Starting a backyard tree nursery, or tree farming, can be a great way for gardeners to turn their green thumbs into cash. It’s also a good way to ‘bootstrap’ a few hundred dollars into a steady income from tree sales. Because the hours are flexible, growing trees is also an ideal part-time business for stay-at-home moms or retirees.
Today, there are more ways to make money growing trees than ever before. High-value trees and tree crops have enabled small growers to make money even if they have only a small backyard for growing trees.
The secret to success as a small-scale tree grower is to find a ‘niche’ that fits your interests and skills as well as the local marketplace. Here are just a few of the many tree growing niche markets available today:
Native tree nursery. Native plants are in demand today, thanks to renewed interest by homeowners and groups that support sustainable native landscaping. In many areas, regulations require planting native, rather than non-native species of trees and other plants on public lands. By offering trees that are native to a region, growers can find a ready market and eager customers, from retail buyers who are purchasing trees for their own property, to large restoration, reclamation and mitigation projects that may use hundreds of trees and other native plants.
Bonsai is all about growing tiny trees, and has become even more popular as more and more folks move to the city, where they have little or no yard space, but still want to have greenery growing in their apartment or condo. A bonsai tree, a miniature version of a larger tree, such as a beech, elm or pine, can fit almost anywhere, indoors or outdoors. Prices of bonsai trees are high, whether for mature trained trees or ‘starter’ untrained trees, and can bring huge markups to growers. For example, bare-root seedlings can be purchased for as little as 50 cents and re-sold for $60 when trained and potted.
Willow trees. The willow has become a real money-maker for those who understand the many uses for the tree beyond its traditional use as a landscape tree. Twig furniture, woven from young willow branches, is in demand, and a single chair can bring over $200. Basket weavers love the flexible shoots for weaving and growers can now plant trees that produce a rainbow of bark colors, which weavers pay a premium price for. Selling willow cuttings, which root easily in most soils, is another income producer for willow growers. Stick those same cuttings in a one-gallon pot and wait a year – now you’ve got a young landscaping tree that can bring ten dollars at retail.
Christmas trees are enjoying a revival of interest, as more buyers reject artificial trees in favor of the ‘real thing.’ Growing Christmas trees takes space, but anyone with at least an acre of useable land can start a seasonal Christmas tree farm. Buyers in cities are snapping up table top sized Christmas trees, paying $30 to $50 each, and greens, trimmed from fir and pine trees, can bring in a substantial income from garlands and wreaths. Starting a Christmas tree plantation is a part-time business for most of the 20,000-plus growers around North America, so you can earn a nice income working just a few hours a week on your own schedule and still have another job.
In addition to these four niches, new growers can specialize in other high-value trees, such as growing heritage fruit trees or growing walnut trees. Japanese maples are an ideal tree niche for anyone with limited growing space. Even a small 30 x 40 backyard can hold hundreds of Japanese maples in containers. Because Japanese maples are a slower growing tree, they can stay in 5-gallon pots until sold, at prices up to two hundred dollars each.
Container growing makes sense for tree growers with limited growing area, as it allows closer spacing of the plants, and cuts down on watering, weeding and transplanting. A simple and affordable drip irrigation system which waters each tree with its own drip emitter can help keep labor and water costs low.
During boom or recession, having your own part-time or full-time tree growing business can be a steady income producer. Best of all, unlike seasonal crops like flowers or vegetables, trees just keep growing in value each year. If you have unsold trees one year, be thankful, as they will be bigger and more profitable next year.