The newest nursery listing on our VNPS website is Izel Plants; a retail nursery of a different stripe! Find out all about how it works in this interview with Claudio Vazquez, who is the co-owner, and co-founder of this brave new enterprise.
Sue: Claudio, when I heard about your retail nursery, which is an online nursery with no physical location, my first thought was “how does THAT work!” But when I visited your website, a lot of my questions were quickly answered – your site is awesome. Since I have you here, though, could you tell our readers just a little about how it does work?
Claudio: Thanks, Sue. We’ve put a lot of work into it, and to receive this kind of compliment makes it all worthwhile! Our elevator pitch is that we are an Amazon.com for native plants. We combine the inventories of several growers into one seamless marketplace. There are other websites that serve as a resource for multiple native growers, but they serve as listings, whereas you can purchase plants directly on our website. We also try to make it easy for the user to find which plants are best suited for their needs.
S: What about wait times? About how long does the average person wait for order fulfillment?
C: That’s a tricky question! Our policy is to ship via two-day ground, from Monday through Wednesday of the week following when the order was placed. This ensures that the plants won’t be sitting in a warehouse over the weekend.
There are of course always exceptions. Sometimes orders will ship the very same day they are received, and sometimes – due to high volume, or inclement weather – orders might not ship for a couple of weeks. That said, we do our best to let the customers know what’s going on and send email updates when we know there will be significant delays.
In some cases we will also indicate on the species’ page, the earliest those plants might ship. For example, our Asclepias tuberosa might not be ready to ship until early June, but because of high demand we will reserve plants for our customers as early as March.
S: So many people who want to start landscaping with native plants are stopped in their tracks by not being able to get the natives they need. I understand that you once faced the same problem. Is that what got you started in this venture?
C: Yes it was. When I bought my house, 16 years ago, and became interested in native plants,
e-commerce was still in its infancy. Not only was it nearly impossible to buy them online, there was very little information available. It’s easy to forget that not that long ago, Wikipedia didn’t even have information on native species.
One day several years ago, Amanda McClean and I had hit a slow point in our respective photography businesses, and were chatting on the phone about what to do next. That very afternoon we began researching the feasibility of our business model and, literally overnight, what was to become Izel Plants became our fulltime jobs; Amanda and I are now the co-owners.
S: Your site really is, not only gorgeous, but so user friendly. Kudos to your developer! You?
C: User friendliness and design were of utmost importance to us. We couldn’t find any examples of existing websites that offered the kind of user experience that we felt was required to do this the right way. The design part was easy for us because our previous careers were in the visual arts and advertising. Applying the knowledge we accumulated over a combined 40 years of professional experience to our own project, was an incredibly exciting change.
The development, on the other hand, was extremely difficult for us. Considering our lack of experience with programing at the time, conventional wisdom would have dictated that this was a foolish endeavour. Not only was it difficult to find competent developers – not having any contacts in that industry – trying to explain to them that this was more complex than selling tee shirts was a losing battle.
We had two failed launches, and by the time we approached our 3rd team of developers, our technical requirements were in a document 70 pages long, and covered the functionality of just about every line of code that currently runs the website. As “they” say: the only way to guarantee you will never fail, is to never try anything new.
S: What ways have you found most effective to help customers with their searches?
C: Well, if you know what you’re looking for, you can use the search box displayed on every page, and enter the scientific name (species, genus, or specific epithet), common name, or synonyms of either. To help with spelling, the system will begin searching for matches after entering the first three characters.
And if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can use our filters to refine your search. The first filter you might want to use is the state to, for example, only see species native to VA. Then you can filter for many other characteristics and growing requirements, including plant type, height at maturity, bloom color and blooming period, soil, water, and light requirements, deer resistance, attractiveness to pollinators, just to name a few.
S: Are there certain geographic areas that are more active than others on your website?
C: Yes, as a matter of fact. Pennsylvania is the state that gives us the biggest amount of traffic, almost 10%. But Virginia is the state that wins for spending the most money on plants!
S: Do you sell throughout the winter?
C: We are still selling plants as we enter the winter months but, as you can imagine, the inventory of sellable plants is getting limited. We are currently moving a fair amount of bare-root spring ephemerals, particularly those with bulb-like root structures. As long as the soil in the propagation beds is not frozen, we will prep and ship them. On the customer side, if the soil is not frozen, these can be planted throughout winter for a spring performance.
We are actually putting together a special sale on Dicentra cucullaria, (Dutchman’s breeches), that will be great for anyone wanting to naturalize a shaded spot with this wonderfully delicate spring beauty. The best ways to stay informed with our offerings are to subscribe to our newsletter, and/or follow us on Facebook: Izel Native Plants
S: I’d like to ask your opinion – VNPS is currently engaged in state-wide campaign to boost sales of native plants. We have been very successful with our education efforts to raise public awareness, but getting nurseries to shift into increased production of natives is more difficult. Of course money is the driver, we realize that nurseries have to make a profit, but as someone who deals with nurseries every day, what advice can you give us to help motivate nurseries?
C: You know, when we first started this endeavor, I stumbled on an assessment of the nursery industry done by the USDA. They noted that the nursery industry had huge potential but was plagued by lack of marketing skills and that’s what was holding it back.
I know some believe that people are only interested in whether a plant is pink or white, and whether it blooms in sun or shade. But I think that gardeners love the stories that are associated with plants, and are always eager to share their knowledge. I know the story of every one of my plants; where they came from, who gave them to me, if they were a gift. I think nurseries could take advantage of the social aspect and make stories part of the sales pitch. For instance, people love to know things like the super-glue properties of putty root, (Aplectrum hyemale). Did you know that Native Americans once used the corms to make a glue that was strong enough to fix broken pottery, hence the common name?
We are very interested in marketing and perception. We have created POP (Point of Sale) fact sheets to display with every species we are selling when we participate in plant sales, and have noticed that people absolutely love these to the point that some will even photograph them. These sheets are the abridged, but complete, plant profiles found on our website, containing all the pertinent facts about plant characteristics, cultivation tips, and a map of their native range (a picture is worth a thousand words). We include brief stories whenever we can. For Baptisia australis we would include the fact that it was one of the first native plants put into cultivation for economic reasons. We might also indicate that a species is particularly valuable to a specific pollinator, or that it is rare and endemic to a restricted area. People just flock to these sheets, and are so appreciative when we provide half-sheet versions for them to take home. I think that nurseries could capitalize on the social-story connections to generate interest and engagement as an alternative to the “this is better for the environment” pitch, which although true, many newcomers find preachy. Ultimately, you want to find as many angles as possible to encourage customers to want to buy native plants.
S: Claudio, I so agree with you; we have to be sensitive to the fact that we need to listen, and to have more than one pitch that will help interest people in natives. This has been such an interesting session, I can’t thank you enough for your time, and I will look forward to posting here again about Itzel Nurseries when the weather breaks in spring!
C: Sue, when we began this, we knew it would not be a get-rich-quick scheme; we want to help people beyond what we an do for ourselves. We truly believe that native plants are an important resource beyond providing beauty in a garden so it is worth a certain amount of self-sacrifice. I am always willing to spend time with someone who cares about it as much as I do, that is what makes it all worthwhile – thank you!
Co-Owner, Izel Plants