The Task of Sourcing Plants for Landscape Design

By Andrew Munro

As a Landscape Architect, one of the most common questions I am asked by nursery managers trying to analyse consumer buying habits is “How do you normally source your plant stock for your projects?” So, let us look at how others in the industry source their stock.

When I talk with colleagues in the landscape industry about this fundamental aspect of our work, I never seem to get the same response. Some designers choose to purchase directly through wholesale nurseries for their clients, allowing them to arrange the specified plants through their preferred supplier and have them delivered directly to site for the contractor to install.

Other trade buyers love locating their own stock online through a plant sourcing website that displays real time stock inventories or that finds all the available plants.

The enjoyment of seeing and tagging plants in the flesh, and collecting them from their local supplier appeals to others, whilst for some landscape architects “it is all too much” and they are just happy to out-source the whole process to specialist plant brokers or leave it for the contractor or client to arrange.

The method of sourcing plants depends on a lot of ever-changing and unique factors that each buyer faces on every project, such as timing, availability, the quality of the stock required, the delivery schedule, specifications, aesthetics, peace of mind (or trust in supplier), volume of stock and the big ‘B’ word, budget!

Even before commencing the planting design process, a designer often considers key issues such as:

  • Is the project trying to achieve a specific look through the use of a certain planting palette?
  • How much time will it take to source my own plant stock or should I engage someone else to handle this for me?
  • Can I source all the stock from one nursery, or will it need to be staged or even split into multiple deliveries from numerous suppliers?
  • Is availability, pricing or delivery a priority for consideration?
  • Do I need to provide the client with a fixed quotation for approval prior to confirming the order?
  • Is it critical to retain control over the appearance of the stock so I know exactly what the plants will look like upon arrival to site?
  • How soon do I want the plants – do I need them ASAP or is there time to grow them up as part of a contract grow-on?
  • Will I get a decent result if I leave it up to the landscape contractor or the client to order the stock?
  • What if I allowed substitutions in size or similar species if the specified stock is not available?
  • Is my client willing to pay a premium for advanced size and retail-quality stock?
  • Will the plants I need have to come a long distance, and if so, what transportation methods will be utilised to ensure the health of the delivered stock?

Experienced designers often keep these issues running through their mind as a project progresses beyond the initial design phase to help guide their future decision-making regarding supply. To help the nursery industry appreciate the varying needs and circumstances of designers, contractors and buyers, the common methods currently utilised for sourcing plants are discussed below:

1. Online via plant sourcing website databases

For designers who like to retain control of the exact specifications of plants that get delivered to the project site, utilising an online plant sourcing database saves them a lot of time. has been created for the industry to connect designers and specifiers of plants with nurseries or suppliers of plant stock. It enables designers to select and specify plant species from the database (compiled using Growers/Suppliers monthly availability lists and annual forward-grow lists) to generate a unique plant schedule for each project. Plants are searched by their genus, species, or common names and include representative photos, and are categorised by their attributes, features, and characteristics to help narrow down the fields for selection. Once arranged into a full schedule, it is sent off automatically via the website to obtain a quotation from the matching growers to supply. The designer can then choose the best supplier from the quotes received and liaise directly with them to finalise the order. The system is relatively straight-forward to use, saving the designer time instead of ringing around trying to source stock from multiple nurseries, and it’s accessible 24/7 from any device.

It also has some useful functions such as allowing growers to provide details in the quotes of alternative sizing if the desired specifications aren’t available and includes indicative freight charges for transporting the stock to site to enable realistic budgeting. All types of plants are listed from groundcovers to advanced trees (including turf varieties) and newly released plants are highlighted on the database to help you find out what’s new on the market from Australian growers. Use of the database is available to professional designers who sign in and register, with no on-going charges for its use.

2. Direct via wholesale or retail nurseries

Wholesale nurseries generally welcome landscape architects, designers and contractors to purchase directly from them as they provide a good source of regular sales and turn-over of stock without the hassles of dealing with one-off retail customers. To achieve this, nurseries encourage trade buyers to visit (by appointment) to view their stock and get a feel for the sizing and quality of their lines prior to purchasing. Increasing sales from trade buyers can be aided by offering monthly pricing & availability lists once signed up via email, offering information on new products, seasonal specials, plant of the month features and other industry news. Some of the larger operators have even developed their own external databases for designers to access current stock information & trade pricing online without the disturbance of answering constant enquiries about supply levels.

Designers appreciate dealing directly with nurseries that can ‘buy-in’ some species not usually grown in-house in order to supply a complete order, thereby simplifying the delivery phase and saving the client time and money. Other advantages trade buyers gain by personally liaising with large wholesalers include contract growing (especially for large scale commercial orders), being served by qualified horticulturists, accessing NATSPEC certified tree stock, providing more flexible transportation options and obtaining healthier, larger, and uniform plant stock through higher quality control standards. Developing good relationships over time usually benefits both the supplier and customer through better understanding of the ordering and supply process, thereby improving efficiencies at both ends.

3. Plant traders and cash-n-carry operators

Sitting between the wholesale and retail level, plant traders’ point of difference is offering both trade and retail buyers a wide selection of plants grown by many separate wholesale nurseries, thereby providing a “one-stop-shop” for plants. They operate on varying business models that either buy in stock regularly, seasonally or on an ad-hoc basis from growers. Their prices are generally in the mid-range depending on volume, uniqueness, availability, and how long it has been sitting on the trading floor. Designers and contractors value these operators since they are able to inspect and purchase the stock that’s right there, which is very useful for finishing off projects with a variety of plants or for grabbing stock at the last minute on the way to site. It is also useful when trying to obtain plants from small and distant nurseries, being able to order ahead on-line and to procure other landscape products & services.

4. Specialist plant brokers

When a designer doesn’t have the time to source their own plant stock or becomes frustrated when trying to locate the exact plants required, plant brokers can be used to handle this task. The process is quite simple for the buyer – the full plant schedule and delivery details are provided, and the broker ensures the contracted stock is delivered on time at the agreed amount. Whilst biosecurity issues have impacted the number of specialists willing to offer these services, brokers are seen as an attractive option by many time-poor sole traders that have to focus their attention on other aspects of the business.

The biggest downside for designers using a plant broker is the cost of the service, effectively wiping out any opportunity to charge a margin to the client for the plant procurement. However some clients and designers are happy to factor this cost into the project for the guarantee of decent stock. Knowing this, brokers are keenly aware of the need to source their plants responsibly through NIASA accredited production nurseries to deliver a high level of assurance around product quality and performance.

5. Horticultural shows and nursery trade days

One-off industry events such as nursery trade days and horticultural shows provide specifiers with another means of sourcing plants. Whilst the trading window is narrow (either monthly, quarterly or yearly) and quantities of stock showcased aren’t always large, these gatherings are great for buyers to discover new varieties of plants to specify, find rare plants they’ve been chasing, engage with growers over technical details and to connect newer suppliers with designers and members of allied industries.

Another important consideration for designers that runs parallel with their plant sourcing method is the mechanism of delivery. With buyers being more reliant on locating stock from further afield due to local supply issues, there is greater awareness of best practice when it comes to plant transportation. Designers who are focussed on ensuring the plants they purchase arrive on site in a healthy state and intact, are now more inclined to utilise transport companies that specialise in handling plant stock and that are well equipped for the size of stock to be carried.

In conclusion, understanding the unique factors and ever-changing circumstances that affect buyers of plant stock will help influence nurseries with business planning and drive future sales.

Appreciating the varying needs and requirements of designers, contractors and buyers can facilitate the development of strategies and services that are aligned, focussed and efficient for all parties.

If you’re a landscape or nursery industry professional, urban landscape architect or local council looking for trees or other pants for your planting plan, then PlantSelect is the ideal place to start your search. We connect urban landscape planners and architects to growers and plant suppliers who can provide plants at wholesale prices. Our easy-to-use and extensive plant database will streamline your search for plants by allowing you to use a range of useful filters.

Signing up to PlantSelect is simple, and in no time at all you can start exploring our plant categories or search for the specific plants you want. PlantSelect makes your life easy by automatically finding plant wholesalers and suppliers that stock the trees and plants you’re looking for. If you’d like to get in contact with us, then please fill out the form on our website or call 0433 745 004.