“People don’t realize how long it takes to grow certain things,” says Dan Short, an assistant manager at the Sheridan Nurseries garden centre in Unionville. “The example to give would be boxwood” — shrubs commonly used for hedges. “From a cutting to a three-gallon plant, about a foot across, it takes eight years.”
Sheridan, which operates eight Ontario garden centres, has some 400,000 boxwood growing on 400 hectares of farmland in Georgetown, 60 km northwest of Toronto. But Short warns supply of the shrub could run low in 2017 — and it’s not the only plant he expects will be scarcer than usual in southern Ontario this year. “The same applies to larger trees,” he says. “With all the building going on here, and the demand for good-size trees to go in the fronts of houses, there just isn’t enough stock.”
Nurseries across Canada and the U.S. are facing a shortage of trees — particularly of those with trunks 50 to 60 mm in diameter. These are usually three to five metres tall when planted and are popular with homeowners building new landscapes and municipal governments looking to spruce up city streets. Growers have responded, but the trees they plant now will not be ready to sell for several years. In the interim, there’s little anyone can do but wait.
“You’re always growing on spec,” says Tony DiGiovanni, executive director of Landscape Ontario, which represents 2,500 companies in the horticulture industry. “The growers are always trying to figure out what’s going to be on the market in so many years.”
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This uncertainty is complicated by a vast network of international trade: Ontario nurseries choose the species best suited to the soil conditions and climate in their part of the province — evergreens prefer the Barrie area, for example, while some deciduous varieties fare better around Hamilton and Niagara — then they buy baby trees, called liners, from Oregon and B.C., where the growing season is longer. After nurturing the liners into maturity, growers sell them to landscape contractors and municipalities, alongside specimens sourced from other wholesalers, sometimes as far south as Tennessee.
These business relationships mean Canadian nurseries are vulnerable to economic instability in the U.S. The current shortage has its roots in the 2008 recession. “A lot of the American nurseries consolidated, a lot of them went bankrupt,” DiGiovanni says. “Trees didn’t get into the ground. And now we’re having a boom — we need the trees, and they’re not available.”
Sometimes, growers face the opposite problem: they misread the market and end up with too many trees, or too many of a certain kind. The once-popular Norway maple is still plentiful at Ontario nurseries, and it’s well-suited to urban environments — but it’s also invasive and exotic, whereas municipal governments and conservation authorities increasingly want native plants grown from local seeds. “A grower will decide today that he might need these particular varieties in seven years,” DiGiovanni says, “and in seven years those varieties may be out of favour.”
Landscape Ontario is now trying to help its members better anticipate future demand. “We just started a project with municipalities to find out what their wish list is for the next five years,” DiGiovanni says. “We’ll take that wish list and give it to the growers. It’s kind of like a dating site.”
But some variables are tough to forecast. The emerald ash borer, an invasive species of beetle, has decimated ash populations throughout Ontario and in Quebec. An ice storm in December 2013 caused widespread damage to Toronto’s 10 million-strong tree canopy. And of course, the strength of the Canadian dollar will always affect cross-border trade. “They have a huge shortage down in the U.S. also and are looking to come up here and buy trees,” says Art Bons, sales manager at Bowmanville’s Kobes Nurseries. “But because of the exchange rate, it doesn’t make it viable for us to go and buy down there if we’re short.”
Once trees get thicker than 60 mm, demand starts to drop off, as planting them presents greater practical challenges. “It gets a little tricky,” Bons says. “It’s a bigger cost, you need bigger equipment, you’ve got to dig a bigger hole.” So until supply of the 50 to 60 mm trees catches up to demand, contractors and municipalities will have to make do with skinnier, shorter, and generally less desirable trees, which are abundant and can be grown relatively quickly. “We’re trying to increase our production, but that takes time,” Bons says. “We can’t magically start up an assembly line and push a button and churn out more trees.”
Photo courtesy of Alex Indigo and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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