<strong>"I've been planting trees for 45 years," Everett Chapman says. His son, Kevin, right, was 6 years old when his dad got started in the nursery business. 
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"I've been planting trees for 45 years," Everett Chapman says. His son, Kevin, right, was 6 years old when his dad got started in the nursery business.
There’s an antithetical rule of thumb in the nursery business. It seems the more the economy shrinks, the more the nursery and tree business grows, says Everett Chapman, owner of Willow Green Gardens & Tree Farm in Rogersville.

The 45-year nursery veteran learned the guideline from his boss when he first started working in the business in Raytown.

“He told me the worse the economy, the better the nursery business. I could never understand that,” Chapman says.

Now, Chapman says he’s lived it.

“People stay home and fix up their homes,” he says, noting revenues at the 50-acre Willow Green Gardens have grown each year during the recent recession.

Last year, Willow Green Gardens produced more than $1 million in sales, a double-digit increase compared to 2009, largely led by landscaping services.

The 73-year-old Chapman still reports every day to the nursery that fronts Highway 60. “I’ll die on the job,” he says.

His son, Kevin, 51, leads the landscaping division, which accounts for 60 percent of revenues. Tree sales add up to 20 percent of the business, while other retail such as shrubs, annuals and perennials represent 15 percent of revenues, and wholesale orders are 5 percent.

The biggest seller lately is a hybrid red maple, which grows quickly yet remains sturdy and shows good color in the fall, Everett Chapman says.

Third time’s the charm
Willow Gardens is the third nursery under Chapman’s ownership. Raised on a 3,000-acre Jackson County farm, he founded Colonial Nursery in 1970 on 80 acres in Blue Springs. After turning it into a 400-acre operation with 100 employees, Chapman sold the business to two managers.

“It got to the point where it owned me, instead of me owning it,” he says.

Chapman turned to southwest Missouri and acquired roughly 50 “rocky acres” in Kimberling City to start Table Rock Nursery. In search of more fertile soil, Chapman found a 34-acre wheat field in Webster County. A team drilled 300 holes with a post-hole digger to test the site. “We never hit a rock, so we figured it was a good place for a nursery,” he says.

Now, some 10,000 trees are planted at Willow Green Gardens, and the company sells about 3,000 a year, with the biggest pushes being in the fall and winter. Buyers come out and tag their own trees before they become dormant and can be transplanted.

Four out of every 10 trees sold is a maple variety, a percentage that concerns Chapman.

“We’d like to diversify, but it’s hard to talk somebody into something other than maples,” he says.

About a quarter of the inventory is purchased from out-of-state vendors such as Greenleaf Nursery in Oklahoma. Most of Willow Green’s exotics, such as the Weeping Alaskan Cedar and the Golden Shower Cypress, are grown in Oregon.

Kevin Chapman says most clients are providing a facelift to their homes.

“The biggest thing is bringing indoor living outdoors,” he says, noting clients spend between $2,000 and $75,000 for landscaping jobs such as creating hardscapes, outdoor kitchens and water features.

The average landscaping job exceeds $4,000, he says, and crews travel as far out as 100 miles. The bulk of orders, mostly residential, take them east to such places as Mountain View, Houston and Lebanon, though jobs also crop up in Bolivar, Branson and Springfield.

Last summer, crews completed a $10,000 landscaping job for Gary and Leta Coffey’s home east of Springfield.

“We wanted an Asian look in the yard,” says Gary Coffey, a retired computer programmer, adding that the couple tweaked Kevin Chapman’s design to achieve the theme with Japanese maples, bamboo, a bored rock water feature, a natural rock slab bench and a concrete pagoda already on site. “I think it really enhances the value of the property. It certainly enhances our outdoor living.”

Protecting the inventory
With Willow Green’s inventory open to the elements outdoors, weather conditions can threaten profits.

“We constantly fight the weather,” Everett Chapman notes, pointing to the extreme heat and dry conditions this summer. “Even though you watered, a few evergreens just burned up.”

Willow Green Gardens applies a one-year warranty on most of its nursery stock. Each year, the Chapmans try to keep their replacements below 3 percent of sales.

“There are places we lose, and places we come out ahead,” Everett Chapman says, adding that the greatest net profit is on the sale of shade trees.

He says it costs about $1,000 to install a 6-inch tree, measured by its trunk diameter. The average tree is in the ground four years at Willow Green Gardens.

For larger trees, those that grow more rapidly or are in the ground longer, the Chapmans are preparing to buy a Big John Tree Transplanter. The new equipment, which runs about $100,000 brand new, can dig up and move trees larger than 6 inches in diameter, which weigh 5,000 pounds or more. The Chapmans found a used option. “We’re going to Minnesota to get it,” Everett Chapman says.