The Sterling Nursery, Inc.
Business Professional Spotlight
It can get lonely at The Sterling Nursery, says Steve Sterling, but that’s a good thing. It’s evidence of the trust that the nursery has earned in the industry. Clients don’t have to ride herd on the nursery or pay frequent visits to make sure they get what they need. They know they will get high quality plants that will become good products for them.
The Sterling Nursery, a wholesale grower of bare root liners located in Smyrna, Delaware, has been in business since 1979. A family owned and operated business, the 73-acre nursery is currently run by Dick, Barbara, their son, Steve, and his wife, Renee. The business operates with a small, loyal staff: 5 full time employees, one of whom has been with Sterling for more than 25 years, and 1 to 2 seasonal employees.
“We deal in the ‘bread and butter’ plants in the nursery trade,” says Steve. Sterling focuses on the workhorses of the landscape: boxwood, juniper, arborvitae, yews, and crape myrtle. They sell their liners to wholesale nurseries who grow them on and then sell the finished plants, many of which are installed in commercial landscapes.
Wholesale growing can be a challenging business, Steve explains. It takes about 5 years to go from a cutting to a landscape-ready plant. That means trends take a while to develop, and balancing supply and demand requires careful planning. Finding and developing versatile employees is a concern, as well.
There are rewards, however. “We have great customers, and being able to provide them with liners for their business and seeing them succeed is very rewarding,” says Steve. Clients call or tell Steve in person how pleased they are with the plants they have purchased. And they buy them by the thousands.
The DNLA has been an important part of the nursery’s professional development. Dick Sterling joined the DNLA in 1977, when most members were nurserymen. He served on the board for several years and was president in 1981. In 2005, he was inducted into the DNLA Hall of Fame. Steve has continued the tradition, serving as DNLA President in 2000-2001. Currently he is a Director At Large. “The quality education DNLA provides is invaluable,” Steve explains. He enjoys hearing speakers from different areas and disciplines who bring new perspectives with them.
Among the trends that Steve is seeing in his business are the popularity of boxwood, especially newer varieties like ‘Winter Gem’, ‘Green Velvet’, ‘Green Mountain’. ‘Hetz’s Winter Green’, a quick growing, columnar arborvitae, is in demand as a screening plant. Steve is encouraged by another trend in the wholesale nursery business, one that involves people. Over the last 4 to 5 years, he has seen the next generation getting into the nursery business, either taking over from a family member or starting new nurseries on their own.
“Under promise, over deliver” is Steve’s motto. That means having shipments ready before the promised pick-up time, including extra plants in a shipment, or showing an average plant as a sample rather than the very best one you can find in the field. “It’s important to be honest about plant quality, too,” he explains. If you’ve had a bad winter, for example, say so.
Finally, Steve says, “Never be satisfied, you can always learn something new, or do it better.” The success of The Sterling Nursery is clear evidence that he and his family live by those words.