As sunshine coaxes us into our brittle yards this weekend, Florida nurseries see a break from a winter that has lasted not months, but years.
"The phone's been ringing off the hook," said Doug Meyer, whose wholesale Meyer's Nurseries is the oldest in Hillsborough County.
He sells to garden centers, lawn maintenance operators and landscapers. It has been a brutal business. The Florida nursery and landscape industry, second in the nation behind California's, has watched sales wither — along with construction — since 2006. Two-thirds of its production focused on landscape plants, most of which rooted in brand-new yards.
Now freezes have left a mess across the South, giving growers who protected their plants a chance at brisk spring sales.
"It'll breathe some life into the industry, and give them a little breathing room to cope until the economy starts picking up," said Hugh Gramling of Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers, an association of 58 nursery growers in Hillsborough County.
It matters in the bay area: Hillsborough growers sold $180 million worth of ornamental plants in 2008, second only to strawberries. Other counties weren't nearly so prolific, with Hernando and Pasco next, and urban Pinellas not so much growing plants as buying them.
Big-box retailers buy many of the plants Florida cultivates, says Alan W. Hodges, who does economic analysis for the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences.
Home improvement stores, which have taken their own hit in the recession, are ready.
"Spring is our holiday season, basically," said Craig Fishel, a Home Depot spokesman.
The retailer is pitching "Spring Black Friday" today, while Lowe's similarly offers days of deals such as 99-cents-a-bag mulch.
"This weekend's going to be insane, because of the weather," said Frank Minuto, garden department manager for the Home Depot on 22nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg. He's stocking up on vegetables and organics, following a trend in "edible" gardening that has experts recommending blueberry or blackberry bushes as landscaping.
Independent retail nurseries, such as Kerby's Nursery in Seffner and Twigs & Leaves in St. Petersburg, say cold damage drives the conversation. Before folks rebuild their yards, they want to know their efforts will survive.
More than 150 people showed up at a workshop on cold-hardy plants at Kerby's on March 6, said Kim Kerby Bokor, who owns the nursery with her husband and brother. But an upswing in shoppers started just in the past week or so.
"It was a late start to the season for us," she said. "But the weather has just been gorgeous lately, and we're all eager to get outside again."
Greenhouses protected her plants, and she stocks perhaps 1,500 varieties on 12 acres. Delicate tropical plants may be harder to come by this year, but she's finding more demand for hardier varieties anyway.
Meanwhile, Twigs & Leaves has a new selling point for its Florida native plants: 95 percent of its stock survived. That compares with 20 to 30 percent loss among other growers.
Co-owner Michael Manlowe said coastal plants died because his two-fifths of an acre is on higher ground. But other ground cover, palms, flowers, vines, shrubs and trees came through — and he sees new opportunity for rebuilding habitat for birds and butterflies.
The spring binge will reach beyond homeowners to cities, country clubs and theme parks. But the pickup has its limits: It's unlikely to bring jobs.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties were among the top 10 in Florida for employment in environmental horticulture before the recession hit, according to a study co-authored by Hodges, of UF. Florida jobs with nurseries, landscapers and retailers reached nearly 300,000 in 2005, the last time the industry paid for an impact study.
Jobs have dropped since then. It 2008 alone, industry employment fell 20 percent, according to the latest agriculture report co-authored by Hodges.
"Everything I'm hearing from people in the industry is that demand for plants is still very, very weak," he said. "Until the real estate market really turns around in Florida, I think it's going to be pretty hard times for the nursery and greenhouse industry."
Doug Meyer of Meyer's Nurseries used to cultivate all of his 25 acres in Thonotosassa. Now, it's just 15 acres. He went from 15 employees to four, and this winter those four worked part time. Spring sales simply mean they'll work full-time again.
Pat Dugan of DLC Lawn & Landscape in St. Petersburg says now that the risk of hard freeze is over, he'll be busy in customers' yards.
"It's going to be a hard month," he said. But he won't hire extra help. He'll just work weekends.
Becky Bowers can be reached at email@example.com.