Spring sales are crucial to a nursery's bottom line, and for Sacramento's venerable Capital Nursery, this could be a make-or-break season.
Its flagship, opened on Freeport Boulevard since 1936, and two other locations in Citrus Heights and Elk Grove, have felt the brunt of the economic downturn that's already closed Windmill Nursery in Carmichael, Sierra Nursery in Roseville and earlier this month Flora Tropicana in Elk Grove.
Capital Nursery owner Chuck Armstrong hopes the warm spring weather will speed the nursery's financial recovery.
"Typically over the years, March through June those four months represents 50 percent of our business," he said.
The recession has slowed consumers' ornamental plant purchases. And Capital's landscaping business has fallen off because of a slowdown in home construction.
"Things are tough; they've been tough for three years," Armstrong said. "We've been really struggling."
Armstrong said he is in negotiations to resolve Capital's debts. Among them: a $1.3 million loan on its 16-acre Elk Grove location. Capital defaulted on the loan in December after reportedly missing a $32,000 payment.
Capital still owes a lot to suppliers. This month in Sacramento Superior Court, Cal Color Growers filed a civil suit against Capital, demanding almost $46,000 owed for plants. In November, Kellogg Supply makers of Nitrohumus, Gromulch and other soil amendments sued for more than $20,000.
"We don't intend to go out of business," Armstrong said. "We want to keep all three nurseries open."
Capital's influence on local gardens and gardeners is unmistakable.
"Capital Nursery has been the backbone of the gardening community of the greater Sacramento area," said Roseville's Charlotte Owendyk, who has been shopping at Capital for nearly 40 years. "Their selection and quality of plants is unequaled (here). I have referred their landscape design service to friends and neighbors. They must have designed or furnished plants for every home in the Sacramento area."
"The terms 'Sacramento gardening' and 'Capital Nursery' go hand in hand," said radio host "Farmer Fred" Hoffman, a lifetime master gardener. "It's been that way for generations. The wide variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees available at Capital have not been matched at any other area nursery until recently."
Added Janice Lauinger, a longtime Sacramento customer, "I love Capital Nursery! It's a Sacramento treasure."
Despite the nursery's financial problems, new stock is arriving daily, Armstrong said. "We work with 20 to 25 wholesale nurseries. Our inventory is down for some things, but we're building back up.
"We've had to be careful with cash flow," he added. "We lost our lines of credit. We still have a lot of valuable property. I've got something cooking without closing or changing locations that will get us completely out of debt."
What the nursery needs most: good sunny planting weather. That brings customers into stores.
"Last year, we had such a long rainy season," said Capital sales manager Seth Taylor. "We lost a lot of spring. It was no help.
"But now, we're starting to get to that point where the housing market seems to have found some stability," Taylor said. "We're seeing a lot of positives. Customers are coming back. And we've been blessed with sun and warmth."
Customer loyalty has been one of Capital's greatest assets. Heirloom tomatoes, blooming roses and expert horticulturists brought gardeners back, spring after spring.
"It's the place to go to get answers, check out different plants and see what's new," Owendyk said. "Whenever I am in the area, I like to drop in and browse. Invariably, I go home with a plant or two."
Said Lauinger, "I love that Capital always has such knowledgeable staff with the expertise to answer all my gardening questions, and that they will take the time to help me choose the best plants for my local conditions. They may be more expensive than the discount stores, but by helping me select the right plants the first time, they often save me money in the long run."
For some, Capital is a family tradition, noted Sacramento's Kathryn Mackenzie, another longtime customer. "When my kids were little, if we got tired of going to the park or the zoo, I would take them to Capital and we would spend an hour walking around all the roses in the back when they were blooming and they would pick out their favorites."
Although it ranks as one of the area's oldest nurseries, Capital is trying to stay current, Taylor said. The nursery no longer propagates its own stock; that's too expensive and time consuming. Colorful picture tags catch customers' eyes.
That also means offering more vegetables and blooming annuals what gardeners want now.
"We've seen a big shift towards color and 'instant' things that make people feel good," Taylor said. "We're trying different marketing strategies. The last three years have really changed the retail climate for us. We're adapting to the times."