Interview with wholesale native plant grower, Carl Bates, in Loxahatchee, Florida
ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Carl is the owner of Carl Bates Indigenous Plants, a wholesale nursery which supplies native plants in liners and other small container sizes to other wholesale nurseries, retail plant nurseries, and landscape and restoration projects throughout Central and South Florida. Carl has learned to endure the cyclical ups and downs of the horticulture industry and how to supply very large projects form multiple sources. Carl shares what he has learned about what to grow and when to grow it, and why he still loves getting up every day to drive to the next nursery.
Carl has been in the native plant industry for a long time. He was the founding president, in 1986, of the Association of Native Nurseries, later renamed Florida Association of Native Nurseries, FANN, our industry partner in Florida. FANN is a trade association serving businesses that grow, sell and plant native plants.
About our podcast
Go Native: the Business of Native Plants interviews seasoned native plant business owners and experts to help others learn from their successes and failures.
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Now listen to Episode 1 or read the transcript below to learn more. Go native!
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 1
HOST: Mitzy Sosa
Interviewee: Carl Bates, Carl Bates Indigenous Plants
Mitzy Sosa 00:02
Hello, and welcome back to Go Native: the Business of Native Plants. I am Mitzy Sosa, your host. I am so excited to have you back here today for our first episode. My goal is to make sure to record the experiences and insights of seasoned native plant growers to educate and inspire newcomers to the industry. So we’re going to start our journey, our first podcast talking to Carl Bates. Carl Bates is the Owner of Carl Bates Indigenous Plants in Loxahatchee, Florida. Carl has been around since the very beginning of the native plant industry [in Florida]. You could say that he saw the writing on the wall when so many others did not. In the 1980s, he started his business called Plants for Tomorrow and later opened what he has now, Carl Bates Indigenous Plants. We’re going to hear today his journey and how that happened, and share some tips that only an insider would know. Let’s jump right in. Hello, Carl. Thank you so much for making the time to be with us here today. We are so excited to hear more from you and learn about your journey with native plants. So right now, I know that you primarily grow native grasses and beach plants. But I wanted to take a couple of steps back and ask you about your first native plant related business [that] you started. And what made you start it.
Carl Bates 01:38
We got into growing trees for the phosphate mines for reclamation. At the time, Palm Beach County was starting to implement regulations requiring a certain percentage of native, so we kind of switched our production from exotic to almost exclusively native over the next couple of years. I started in the seed business in 1975, selling exotic seed, and sold the seed all over the state, primarily for foliage production and landscape production. And then it was kind of the next step, we started growing some seed in liners, two-inch pots, for sale to the industry.
Mitzy Sosa 02:30
Oh, that’s interesting. So your beginning was growing the seeds and the liners?
Carl Bates 02:36
Yeah, we sold seed for the first four years, primarily exotic plants for landscape and foliage industry. And then kind of the next step was to start sowing the seed in small pots and selling the liners, two inch pots, to the industry. People that didn’t want to grow their own seed, you know, we would start them for them and grow them, you know, up to a small plant, which they could then step up into one gallon or three gallon pots and continue to step up as necessary.
Mitzy Sosa 03:11
That’s a smart, smart business plan right there. How big was your nursery at the time? I read that you had Plants for Tomorrow that you started in the 1980s. But then you came back into the industry can you can you walk us through that journey?
Carl Bates 03:26
Yeah, Plants for Tomorrow, we took it public and that was kind of a big problem. So, Plants for Tomorrow ended up going out of business and I ended up starting over a third time, or second time. And, you know, I started Carl Bates Indigenous Plants in 1998. And grew almost exclusively natives. At one time we had about 25 acres under production, growing about 400 different species, up to seven gallon pots, liners, six inch pots, one gallon, three gallon, seven gallon is what we primarily sold and again, primarily to the industry. We were doing some mitigation installation, some, you know, restoration installation, but the lion’s share of our business has always been the nursery business.
Mitzy Sosa 04:23
Okay. And going public refers to a private company’s Initial Public Offering, otherwise known as IPO, changing, and it now becomes a publicly traded and owned entity. Let’s talk about that a little bit more. Clearly, there were some surprises in that business, in your first business, going public didn’t work out. Apart from that, was there anything else right at the beginning when you first started? Was there anything else that really surprised you about the business, some like big “Ah ha” moments that you just started to realize that you would want to tell any new people that they should pay attention to.
Carl Bates 05:08
Just taking seed and sowing it and growing it … It’s just fascinating to me how you can take a seed and turn it into dollar bills. It’s just fascinating business.
Mitzy Sosa 05:23
So, right to really taking the time to appreciate getting to do this for a living.
Carl Bates 05:30
Yeah. 1985 or so we, we, we switched almost exclusively native I was, I was really into it. And I really enjoyed learning about the natives. And I used to spend my weekends driving to Central Florida and then working my way back, just looking for any seed that happened to be being produced at the time. I didn’t know exactly, I never had a plan as to what I was going to collect. At some point I did. But in the beginning, I just, you know, I would drive. I would leave early in the morning, get to my furthest point at daylight and start looking for seed. I had a friend of mine that had a boat. And they would go fishing every weekend. And one weekend, he says, ‘Why don’t you take off this weekend, Carl,’ because I used to work seven days a week. And he says, ‘Why don’t you take off this weekend and go fishing with us?’ And I said, ‘You know what? As far as I’m concerned, I’m fishing every day. Why would I want to go aggravate myself with a rod and reel?’ That was my fishing, and so and producing plants. Again, it’s just fascinating to me. How you can do that. Make money at it.
Mitzy Sosa 06:51
It’s an amazing thing to do, yes. Did you develop the interest of natives or even just for plants in nature from the very beginning, like from a very young age? Or did you go to school and have formal horticulture training or any of that.
Carl Bates 07:06
I actually went to school for accounting. I just, I kind of fell into the seed business by accident. And, you know, I was doing tree service and one of the guys said, we can sell areca palm seed. So that’s what we did one year, the first year and then found come to find out you could sell a whole lot of other different kinds of seeds, too. So like I said, we did that for four years. And then we just kind of took the next step to start sowing the seeds and growing it a little bit.
Mitzy Sosa 07:37
So it’s very good to hear that you from the very beginning had a lot of connections that kind of helped you find a place within the industry. I also know that you’re one of the founders of the Florida Association of Native Nurseries, FANN. How in the world did you manage to organize a bunch of independent-minded plant people to get together?
Carl Bates 07:59
Well, as I told you, I, I was in the the foliage and landscape industry, you know, when I started. And I happened to be a member of the Palm Beach wholesale group, I was one of the board of directors for Palm Beach wholesalers wholesale group, which was a conglomerate of different nurseries and organizations, you know, with member nurseries that put out a booklet with their products, you know, similar to the FANN magazine now. And I was a member of the native plant society early on. I think I think I was a founding member of Palm Beach County Chapter. And I said we need something like this for the native plants, to promote the native plants. Because a lot of nurseries at the time, were growing native plants like gumbo limbo and buttonwood, silver buttonwood, mahogany, you know, cocoplum, and didn’t even know they were native. So, you know, it was it was just an effort to try to organize the guys that did specialize in native plants and help market their plants to the business.
Mitzy Sosa 09:20
So you really did see, like we said, the writing on the wall from the very beginning, before people even knew what they were doing.
Carl Bates 09:28
Kind of, yeah. Well, I knew there was a loose conglomerate of native plants [growers] and there was no real source for where to find natives. A lot of counties and cities were implementing ordinances that required a certain percentage of native plants. And it was an effort to try to educate some of these other growers that may be growing a whole lot of natives and didn’t even know it, and as well as market exclusively native plants.
Mitzy Sosa 10:03
Well, it has definitely developed into a really amazing thing to see now. But, of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done, even within, you know, the education of making sure that growers know what they are growing and what’s native and what’s not. And trying to push those native species to be the ones that are, are used the most. Is there some things like really specific things like even just talking about seed that you know, now that you’ve been in the business that you wish somebody would have told you, from the very beginning.
Carl Bates 10:36
I spent, you know, thirty years trying to find different things as far as seed germination, try the things to speed up germination on slow germinating plants. And you know, the universities have done some research on Lignum vitae germination and on coontie germination and those were enlightening, to say the least. And I’m still doing experiments, to try to speed up or increase germination on specific seeds. There’s some I have still haven’t mastered and one of them is mastic. I wish I could grow mastic. It’s a beautiful tree, but I can’t get more than maybe 10% germination. So I am still trying to get better germination out of that particular plant.
Mitzy Sosa 11:27
Clearly, there’s still more research to be done to learn about natives and and more work.
Carl Bates 11:34
It was never work for me. It was always a passion to grow the stuff so I mean, I just I still can’t wait to get up in the morning. I just, I love it. I just love it. I’m 70 years old, I still, I still make all my deliveries. I’ve been to Sarasota and back this morning. Gainesville and Ocala yesterday. I’m going to Miami tomorrow. I’m trying to remember where I was Monday. Monday, I was in Tampa. Like I said, I can’t wait to get up in the morning. And I just love it.
Mitzy Sosa 12:08
And how do you manage driving around to all those places and delivering your orders?
Carl Bates 12:12
I got a little companion that goes with me and keeps me company, my Chihauhua. He’s a rescue from Puerto Rico and he goes with me everywhere. We just, we have a ball. I’ll get an order from, you know, I do a lot in South and Central Florida. I’ll get an order from the Fort Myers area, and maybe a minimal order. And what I’ll do is, I’ll text eight or ten other people over that way and tell them I’m coming that way. And I usually manage to fill the truck up every time, you know, for stuff to go that direction. This morning’s delivery was small, it was a 400 and somethin’ plant order. And I had another order come through for 5000 liners. So it more than made the trip worth it.
Mitzy Sosa 13:05
Alright, so the picture I now have in my head is you with 5000 liners. So talk to me a little bit more about that. How do you maintain those plants? But, I’m also guessing that you have different species and all these species has different propagation cycles. How do you maintain all of that in your nursery?
Carl Bates 13:24
I had put together kind of a manual of when to harvest, you know what, what you could harvest this month, what was available, or pretty much knew where it was available. And I was in the process of putting down germination techniques. And you know, that kind of information. And unfortunately, when we moved our nursery, my son, I think, threw the through the information away, so I have to start all over again. A lot of it’s in my head, but I don’t have it on paper anywhere.
Mitzy Sosa 13:54
Oh, no. I hope that you can get that back onto paper because that sounds like such an amazing and smart way to keep track of all of your plants. And I know that I, boy, you’ve basically told us that there is nothing in your job that you do not like and that you can’t wait to get up in the morning to do your job. But is there any parts that you could tell us that you think other people would find difficult about what you do?
Carl Bates 14:22
Not really. I’ve got my grandson working with me right now. He complains that all I ever do is given grunt work. And I’ve told him “Welcome to the nursery business, because it’s all grunt work.” It’s all grunt work. There ain’t nothing really glorious, you know, you know, taking seed, planting seed, weeding, pulling weeds, you know, lugging them on the truck. It’s all grunt work, stuff like that. He just doesn’t have the passion I guess, yet. Hopefully he’ll find it.
Mitzy Sosa 14:55
All of your passion, some of it must rub off onto him. We need, we need it to. But, you know, sort of along those lines, what are some questions that you would tell someone that’s about to start a nursery to really ask themselves before they fully launch into it, so they know that they will be okay and successful in what they want to achieve.
Carl Bates 15:21
I’d tell anybody, you know, starting out coming out of coming out of school, starting out in life, find something that you have a passion about, because you’ll never work a day in your life. And I’m serious about that. You know, I mean, so many people find themselves in dead end jobs or jobs they hate, and I just couldn’t have gone through life like that, I couldn’t do it. You’ll just be so much happier. And you’ll be more successful, if you find something you love.
Mitzy Sosa 15:53
Those are some very smart words that I really needed to hear. Do you think that now it’s easier to start a native nursery with, say advancements in technology or anything like that?
Carl Bates 16:05
One thing that’s changed the whole business is the internet, and availability to information. You know, the fact that you can post anything on the internet, and it’ll be there for modernity. And I find myself looking up a lot of stuff and being, you know, fascinated with the information that is available on the internet. It’s changed everything really, changed the whole ballgame. Again, for anybody starting out and if you have a passion, in this business, in this nursery business, you need to specialize in a few items. And then expand your plant palette after you become established in those items. When I started back over again, here, five and a half years ago, I started with two species, Spartina patens and Spartina bakeri. And I built a reputation for those two. At the time, there was nobody on the East Coast growing Spartina patens. There’s lots of growers that grow Spartina bakeri. But we still manage to sell about 200,000 of each every year between our liners and four-inch and one-gallon production. And a lot of the stuff that I sell, I’ve got a grower in Fort Pierce, I sold him 10,000 bakeri liners. I bought back 8500 of them in one-gallon for an order. And that’s only because he didn’t have … I needed, 10,000 for an order for one-gallon. And he only had 8500. So I had to find 1500 somewhere else. The second order he placed was for 10,000 liners, I bought probably over 6000 of those back. And then the third order he placed was for 15,000 and I probably bought half of those back, as one-gallons. And he’s out now. I just shipped him some liners just Monday. So I end up buying back a lot of these liners. I end up buying it back in one-gallon just to keep my customers happy.
Mitzy Sosa 18:08
Do you tend to keep all of that in stock?
Carl Bates 18:11
Not always. But most of the time I can. I have a network of growers, I can buy liners from, that I can buy back larger containers if I get an order for them. And people call me I mean, you know people call me for Spartina bakeri and patens because they know I got it. And nobody, nobody can grow everything. And I try to tell a couple of guys that, but they still try. You’re better off growing large numbers of a few species than you are growing a lot of species with only a few numbers. Because, you can always find small numbers of plants here and there. It’s the big jobs that you want to target and wholesale to. There was a job in Jacksonville just recently that had 8000 viburnum, three-gallon Viburnum obovatum. You know, some of these jobs, nobody even grows that many. You got to put together two or three sources. And you can command a little higher price too, because you do have the quantity. A lot of people don’t realize the numbers that are, you know, that are produced and sold every year. I mean, of course I do business all over South and Central Florida, like I said. And some of the numbers are just astronomical. I’ve got one job I’m looking at right now in Palm Beach County, it’s got crazy numbers on it. And it’s just one job. It’s numbers that nobody in their right mind would speculate on. You know, 7-8000 one-gallon button bush. I grow a lot of one-gallon buttonbush, but I would never speculate on that many.
Mitzy Sosa 19:59
So clearly there is demand for natives. So why do you think that there is some pushback against them?
Carl Bates 20:08
When I was first starting out, you know, all these, like I said, all these counties and cities were starting their native plant ordinances. And there was a lot of pushback from the, from the general landscape nurseries. The guy who was head of the FNGA swore up and down, you know, he would never grow any natives. He was 125% of his production was natives, and he didn’t even know it. But he was so adamant about this, about the counties requiring natives that, you know, he was just pushing back. There’s, there’s so much, so much business out there, there’s plenty of business for the guys that want to grow exotics, and there’s plenty of business for the guys that want to grow natives. The fact that they require 50% or better sometimes, of natives, just works in, you know, in your favor. You know, produce what you can produce well, what you can grow well. We had a nursery in Fort Pierce had a problem with salt in the water. It wasn’t very high salt, but we couldn’t grow pond or bald cypress with that water. You know, produce what you can and what you do well at. Pick a couple of plants. You need some bread and butter plants. Okay. When I started again, in ’98, one of my bread and butter plants was Fakahatchee. I mean, I grew Fakahatchee and seagrape. I still grow Fakahatchee and dwarf Fakahatchee. It probably be could be considered one of my bread and butter plants. We sell everything we can produce in Fakahatchee liners and everything we can produce in dwarf Fakahatchee liners. We also sell about 10,000 one-gallon, regular Fakahatchee a year and probably two or three thousand dwarf Fakahatchee in one-gallon, per year. But have, have a plan and have to produce only a few species get good at them. Then build your plant palette from there. Don’t try to grow everything. It’s just, nobody, nobody can do it. Nobody can grow everything.
Mitzy Sosa 22:25
Alright, so there’s a couple of things that I’m hearing. First, some passion. You need it in there. Two, and this one may be hard for some of you. Talk to people. Build a network. Know who you can go to. Know who you can depend on. Three, do some research. What seeds can you get your hands on? What grows really well where you are? Four, find something that you are really good at growing, and just sell it. Don’t try to grow everything, because it sounds really, really hard. Is [sic] there any tools that you would recommend for people to use to to figure out these things?
Carl Bates 23:02
No, you know, you need to build your clientele. You know, you can do … there’s PlantAnt, which has pretty much overtaken PlantFinder. I used to call the PlantFinder the Bible of the nursery industry. For years, I referred to it as the bible of the nursery industry. For plant availability as well as plant pricing. You know, you go in there and you find out what the prices are, and you decide whether or not you can grow it for that and you try to pick the middle of the road. As far as prices, don’t go too cheap, don’t go too expensive, and you’ll succeed. Have availability, is probably more important than pricing, within reason. But having the availability for people that have large landscape, commercial landscape jobs, you know. Everybody and their brother has got cocoplum, and some of them are cheap as the dickens. $3 or $4 for three-gallons. But there there are other cocoplums, but that’s mostly red tip. Green tip, hardly anybody grows. Horizontal, very few people grow it. And both of those are in demand. Just one example. One other thing I would teach is, when the market is glutted with a certain item, that’s the time to start production. The thing is that when the market is glutted, when you’re sitting there looking at 5000 one-gallon muhly and you can’t can’t give them away — that’s the time to start to seed. Because nobody else is producing them when they’re already stuck with, you know, a big quantity. And the market goes through these undulations of market glut, then nothing available. It is predictable as the weather and that’s, that’s kind of a rule I live by and was able to build my nursery by. When the market’s glutted, start production. Because nobody else is, literally.
Mitzy Sosa 25:05
And just like that we have learned so much from you already, and we are so thankful. And there is Carl Bates for you. Please stick around to listen to more of our interviews with more seasoned native plant growers, continue to learn with me and subscribe right now to Go native, the business of native plants. New episodes every month. And be sure to visit our website, NativePlantHort.org, to learn more and support us. We’ll catch you next time.