Over the past several weeks, workers have nearly emptied the 22 acres of Bailey Nurseries’ greenhouses in Cottage Grove.
Truckload after truckload of Endless Summer hydrangeas, Easy Elegance roses and hundreds of varieties of shrubs and trees have gone out to retailers, landscapers and suppliers across the country.
The approach of the spring crush from Mother’s Day to mid-June is the busiest season for Bailey’s, which supplies its green goods to thousands of small, independent greenhouses, nurseries and garden centers across the country as well as big-box retailers such as Menards and Lowe’s.
“We do about 70 percent of our business in the spring,” said Terri McEnaney, president of Bailey Nurseries. “It used to be closer to 80 percent, but we’ve diversified.”
After navigating industry turbulence during the recession, Bailey’s remains one of the 20 biggest tree and shrub nurseries in the country. The Newport-based company employs 500 people full time, plus as many as 700 more in peak periods.
Since becoming president of the family-owned business in 2001, McEnaney has implemented many innovations and adjusted as consumers’ gardening tastes have shifted. Simple, repetitive tasks that used to require human labor are becoming automated.
“We’re more conscientious of the need for thoughtful processes to operate the business in the future,” said McEnaney, 56.
Nearly one-third of greenhouses and nurseries closed after the recession, including St. Paul-based Linder’s, Ambergate Gardens and Shady Acres in Chaska, and Uncommon Gardens in Minneapolis. For Bailey’s, now in its 112th year, longevity is firmly rooted but carefully tended to.
Only 3 percent of family businesses survive past the third generation, according to the Family Business Institute. Now in its fifth generation at the nursery, the Bailey family has 11 members working in the company.
Starting with the most recent generation, family members are required to work outside the company business for several years after college.
Ryan McEnaney, 30, worked in public relations for the entertainment business in Los Angeles for five years. “It was good for me to work in a different industry,” said the company spokesman. “If you come back to Bailey’s, you need to fit into an open position and as a new employee, you can’t report to a family member.”
Terri McEnaney, a great granddaughter of the founder, spent eight years in the controller’s office at 3M before joining the family business in 1991 and is one of few women at the top of a large nursery business. “There was a time when I didn’t see a place for me in the business,” said McEnaney. “I looked around and all I saw was men.”
It’s conceivable that Bailey’s may have to look outside the family for future leadership. “We haven’t gone outside the family to take the company to the next level, but we have not closed the door, either,” Terri McEnaney said.
Postrecession, Bailey’s is thriving. Last year it surpassed sales of 25 million plants for its hugely successful Endless Summer hydrangea collection, introduced in 2004. Its hydrangea is the first to bloom multiple times throughout the growing season, instead of “one and done.”
Its Easy Elegance roses were hybridized for the unfussy gardener — hardy, disease-resistant color bursts that need little or no pruning, chemicals or tipping. With more than half of homeowners wanting a low-maintenance landscape, Bailey’s strives to develop plants and shrubs that require little fuss.
“They’re excellent growers with a mind-set to innovation and overcoming challenges,” said John Daniels, vice president of production and wholesale at Bachman’s. “They’re not afraid to invest for the sake of product quality and efficiency. Most end up working, but they’re not afraid to fail, either.”
Bachman’s is one of Bailey’s longtime customers, but as a wholesale grower, it’s also a competitor. “There are great parallels between Larry Bachman and Gordy Bailey Sr.,” Daniels said. “We wouldn’t be the company we are without Bailey’s.”
Some of the innovations that Bailey’s has developed for its own operations have made their way to wholesale customers. A drop trailer that automatically unloads potted plants into the fields saves time and strenuous labor. Bachman’s owns four of them.
Pruning bars that sweep over large numbers of trees or plants allow trimming in one fell swoop. “It’s almost like a raised lawn mower that goes over plants to decrease the number of pruning steps,” Terri McEnaney said.
Bailey’s is also using robots to consolidate and separate plants, and a modified potato digger called the “root hog” to pull young plants from the sand beds so they can be placed in pots. For years workers pulled them out of the earth by hand, but it can be irksome when root systems get fibrous and extended.
The mechanized innovations haven’t significantly reduced labor, however. “We want to use our employees’ skills for more difficult tasks,” said Terri McEnaney. “The innovations are for the tedious, repetitive work where employees can injure themselves.”
Recently, Bailey’s has started to use drones and radio-frequency IDs (RFIDs) to locate and count plants in the field.
Heidi Heiland, past president of the Minnesota Landscape Association and owner of Heidi’s Lifestyle Gardens and GrowHaus, said Bailey’s has a knack for providing what wholesale customers want, at just the right time. “No one was asking for unique fruit trees until recently — cherry, peaches, plums, apricot and pears — but Bailey’s had been quietly working on them for years.”
Karen O’Connor, co-owner of Mother Earth Gardens with two locations in Minneapolis, strives to supply her customers with plants that are sustainable and beautiful. Not all plants supplied by Bailey’s are neonicotinoid-free, friendly to bees and other insects, but there’s an open dialogue.
“We have a wonderful salesperson from Bailey’s who talks through the whole process with us,” said O’Connor. “She knows we want less impact with neonics, so she can supply us with bare root trees that we can plant in untreated organic soil.”
With fewer greenhouses after the recession, Bailey’s recognized the need to give its retail customers more tools to be successful. During the mid-May to mid-June plant-buying frenzy, many garden centers can’t hire enough seasonal staff. “Not a lot of people want to be employed for just six weeks,” said Daniels.
Bailey’s developed signage for retailers to help their customers. “We provide information about the plants and signage that draws people to certain areas such as perennials,” said Terri McEnaney. “Many seasonal employees may not be as well-versed in their plant knowledge.”
It’s an ongoing struggle for nurseries and garden centers to extend the May-June peak season and flatten out the peaks and valleys. As a low-margin enterprise, greenhouses and nurseries are finding that the land they farm is sometimes worth more than the business itself.
Too often, today’s nurseries are operated by men who want to retire, Heiland said. “They need to change and retool to survive like Bailey’s. It’s no wonder they’ve been around for more than 100 years,” she said. “Their passion and their heart, it’s deep in their souls and their bloodline.”