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Gardening business withering

July 31, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

The drought-scarred ground has brought business almost to a standstill for Buck Run Nursery & Landscaping in Mercersburg, Pa.

But customers are not the only commodity that has slowed to a trickle. Owner Lucinda Stouffer said the pond she uses to water the $15,000 worth of plants is critically low.

"Our pond's down to about three waterings, and then I don't know what we're going to do. We have no options," she said. "I work another job. That's the only way we can survive."

Although most Tri-State area nurseries are not in as dire a predicament, nearly all have suffered as a result of the drought.

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From water bans to simple frustration, many customers have canceled or delayed landscaping projects.

"It really slacked off once it got real hot. Even with the little rain we've had here the last week, we're getting a few customers coming in and out, but it's not normal," said Jamie Doyle, a grower at Mountainside Gardens in Boonsboro.

Not only are fewer people coming through the doors, but the heat causes nurseries to spend more money to keep plants in good health, Doyle said.

"We'll even water three times a day if it's really, really hot," he said.

Ott's Horticulture Center in Chewsville is doing everything possible, said landscaping designer Laurie Morkved.

"We're watering constantly. The plants are so stressed out," she said.

Even with the efforts, Morkved said the weather has taken its toll on the plants. She said some plant leaves have curled up and browned.

"I've seen trees go into fall color early," she said.

Morkved said it takes much more effort to keep plants alive in these conditions.

"The ground is powder the whole way down," she said. "I tell people to water as much as they think it needs and then do it again two more times."

Morkved said the drought - combined with two straight mild winters that caused insect damage - will probably kill a number of trees. The extent of the damage likely will be unknown until next spring, she said.

The bottom line for Ott's, Morkved said, is that many people have decided against a time-consuming struggle against Mother Nature.

"We're lucky to sell a couple of plants a day. It's so slow," she said.

Even with few customers, though, nursery owners said they must keep their stock healthy. Carl Ay, who owns Colonial Farm Nursery And Landscaping in Martinsburg, W.Va., said he is now planting chrysanthemums.

"We have to go on as normal," he said. "The worst part is trying to put in lawns and shrubbery around houses."

Maryland declared a drought emergency on Thursday and asked people to voluntarily cut back on watering their lawns. Pennsylvania has imposed restrictions limiting lawn-watering to the evening and night.

"It's quite a burden to people - especially to people who are doing new planting," said Chris Snavely, who owns Snavely's Garden Corner in Chambersburg, Pa., and Hagerstown.

Snavely said many of his customers have told him they have put off landscaping projects until fall. Autumn normally is a busy season, but Snavely said it would have to be fantastic to compensate for this summer.

"I can't say I'm terribly optimistic that I'm going to recover that business," he said.

Snavely said the drought has taken its toll on his business in other ways.

Since some customers are unable or unwilling to keep their plants healthy with extra watering, they often take advantage of Snavely's guarantees and demand free replacements.

"Plants are returned at much, much higher rates," he said. "We're in the absurd situation of replacing plants we don't have control over the care of."

But at least Snavely's water supply is intact.

Stouffer cannot say the same. At Buck Run Nursery & Landscaping, the pond's almost dry. And the municipal water system probably offers no help.

"It would cost a fortune, probably more than the plants are worth," she said.

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