when there were so many trees available you could practically name your price. Nurseries were desperate to sell their product and would practically take any amount just to not have to push over their product into a burn pile.  There all sorts of very smart, highly paid economists who predict the next downturn in 4-5 years.  (of course, just in time for me to have two kids in college!)  Any slowdown in the economy will result in a reduction in the purchase of non-necessities. While the tree hugger in me will argue that trees are in fact a necessity; let’s be honest folks.  If it’s the difference between paying the bills and planting a tree, we all know which choice will be made.

In the meantime, we continue to suggest the following for how to combat the problem.

  1. Numero uno will also be to remain flexible. If your landscaper tells you that he simply cannot find Gingkos, he is probably telling the truth. Gingko, red maple and Zelkova remain three of the most difficult trees to locate in any quantity and in most sizes.  Willingness to sub for size, genus and variety remains key.
  2. Secure plant material early! Ruppert Nurseries and many others as well, will allow pre-tagging for long lead time projects. A deposit as well as a written agreement is usually required for this service.
  3. Develop relationships with your customers and architects so that you can help guide your customers to the types and sizes of trees that ARE available in the marketplace as opposed to a wish list of trees that are likely not going to be able to be sourced. And know what is out there! Being familiar with what can be reasonably sourced on the marketplace is key.  Knowing in advance that rainbow unicorns are not available and conveying this information early on in the project will save you and your customer both the headache and in some cases the heart break of not being able to source a particular tree(s).

Hang in there, friends. There are only 50 days left until the start of spring. Most of us will already be head spinningly busy well before then.  In the meantime, we look forward to hearing from you. We promise not to laugh at your plant requests when you ask for 100 3.0” red maples.  We further promise to help whenever possible to find a suitable solution to your tree crisis.