While other independent nurseries are withering like a tomato vine in January, Green Acres Nursery & Supply is growing.
The family-owned company with a store on the eastern edge of Sacramento and another in Roseville will open a third location Feb. 29 in an empty Circuit City store in Folsom's Broadstone Crossing.
It will be one of the largest independent nurseries in the Central Valley, with 68,500 square feet of covered sales space on its 5.7-acre site. The new checkout line has 14 registers.
"We'd been looking (to expand) for quite some time," said owner Mark Gill. "As difficult as the economy is, it offers opportunities, too."
As an antidote to the flagging economy, a changing market and competition from big-box stores, Green Acres and other successful independents have focused on niche products such as organic gardening supplies or native plants as well as customer service and education.
"Big-box stores do a poor job of offering organic solutions," Gill said. "But No. 1 is our customer service. That's what really differentiates us. We're here to help you be successful."
Seth Taylor, sales manager at Sacramento's Capital Nursery, said nurseries need to realize what they're up against if they are going to make it.
"When you look at gardening, it's discretionary income," Taylor said. "It's a perk to have a yard. We're competing with all the other things that consumers could buy."
Since 2007, an estimated 15 percent of the nation's independent nurseries have closed. In the past six months, Sacramento gardeners lost such longtime landmarks as Windmill Nursery in Carmichael and Sierra Nursery in Roseville.
"It certainly has been trying," Taylor said. "We're not seeing a lot of new homes and whole new landscapes like we used to. We've had to retool our strategies to fit the times.
"But what we are seeing are a lot of brand-new gardeners," he said. "People want a more usable landscape with fruit trees, berries and vegetables. People are starting vegetable gardens for the first time, or they're taking out the lawn. They're also tackling smaller projects."
Capital, which has three Sacramento-area locations, has refocused on water-wise landscaping and on edibles, which now account for 20 percent to 25 percent of its business.
"The independent garden centers have become not only retail outlets for plants and supplies, but a reliable source of gardening information," Taylor said. "We play dual roles as salespeople and educators."
Many mom-and-pop nurseries have been hit hard by competition from big-box home improvement stores, such as the Home Depot or Lowe's. During the recession, consumers sought bargain plants from these mass retailers, who could undercut nursery prices on such staples as bedding plants and mulch with volume buys.
Consumers also like mass retailers' one-stop convenience: They can pick up a six-pack of pansies along with light bulbs and trash bags.
As big as some big-box stores, Green Acres' new Folsom location will have some of that one-stop feel, but focused on one specific area: Outdoor living. Patio furniture and barbecues will be featured, along with perennials and fertilizer.
Shuttered eight months after it opened, the 30,000- square-foot former electronics store has undergone a green makeover, which will cost about $1.2 million when complete. Workers enlarged doors to 12 feet tall to accommodate potted trees. A massive arbor will shade outdoor shrubs and bedding plants. A 13,500-square-foot greenhouse is to go up next week.
Perched on a hillside terrace, the new nursery has a spectacular view of the Sacramento Valley and neighbors that attract traffic. Next door is a Costco. The upscale Palladio mall is across a nearby intersection.
"We couldn't be more excited; we're in pretty good company," Gill said. "We think this place will work out really well."
"We'll sell what people want to buy," he added. "People are looking for alternatives to what they find elsewhere. We'll be a one-stop shop for your outdoor environment."