Sara Furlan, the Design Director and a Registered Landscape Architect of Mariani Landscape, came to LDA to showcase new business options opening up for designers by highlighting them against the backdrop of Mariani's history. A 30-year veteran of the company, she drew a vision of where the industry is going by rooting those developments in the groundwork of the past.
Change inevitably defines large and small businesses alike, and Mariani, now in its 60th year, has forged an adaptability, even to tragic circumstances. Faced with terminal leukemia at the age of 45, its founder, Vito, Sr., tapped his eldest son, Frank, to leave high school at seventeen and spend the last year of his father's life learning the landscape maintenance business. It was 1973. Vito left a wife, six sons, and a daughter. When Frank's younger brother, John, joined the firm as a landscape architect in the early 80's, Mariani began to develop its design/build operation. As their landscape design installations expanded, Sara came on board in the late 80's, having just graduated from the University of Illinois with a Landscape Architecture degree.
Back then, she recalls, Mariani was a small company competing against national players, such as Brickman, which had set the industry standard with boiler plate combinations of Austrian pines, spirea, red twig dogwoods, and boulders. A small holding yard limited their readily available palette, so Mariani sought versatility by hiring an in-house plant buyer whose focus was to source plants locally from soils similar to the clay soils of its clients. If their buyer could not match palette needs, they expanded their sources over a wider range by engaging regional and national plant brokers.
Eventually, Mariani created a larger holding yard where they could shrink-wrap the rootballs of their inventory, and keep plants well-irrigated and fertilized. This enabled them to mitigate the limitations of the dig-times of certain plants, such as redbuds which are best harvested in the spring but may be needed for a July installation. The recession of the early 90's taught Mariani management to develop project forecasting techniques for better inventory control.
In 1992, Frank Mariani decided to spread the company's inventory carrying risk by starting the first of four nursery operations which not only supply plant material for his company's installations but also sell to the garden centers of big box stores and other vendors. Independent designers and contractors are also welcome to establish wholesale accounts.
First came the 575-acre Kenosha Nursery which produces B&B (balled & burlaped) shade trees, intermediate ornamentals, certain types of evergreens, and larger flowering shrubs. In 2002, Mariani purchased a 120-acre, automated container and propagation facility located in Garden Prairie, IL. Initially, it just produced shrubs and evergreens in 3- and 5-gallon containers, but starting in 2008, it also offers perennials and grasses in a 1-gallon size. In 2010, another 40 acres was added in Garden Prairie to support production of broadleaf, spreading, and upright evergreens. Designers may learn more about these Mariani nurseries at www.MarianiPlants.com. Designers can schedule nursery tours as a way of investing clients in their design concepts. They can also arrange for specific propagation programs to meet the needs of their individual plant palettes.
Current Plant Shortage
However, Sara noted that the Great Recession of 2008 caused a plant shortage still evident today as nurseries throughout the industry have reduced the variety and number of plants in the ground so as to manage their holding costs. She said this triggered several other related shifts. Plant branding, such as Proven Winners, Easy Elegance, and the Knock Out® Rose series, has diminished some of the risk for growers by vetting the plants, investing in their marketing, and distributing through big box stores which raises consumer awareness. A considerable loss of ash tree inventory due to the emerald ash borer invasion opened up space for native plant container production. A loss of labor during the downturn has also pushed the industry toward container production versus B&B plants. In the Midwest, freeze/thaw issues dictate that container sizes remain smaller rather than emulating the production of big trees in big containers possible on the West Coast.
Another factor she cited as related to the overall plant shortage is that big design/build firms now are sourcing plant material nationwide to service the demand from their largescale projects. This often creates local, spot shortages of specific items. But it also has created opportunities for large, re-wholesaler yards, such as Fioré Nursery, to expand and assume the carrying risk that smaller nurseries cannot handle.
An outgrowth of this is the development of wholesale databases available on the internet. Sara mentioned two: www.LandscapeHub.com, recently launched by Lisa Fioré of Fioré Nursery; and www.PlantAnt.com. Both websites commoditize plant material, expand the pool of available resources, and enhance price competition by allowing designers to see the same plant offered at different nurseries. Mariani nursery products are available on both sites. "The caveat, though," Sara said, "is that, if you're on a database, you have to understand the quality of the plant material. A six-foot serviceberry means one thing to one person versus another. So you still have to vet those things."
Vetting plants will increasingly become a valuable skill because, as Sara noted, in roughly fifteen years climatologists expect that the current climate of southern Illinois will become the climate of northern Illinois as the earth warms. This, too, will have a profound effect on plant palette and plant material availability.