PHOTO: Susan Brackney
Susan Brackney
February 26, 2020

Imagine a market for your bedding plants and seeds that never closes and never gets rained out.

If you’re already selling nursery stock at your local farmers’ market or to customers who visit your farm directly, maybe you’ve wondered about expanding into online plant sales. The move can really boost your bottom line—provided you do your homework first.

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Becky Webster, owner of Life with Orchids, has sold orchids online since 2017. Although she made some mistakes initially, Webster’s side hustle is now her full-time job.

“I didn’t start with a real focus about what I wanted to do,” she admits. “I had tried going into the Phalaenopsis [orchid] which is what sells at the grocery store, and they don’t sell as well as some of the more oddball stuff.”

Before offering many different plant varieties, do some market research into online plant sales. “I can look on eBay and see what sells a lot,” Webster says. Conversely, you can see what’s not selling. “You don’t want to turn around and try to sell that, because it’s going to be hard,” she adds.


Read how you can get into selling plant starts at the farmers’ market.



Where to Sell

Think you know what will sell? Now, where should you sell it?

If you’re computer-savvy, you can purchase your own domain and set up a dedicated website, complete with e-commerce features. But Webster doesn’t recommend that for vendors just starting out in online plant sales.

“If you don’t have the time or the energy to learn about website [search engine optimization], it’s probably best to stick with eBay and Etsy,” she says. “I didn’t have my own website that I paid for through Shopify until last year. And most of my sales still come through Etsy.”

Of course, there are trade-offs when selling through pre-established online markets. “They take more of your money, but they reach a much larger audience than you can starting out,” Webster notes.

Online markets typically charge a nominal fee per product listing. They may also charge transaction fees and take a cut of sales, too.

Rules and Regulations

Anyone shipping nursery stock must adhere to seller guidelines for Etsy, Amazon and eBay, among others.

In addition to barring the sale of some specific plant or seed types, they require online nurseries to adhere to state, federal and international laws. They’ve been enacted to help prevent the spread of potentially harmful pests and pathogens.

(For its part, the U.S. Postal Service also has some restrictions on mailing plants.)

Webster chooses not to sell her orchids internationally. If she did export plants to other countries, she would have to acquire special phytosanitary certification. “On a small scale like what I do, it’s not really worth it,” she says. “But, if you have somebody who is planning on doing large bulk orders to other countries, it might be more worth it to them.”

Looking to sell seeds under your own brand name?

Regulations differ by state, but each generally requires that you obtain a permit to sell your seeds within that state. For example, check out California’s seed-related regulations. There are also federal standards spelled out in the Federal Seed Act.

Tracking your inventory is another critical step. “I’m a sole proprietor, so I only need to keep track of my income at the end of the year, but you have to reconcile your inventory,” Webster says. “If you don’t track it during the year, it’s a lot of work to backtrack and figure out what sold.”

Looking Good

To attract buyers, your online product photos and descriptions must stand out. Webster shoots her own photos or obtains permission from others to use theirs.

For professional-looking shots, consider constructing a photo light box.

“I try to make a good quality listing with information about growing the plants and all of my shop policies,” Webster says. “All that takes time. I spent an entire day listing 10 to 20 plants.”

She can also spend two to three hours a day just responding to customer questions.

Shipshape

Based in Vermont, Webster ships her orchids along with heat packs, depending on the season and their destination.

“I make sure the plant is well-insulated, and I keep track of what the temperature is going to be in my area,” she says. “If it’s going to fall below 15 to 20 degrees overnight, I won’t ship.”

Finally, to protect plants in transit, Webster wraps their bases with shredded newspaper, securing with masking tape. “That keeps the potting medium from coming out and it keeps each plant in its pot,” she says.

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