When you drive into Timbuk Farms’ Granville, Ohio, location, the first thing you see are Christmas trees. Lots of them, in fact, as if you were dropped into the middle of a thick forest of pine trees, and not the the home of a large commercial greenhouse. The business was founded as a Christmas tree farm in 1952 by the Schmidt family. Currently, there are more than 300 acres of Christmas trees on the property.
Today, the business is owned and operated by Jim Gibson and his wife, LaVonda. The two bought the business from the Schmidt family in 2004. Jim had grown up in Indiana on a vegetable farm and in the garden center business before spending eight years working for Ball Seed as a sales rep in Michigan and Long Island, New York. When they bought Timbuk Farms, the Gibsons had wanted to move back to the Midwest, and the Schmidts happened to be ready to move on. The new owners’ first move was to begin modernizing the business.
“The [former] owners did a really good job in their day, but they were older, and they probably quit investing towards the end there,” Jim says. “So, we got up to date with more carts and trucks and [plants]. Basically, in the first couple years, we didn’t really add on any greenhouse space, we basically added on efficiencies to be able to do the work easier.”
Fourteen years later, making things easier is still what Jim and LaVonda want to do. Beyond the sea of Christmas trees are greenhouses where Timbuk grows young plants, bedding plants and other crops for wholesale to sell wholesale. And within the last year, they’ve add succulents to their operation — the exact opposite of trees, size-wise, but grown the same in spirit — in hopes of giving the Timbuk a new, consistent revenue stream.
“Succulents are a year-round business, or at least it’s nine months,” Jim says. “It's not just the spring.”
How Timbuk got involved
The tree farm at Timbuk offered a source of income separate from the greenhouse division, which appealed to Jim.
“It’s an important part of what we do and a very good diverse piece of our company, because it’s a lot of sales in December. It comes at a good time [when] we want stable income,” Jim says. “ With the traditional bedding plant, you map out 90 percent of your sales for the year in the fall and [annuals] in the spring, and then you basically hibernate the rest of the year, do some poinsettias and do some mums [later in the year].”
“We want steady, monthly production. We want to basically grow the same amount, year-round.” – Jim Gibson
According to Jim, 45 percent of Timbuk’s business comes from the sale of finished bedding plants to garden centers and other retailers, with another 45 percent coming from young plant production. Another 10 percent comes from a mixture of their two garden centers — one of which is in Granville, the other a roughly 45-minute drive away in Delaware, Ohio — as well as the tree farm. The tree farm also provides the opportunity to make wreaths, evergreen combo pots and other holiday-themed items that are designed to boost sales in the dead of winter when plant sales are typically slow.
Jim, though, says sales of certain plants — most notably poinsettias — have dipped enough to be noticeable, and have left a gap in the business. That’s where succulents came into the picture. Timbuk rooted its first succulent cuttings last February, although Jim feels he was a few years late to trend, which almost kept him from pursuing it.
The first step for Timbuk was to partner with a Dutch grower Jim and LaVonda met on a European trip with experience with succulents to ease the learning curve. It has also has access to cuttings that have come in every other week since last February. They also partnered with Kurt Weiss Greenhouses, a Moriches, New York-based operation that has its own in-house marketing team that helped the two businesses develop a brand for the succulents. The name for the brand — Succulent Society — now has its own website (succulent-society.com), and the partnership has allowed for succulent upgrades — often the wooden box or burlap cover the plant is put into before being sold — to be done in a way that doesn’t make the program too expensive to pursue.
“What we were able to do is secure a good source of the inputs coming to us, and we were able to work with some other growers and work on the upgrades,” Jim says. “Because 40 percent or 50 percent of the succulents go into upgrades, we’ve got to do that efficiently and [consider pricing].”
The business of succulents
Timbuk’s plan for succulents is simple and direct. The idea is to not just sell succulents by the themselves or in a small pot, although those are available. They are going for something more distinct.
For example, consider their holiday collection for 2017. In 4-inch sleeves, there are three different designs — one with Christmas trees and snow, another with a present next to some Christmas tree branches, and another with red, green and blue Christmas Lights — that offer customers something seasonal, but doesn’t take up as much space as a poinsettia or other holiday crops. There is an also an 8-inch succulent bowl that is painted red and filled with succulents and evergreens, and an 8-inch decorative bowl with an opening in the middle where the customer could place a painted succulent or a poinsettia if they want to mix tradition with a new trend.
There’s also a succulent Christmas wish ornament. Not unlike the painted poinsettias that have become popular over the past few years, the ornament is sparkly and attention-grabbing. The succulent is placed inside the ornament — either red, gold or silver — and painted the same shade with some glitter added to the paint.
“It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s going fill a void, especially in the holidays,” Jim says. In their catalog, there are already sleeves and succulent bowl designs for the Fourth of July, Halloween and Valentine’s Day. There are also more generic sleeve options for someone who wants to buy a succulent, but isn’t interested in having it sit in a standard clay pot.
“There is a group of people that think [painted succulents] are weird and strange and they don’t understand it,” says Timbuk Sales Manager Christen Keith. “But there a lot of people, and people I didn’t expect, who are excited about it.” She cites a glow-in-the-dark, 4-inch succulent as a product that has won some painted succulent skeptics over because it engages a younger customer base.
Beyond the holidays, painted succulents are a key part of Timbuk’s succulent portfolio. Aside from the painting they do themselves, there is the Paint Your Plant echeveria marketing program for kids and families. Before it is shipped out, the plant is painted white, but it’s up to the end consumer to design it as they see fit with the yellow, green, red and blue paints that come with the plant. The idea is that a child could design the succulent to sit in their room, or as a gift for a teacher or parent. According to Keith, some of the garden centers they work with are hosting succulent-painting parties around the product.
The idea is for this model to continue throughout the year, catering to different holidays with different designs and colors depending on the time of the year. That means to-be-created designs for Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and every other notable holiday will be available between now and next December.
“We want steady, monthly production. We want to basically grow the same amount, year-round,” Jim says.
So far, what Timbuk is selling has been a hit, in part because the offerings are different, and because of how the products are shipped to stores. The succulents are sold as a program, so they come in smaller quantities than bedding plants and poinsettias might. Orders can be adjusted depending on what sells and what doesn’t, too. Efforts to make the succulents marketable before they are shipped out matters, too.
“I think [customers] like that we have a lot of retail-ready programs, so [the succulents] are already in a nice bowl,” Keith says. “They like the painted options because it’s something new. They have something new to offer than isn’t out there.”
She adds that Timbuk’s customers — mostly garden centers in the Midwest with others located on the East Coast — are glad to have an alternative to poinsettias for the holidays.
“I love poinsettias,” Keith adds. “But the interest right now is a little bit low, so it does give garden centers something else to offer as a holiday plant.”
How succulents will help in the future
Like most of the industry, Jim wants to reach the next generation of consumers that maybe aren’t interested in poinsettias or don’t want plants that require a lot of care. It’s a major reason why Timbuk has committed to succulents and gotten creative with their product line.
“I think the biggest thing on succulents is, the younger generation is afraid of plants because they die, and these don’t die. So, I think that’s a big part of it,” he says. “If we can add a painted succulent where they can buy something that’s cool that the kids can buy and do a paint by plant party and then give it to their mom, you know, and then she sets it on the counter and then four months later, it pretty much goes back to a green plant, it’s a home run.”
How the program will work over the course of the year remains to be seen. Jim says there are projects currently percolating — notably a line of painted succulents that will be colored for some NFL football teams, as well as the Ohio State Buckeyes — that will allow sales to remain consistent during points of the year when holiday-themed succulents won’t be in demand.
On this year’s Cultivate floriculturetours, Jim showcased his succulent brand before it had been fully launched. Looking to get feedback from his peers, he showcased a few different painted succulent options and explained how they were developed. Reaction was mixed at best, but Gibson had the same reasons to believe they should sell as he does now: it’s something different, and if done right, can engage new customers. It’s the same reason some poinsettia growers and breeders have wholly embraced painted options within the past few years.“I think there’s a place for it,” he says. “If we can find niches that people say, ‘Ooh, this is cooI,’ I think that’s going be a big item for us.”
There’s also the issue of figuring out exactly how many succulents to grow. When the busy spring season hits, it’ll be harder to find and manage space. And because succulents take around 20 weeks to grow, finding that balance will require some trial and error.
“With bedding plants, you can wait [to plan until] maybe two, three months in advance,” Jim says. “For this, you have to be five, six months out. So, it’s a different cycle that way, and it’s a longer crop, an average of a 20-week crop.”
Jim also is aware that trends don’t last forever, and that eventually, innovation will stall out after three or four years. To do that, he takes trips to Europe, visits other stores and takes input from other growers and businesses. Before the succulent program launched, around 30 of Timbuk’s customers visited Granville and gave their input. And at Cultivate’17, Timbuk was one of the three stops of the floriculture tour. There, Jim was as much showcasing what makes business special as he was using the two tour groups as a focus group for the succulent program.
While he looks toward Timbuk's future, to find his next Christmas tree and his next succulent, he’s focused on making this project a success.
“We’re really going to work hard on holidays and try to get steady, year-round income,” Gibson says. “And then when you get into spring and summer, we’ll see [how it goes]. But that’s our goal.”