Another independent San Antonio plant nursery heads to the compost pile this month. Schulz Nursery, which has been growing plants for San Antonio gardeners and landscapers for more than five decades and operating its retail nursery on Broadway since 2007, is going out of business this month.
Nursery owner W. Lawrence “Larry” Walker Jr., the former publisher of the San Antonio Express-News who purchased the business after he retired as a newspaper executive in 2005, said the decision to close resulted from an “inability to agree on lease terms” with the property’s landlord, the Perez Family Management Trust, which has extensive property holdings along Broadway.
“We will miss Larry (Walker), and now we will see what kind of interest there is from others in the property,” said A.R. Perez, Jr. a family trustee. “The property is definitely not for sale. My father intended the properties in the trust to benefit future generations of the family, including our children and our grandchildren.”
Schulz Nursery is located at 3700 Broadway St. at the corner of Queen Ann Court, across from the Witte Museum. Property values all along Broadway south of Hildebrand to downtown are increasing in value and rents are rising as the corridor continues to redevelop with a growing residential population and increased commercial activity. The Witte is undergoing a $100 million renovation and expansion that included the March opening of the $15 million Mays Family Center.
The property is 0.75-acre in size and includes a 7,200 sq. ft. building, all carrying an appraised value of $958,000. An adjacent empty lot used by Schulz Nursery for staging inventory also is available, according to Perez, who oversees multiple trust properties in the adjacent block.
Schulz Nursery was operating profitably before the cost of his lease increased, Walker said.
“If we could have gotten some kind of accommodation on the property taxes, we could maybe have made it work,” he said, with heavy emphasis on the word “maybe.”
He added that the triple net lease, whereby the lessee pays monthly rent along with property taxes, maintenance, and insurance, pretty much sealed the fate of the Broadway plant house. Such ancillary costs can often exceed the actual monthly rent fee.
“With the Pearl’s influence (on rising property taxes), we can’t make the numbers work,” Walker said.
A neighborhood gardening staple, Schulz Nursery served as a convenient supply stop for Alamo Heights area and downtown resident gardeners. The location across from the Witte Museum operated under different owners as Wolfe Nursery and Calloway’s Nursery before becoming Schulz Nursery nine years ago. It will close by May 31. All plants are discounted 30%, while merchandise such as pottery and tools are being offered at discounts of 50%.
While bargains on gardening items are always welcome, the loss of yet another independent San Antonio area plant supplier is not. Gardeners who live downtown and inside Loop 410 have fewer choices than ever, even as interests in native plants, pollinator and Monarch butterfly habitat, locally produced food and urban gardening are on the rise.
Just months ago, Arbolitos Nursery closed its three locations. That leaves only three nurseries inside Loop 410 – the funky Evergreen Gardens at 922 W. Hildebrand Ave. near Blanco Road, the upscale Shades of Green at 334 W. Sunset Rd. in Alamo Heights, and the family owned tree experts Fanick’s Garden Center at 1025 Holmgreen Rd. off W.W. White Road on the far Eastside.
The power of big box stores is largely to blame, say several nursery operators. A plant stocking scheme introduced years ago by Lowe’s, Walmart and Home Depot makes it almost impossible for independent nurseries to compete with the large buyers. Dubbed “pay by scan,” the big box stores buy plants from wholesalers on consignment – assuming all the profit and none of the risk.
Ever notice those rolling metal carts of plants parked in or near the garden centers outside Lowe’s or Home Depot? They are placed there by wholesalers who are paid only for the plants that are scanned at the cash register. In addition, big box nurseries don’t always take proper care of the plants, putting shade plants in the sun and sun plants in the shade. This makes the plants less appealing to buyers as they wilt or wither. Thus, they don’t sell. The wholesale suppliers absorb the loss.
Unsold items generate no revenue to the grower who had to germinate, fertilize, water, tend and deliver the plants. Sometimes the big box stores even require the wholesalers to retrieve unsold and/or dead plant material. Understandably, pay by scan has forced many valued local growers out of business. The practice also makes it difficult if not impossible for independent nurseries to compete on price. Independents pay for every plant they purchase or grow whether the item sells, withers, or stays on the shelf.
“The wholesaler does all the work and the retailer makes all the money,” said Frank Kirby, president of Rainbow Gardens, which has two locations in San Antonio, one at 8516 Bandera Rd. inside Loop 1604, and one at 2585 Thousand Oaks inside Loop 1604. “Wholesalers are foolish to go along with it – but the buy-ins are huge. It really comes down to three players these days – Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart. They can beat the pants off everyone else on price.”
Kirby, a self-confessed “nature nerd,” started his business in 1976, moving to the six-acre spread on Bandera in 1985. That location is a local favorite for native plant buyers in San Antonio. It boasts a knowledgeable staff, good signage and a huge inventory. Kirby believes San Antonio’s frugal mindset also contributes to the difficulty of operating an independent plant nursery in town.
“San Antonio has kind of a mindset – cheapest plant, cheapest price,” he said, pointing out that if you compare San Antonio prices on plants and garden items to similar stock across the country, San Antonio is always a bargain.
As SAWS ramps up its water saver landscape campaign with rebates that offers incentives to homeowners who replace water guzzling non-native turf with native grasses and plants, and Mayor Ivy Taylor’s Mayor’s Monarch Butterfly Pledge works to increase awareness of the importance of native and pollinator plants, local independent plant nurseries with knowledgeable staff are needed now more than ever.
Local growers and buyers know best what works best in our local environment, said Charles Bartlett of Greenhaven Industries, who has worked in the local plant industry for more than 40 years as botanist, gardener and commercial landscaper. Bartlett views the local plant nursery as instrumental in creating sustainable landscapes.
“We all treasure these local nurseries because those local growers and buyers know what grows best here in South Texas. The buyers for these big box stores may be in Atlanta,” he said, adding that award-winning hybrid varieties of Bartlett pears and Concord grapes just don’t thrive in South Texas. Without native suppliers and nurseries, “we don’t have access to the plant materials that do well here,” Bartlett said.
Sky rocketing property taxes, unpredictable weather, and high costs for labor and water might prove to be insurmountable challenges for independent local nurseries to take on the risk required to make a successful business. Many are adopting the attitude of Peter Garza, general manager of Schulz Nursery, who will soon be out of a job.
What’s he going to do?
“Anything but retail or plants,” he said.
Top Image: Schulz Nursery has been in operation since 2007. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.