Starting a Commercial Nursery in Ontario

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Identify Your Market
  3. Production Systems
  4. Production Schedule
  5. Site Requirements
  6. Production Methods
  7. Equipment
  8. Cost of Production
  9. Final Thoughts
  10. Issues
  11. Resources
  12. Contacts
  13. Education

For suggested plant production recommendations and pest control information, refer to OMAFRA Publication 841, Guide to Nursery and Landscape Plant Production and IPM and Publication 840, Crop Protection Guide for Nursery and Landscape Plants.


Nursery production is often seen as an easy way to earn money. Simply by planting seedlings and returning to them in two, five or seven years, a crop can be produced with little effort. However, unlike some agricultural crops which are harvested after one season, nursery stock requires regular cultural and financial input over several seasons to produce a quality product. Success in the nursery industry requires a well-defined market, a good location, a well-planned production system and experience.

Identify Your Market

Before planting any nursery stock, you must identify your market and production goals. Who is going to buy your product? What size do they want? What type of plants? You cannot produce a product and then wait for the consumer. It is very important to take the time in developing your business plan. The business plan summarizes your business objectives and how you will attain them. Information on how to prepare your business plan is available in the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) Factsheet Preparing a Business Plan, Order No. 08-051. Your potential customers may be wholesale growers interested in "growing-on", landscapers, garden centres, and home owners wanting a finished product for the landscape. Survey your market, find out their needs and plan your production accordingly. Ask yourself what plants you can grow better than your competitor.

Because of the relatively long-term production cycle of nursery crops, response to changes in consumer demands is slow, making the prediction of plant material trends difficult. The demand of nursery products is closely associated with the construction of residential and commercial properties. Consumers are looking for quality, reasonable prices, selection, colour, instant landscape results, low maintenance and container gardening. After targeting your market, choose a production system that best meets your market's needs.

Production Systems

Nursery crops are either field grown or produced in containers. Many nurseries use a combination of both systems. Typically, an operation produces about five different crops: shade and flowering trees, conifers, broadleaf evergreens, deciduous shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Some nurseries produce certain specialty items.

Nurseries produce either finished plants, or growing-on stock. Finished plants are ready for planting in the landscape or retailing through garden centres. Stock for growing-on is sold to other nurseries for finishing. Examples of growing-on stock include lining-out stock (rooted cuttings, seedlings, grafts), liners (stock grown in beds for one to two years), or whips (unbranched trees grown from budded or grafted understock).

Table 1. Description of the different types of nursery products and their characteristics.
 Product Characteristics Marketing Period Method of Growing Plant Group
Bare Root Soil removed from root system Only when plant is dormant Field of beds Deciduous trees and herbaceous perennials
Ball & Burlap or wire basket Soil remains around a much reduced root system. Ball of soil wrapped with burlap or other material. When plant is dormant, limited movement during growing season. Field or beds Evergreens and deciduous trees
Container Entire root system confined to container during growing Any time plant is attractive and large enough Container, field or beds: continuously in containers or transplanted from field or beds All types of plants

(1976. Furuta, T. Environmental Plant Production & Marketing. Cox Publishing Co., California)

Production Schedule

The production schedule outlines the movement of the crop through the nursery. It consists of propagation, lining-out, growing-on, harvesting and storage. This cycle can be tailored to suit your needs. For example, you could purchase liners from a grower of lining out stock and grow them on to market size. Propagation, a specialized aspect of the production cycle, requires a great deal of patience and skill. Research and outline the crop production on paper, from propagation to potting or planting, fertilization, pest control and through to the point of sale.

The length of the production cycle varies depending on the crop and schedule. A rapid growing evergreen (e.g. 45-60 cm Juniperus chinensis "Old Gold") requires about 5 to 6 years:

Field Container
Propagation: 1 year Propagation: 1 year
Field liner: 2 years Container: 2-3 years
Field grown: 2-3 years sold

Flowering shrubs (e.g. Forsythia) reach saleable size (1.0 to 1.2 m) in about 3 or 4 years from a cutting:

Field Container
Propagation: 1 year Propagation: 1 year
Field liner: 1 year Container: 1-2 years
Field grown: 1-2 years sold

Caliper trees (shade and flowering trees) require about 8 years to harvest as a 50mm caliper tree:

Field Container
Seedling understock: 1 year Seedling understock: 1 year
Understock budded: 1 year Understock budded: 1 year
Budded whip: 1-2 years Budded whip: 1-2 years
Field grown: 5 years Field grown: 2-3 years then 1 year in container

Site Requirements

Environmental and economic factors need to be considered when selecting a site for nursery production. You should be aware of your plant hardiness zone to know what can and cannot be grown successfully in your area. You should also be aware of the hardiness zone of your market.

Take time to plan the layout of your nursery. Plan for future expansion and crop rotation. Allow yourself about a year to plan and prepare the site before you begin to plant. Problems, seemingly minor at planting, can have a long term impact on future growth.


Your nursery should be accessible to your customers and employees. Contact local municipalities regarding any possible restrictions to expansion and transportation access, especially if you are planning on having a retail outlet.


An adequate supply of good quality water is essential for a nursery. Water quality can be assessed by an agricultural testing laboratory, accredited through OMAFRA . Public health laboratories check bacteria only. The water should be analyzed for pH, soluble salts, bicarbonates, boron, copper, sulphur, chlorine, iron, sodium, zinc, calcium and magnesium. For further information on water quality. For a list of accredit facilities see "Contacts" or contact the OMAFRA Nursery Crops Specialist.

As a general rule of thumb, horticultural crops may require up to an inch (2.5 cm) of water per week, depending on the environmental conditions. Container crops require more frequent watering. If you require more than 50,000 litres of water per day, you must have a Permit to Take Water from the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE). Contact your district MOE office on how to obtain a permit. If you intend to change a watercourse or erect a dam, you must contact the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).


Slopes of 1 to 2 % are easy to manage and provide good surface water and air drainage. Slopes greater than 5% will be susceptible to erosion. Avoid potential frost pockets. Flat, open areas should be protected with windbreaks to reduce wind erosion and improve winter snow cover.


Soil maps of your area are available through OMAFRA. These maps provide some insight into the soil characteristics and topography of your area. Review the farming history of the site. This can indicate possible soil deficiencies, soil structure and possible herbicides used.

Adequate soil drainage is crucial to both field and container production. Ideally, fields should be accessible in early spring and late fall. Tile draining extends the season and improves productivity. Avoid areas that are subject to flooding.

To check the drainage of an area, you can dig a hole, 30 cm wide by 30 cm deep. Fill the hole with water, allowing the water to drain away. This will saturate the soil. Once the water has drained away, fill the hole again with water. If water remains in the hole after 24 hours, the site may require additional surface grading or subsurface drainage. Several OMAFRA factsheets are available on drainage. These can be found in the Factsheet list under "Resources" at the end of this article.

Soil tests are important to evaluate the soil's pH and level of fertility. Soil tests accredited by OMAFRA are the most accurate tool available to you to determine the amounts of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium fertilizers and lime which should be applied for crop production. Used with plant analysis and nutrient deficiency symptoms, fertilizer requirements for a specific crop on a specific field can be determined. Refer to OMAFRA Publication 841, Guide to Nursery and Landscape Plant Production and IPM, for sampling methods for soil and container media. Soil sample boxes, information sheets, a list of accredited laboratories and information on the cost of various tests may be obtained from the OMAFRA Nursery Crops Specialist.

Production Methods

Nursery stock is produced either in the field or in containers. The final product, however, may be produced through a combination of both methods. Advantages and disadvantages of field and container production are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2. Advantages and Disadvantages of Field and Container Production
 Field Production
Container Production
  • Low initial start-up costs
  • Good for long term production
  • Adaptability of equipment
  • Less demanding on grower
  • Little land preparation needed
  •  Intensive use of land
  • Does not require productive land
  • Reduction in production time
  • Extends marketing season
  • Mechanization
  •  Shorter marketing and harvesting period
  • Specialized digging equipment
  • Less control over environmental factors
  • Well drained, productive land needed
  • Storage facilities needed
  •  High initial startup costs
  • Dependent on good water supply and distribution system
  • More challenging and demanding of grower
  • Winter protection
  • Well drained site
  • Requires much site preparation

Field Production

Plants commonly grown in the field consist of bare root seedlings, liners, shrubs, conifers and caliper trees (shade and flowering trees) dug either as field-potted, ball and burlap (B&B) or wire basket (WB). While initial capital investment may be lower than container production, the annual investment in supplies and land during the production cycle does not necessarily mean that field production is cheaper than container growing. Field production has a higher demand for labour in the spring and fall since planting and harvesting must be done in a relatively short time.

When choosing the crops to be grown, you should consider the soil texture. Bare root seedlings and liners dig easily from sandy loam while B&B or wire basket trees dig better in a heavier soil. Most field stock tolerates a wide pH range, 5.0-7.2. Some plants however do require more acidic soils for good growth. For example, to avoid yellowing leaves of pin oak, do not grow them in soils with pH above 6.8.

Before planting, fields should be prepared about one year in advance. Check the fertility of the soil through a soil test. For more information on soil fertility, consult the OMAFRA Publication, The Soil Fertility Handbook. Perennial weeds should be eliminated and any organic matter added at this time. For more information on weed control, refer to OMAFRA Publication 841, Guide to Nursery and Landscape Plant Production and IPM.

Spacing of plants in the field depends on species, length of field time required to finish the plant, and the equipment you are using. Do not crowd plants together. Adequate spacing is essential for plant quality.

As a rule of thumb, B&B and WB caliper trees should have 90 cm (3 feet) between each plant with the row for each 25mm (1 inch) of caliper at harvest. For example, 50 mm (2 inch) caliper trees would be planted at 1.8m (6 feet) apart within the row. Distance between the rows depends on equipment. It may vary from 2 to 3.6 m (8 to 12 feet). Plant bareroot liners about 45 cm (18 inches) apart in rows.

Container Production

In container production, plants are either grown continually in a pot or they may be started in the field and transplanted to a container. High density plastic containers, usually green or black, are commonly used in container growing. Costs will vary according to size of pot, manufacturer and quantity purchased. Both #1 pots (3 L or 1 gallon) and #2 pots (6 L or 2 gallon) are common in the industry. Fibre pots are poor for long term container production as they decompose quickly.

Placing a field soil in the small, shallow, restricted volume of a container results in very poor drainage and reduced oxygen for the roots. Media for containers is prepared by combining organic and inorganic amendments to provide a good, well-draining root environment. Common media ingredients are equal parts of peat, sand and soils or combinations of composted pine bark, peat and sand. The ingredients should be readily available, relatively inexpensive, easily handled in the nursery, free of pests and disease, economically blended, uniform and able to store for a short period of time with no significant changes in composition. Depending on the number of containers to be potted, a commercially prepared mix may be considered as an option rather than mixing your own.

Composts are increasingly being used in container mixes as alternative ingredients or substitute for peat moss. Typically, amounts vary between 15 and 30% by volume in container mixes. Composts are produced under varying conditions (seasons of the year, source and mix of feedstock materials, turning frequencies, degree of maturity, and other compost production variables) and thus may vary widely in chemical composition and quality. It is important to to have a good and reliable supply, and to know that your plants respond well to these mixes in your container system. Therefore, it is recommended that you grow a only a small portion of your crops at first use. Increase use in later years if results are satisfactory.

Using a well-drained medium in a container requires more frequent irrigation than in the field. A good, dependable source of water that will carry you through a long, hot, dry period is crucial to a successful container growing operation.

Because of the large amounts of water being applied, the site must be well drained. Tile drainage, slightly crowning the beds (1-2% slope), and covering with gravel will help to improve drainage. Plants cannot remain in standing water. Overhead sprinklers on risers are usually the most common types of irrigation.

In order to provide optimum growing conditions, a regular fertilizer program must also be considered. Container media have little or no soil and their fertility is quite low. Consequently, fertilizers must be added either as water soluble or controlled release fertilizer.

The impact of fertilizers on the environment and ground water is an important concern for agriculture. Liquid feeding with a totally water soluble fertilizer has been a widely accepted practice in the past. However, in light of recent environmental concerns, growers have been evaluating their fertilizer program in order to achieve maximum efficiency and minimum impact on the environment by reducing fertilizer leaching and collecting irrigation water runoff.

There are several controlled release fertilizers available for container nursery stock production. These materials may be incorporated when making the potting mix or top-dressed later on. Use at the manufacturer's suggested rates. When preparing the mix, avoid excessive incorporation, which may break down the particles and result in fertilizer toxicity. Potting mixes with pre-incorporated, controlled release fertilizers should not be stored for an extended period of time.

Weed control continues to be the biggest challenge facing container growers. While there are a few herbicides registered for container production, good cultural weed control is the start of a weedless site. Placing a groundcover cloth on the ground before adding gravel to the container yard can help in maintaining weed control. Consult OMAFRA Publication 75, Guide to Weed Control or OMAFRA Publication 841, Guide to Nursery and Landscape Plant Production and IPM.

The roots of nursery stock do not tolerate extremely cold temperatures as well as the tops. Consequently, container stock needs to be protected during the winter months. Overwintering houses, usually oriented in a north-south direction to reduce exposure to the sun, consist of metal hoops (a Quonset house) covered with a white plastic. Spacing between houses depends on summer spacing of pots, width of driveways required and average snowloads.


Most equipment and machinery from existing farm operations can be easily adapted to field and container growing operations. Depending on specific production needs, some additional equipment may be required such as bed diggers, U-blades (for digging and root pruning), tree spades, transplanters and potting machines.

Cost of Production

It is difficult to calculate a general dollar per hectare return since costs, returns and length of the production cycle change relative to the type of crop grow.

Final Thoughts

Experience is the final ingredient for a successful operation. Share your experiences with other nursery growers and learn from their experiences. You must be willing to commit yourself for several years to ensure a quality crop. Remember that success in nursery production starts with a well planned production schedule and market analysis.


Provincial Issues

Grower Pesticide Safety Course

In order to purchase and apply schedule 1,2 or 5 pesticides on your nursery operation, you must have successfully completed the Grower Pesticide Safety Course and been granted a Grower Pesticide Safety Certificate. It is a one-day course. . For more information, call the Agriculture Information Contact Centre contact centre at 1-877-424-1300. Courses are usually offered from November - March.

Ontario Farm Registration

Ontario farmers who have a gross farm income of $7,000 or more per year are required to register their business with OMAFRA. The farm business registration number is one of the eligibility criteria for the farmland property class tax rate and the Ontario Whole Farm Relief Program. If the property is rented, the tenant who is farming the land, rather than the landlord, must have a farm registration number to qualify for the farmland property class. For more information or to obtain a registration form, farmers should call 1-800-469-2285 or write to the Farm Registration/Farmland Tax Unit, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, 2nd Floor, 1 Stone Road West, Guelph, ON, N1G 4Y2. Information can also be found at Applications must include a $150.00 cheque payable to one of the accredited general farm organizations; either the Ontario Federation of Agriculture or the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario.

Permit to Take Water (Ontario Water Resources Act)

This permit is required for the taking of more than 50,000 litres (10,000 imperial gallons) of water per day from surface and/or ground water sources, excluding domestic, livestock and fire protection uses. For more details, contact your district Ministry of Environment (MOE) field office.

Pesticides Act

This schedules the use and storage of pesticides in Ontario. It also regulates the use of pesticides for commercial applicators.

Approval for the Construction of Dams and Ponds (Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act)

Administered through the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, this approval is required for any construction work in or connected to a lake or river, if it will hold back/forward/divert water.

Weed Act

This act regulates the control of weeds in agricultural land and of noxious weeds in Ontario in order to minimize the impact of weeds on horticultural and agricultural production. Ontario Noxious Weeds.

National Issues

Importing and Exporting Live Plants

The movement of plants across international and provincial borders is the responsibility of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The import of plants requires an import permit and international broker. Upon arrival, plants will need to be inspected by a CFIA inspector. The export of plants requires a Phytosanitary Certificate issued by CFIA. Other requirements and restrictions may apply depending on the importing country.

CFIA Plant Health and Production Offices:

  • Ottawa: (613) 274-7374
  • Hamilton: (905) 572-4152
  • London: (519) 645-5816/ 675-3461
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake: (905) 262-5331
  • Toronto: (905) 676-2545/905-676-2547
  • Windsor: (519) 969-2522
  • Belleville: (613) 969-3333

Permit applications (by fax only) (613) 228-6605

Industry Issues

Canadian Standards for Nursery Stock

Nursery stock must meet size and quality standards. These standards are agreed to by the industry and developed with industry input. A copy of these standards is available through the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association (CNLA), (905) 875-1399.


ONnurserycrops Blog


OMAFRA Publications

OMAFRA Publication 841, Guide to Nursery and Landscape Plant Production and IPM and Publication 840, Crop Protection Guide for Nursery and Landscape Plants are your Ontario sources for detailed pest control recommendations for insect, disease, animal and weed problems found with woody ornamentals. There are detailed sections covering soil/media fertility and pesticide safety.

To order OMAFRA publications and factsheets, contact ServiceOntario:

  • by phone:1-800-668-9938
  • by fax: 613-545-4223
  • by mail: 1355 John Counter Blvd, Kingston, ON K7L 5A3
  • Online at the Service Ontario home page
Publications include:

OMAFRA Factsheets

OMAFRA Infosheets


  • 1986. Container Nursery Design. Appleton, B.L. American Nurseryman Publications Co., Chicago, IL.
  • 1987. Media and Mixes for Container-Grown Plants. Bunt, A.C. Unwin Hyman, London
  • 2000. Nursery Management - Administration and Culture. 3rd edition. Davidson, H., Mecklenburg, R. and Peterson, C. Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey.
  • 1998. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. 5th edition. Dirr, M.A. Stipes Publishing Co., Champaigne, Illinois.
  • 1986. Pruning Simplified. Hill, L. Storey Communications Inc. Pownal, Vermont
  • 1989. Christmas Trees. Hill, L. Storey Communications Inc., Pownal, Vermont.
  • 1975. Nursery Stock Manual. Lamb, J.G.D., Kelly, J.C. and Boxbrick. Grower Books, London.
  • 1997. Best Management Practices for Producing Container-Grown Plants. Southern Nurseryman's Association. Marietta, Georgia.
  • 1981. The Modern Nurseryman. Stanley, J. and Toogood, A. Faber & Faber, London.
  • 1990. Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices. 5th edition. Hartmann, H.T. and Kester, D.E. Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
  • 1986. Practical Woody Plant Propagation For Nursery Growers. Macdonald, B. Timer Press, Portland, Oregon.
  • 1987. The Reference Manual for Woody Plant Propagation. Dirr, MA and Heuser, C.W. Jr. Varsity Press, Athens, Georgia.
  • 1999. Nursery and Landscape Plant Production. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Queen's Printer, Toronto.
  • 1978. Diseases and Pests of Ornamental Plants. 5th edition. Pirone, P.P. J. Wiley & Sons, New York.
  • 1988. Insects That Feed on Trees and Shrubs. 2nd edition. Johnson, W.T. and Lyon, H.H. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, New York.
  • 1987. Diseases of Trees and Shrubs. Sinclair, W.A., Johnson, W.T. and Lyon, H.H. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, New York.
  • 1986. Nursery and Landscape Weed Control. Rice, R.P. Thompson publications.

Trade Periodicals

  • American Nurseryman. 77 W. Washington St., Suite 2100, Chicago, Illinois. 60602-2904. Phone: (312) 782-5505.
  • Horticulture Review. 7856 Fifth Line South. R.R. #4 Stn. Main, Milton, Ontario L9T 2X8. Phone (800) 265-5656 Fax: (905) 875-3942
  • Landscape Trades. 7856 Fifth Line South. RR #4 Stn. Main, Milton, Ontario L9T 2X8. Phone (800) 265-5656 Fax: (905) 875-3942
  • NMPro (Nursery Management and Production). P.O. Box 1868 Fort Worth, Texas 76101.
  • The GTI Lawn & Garden Letter Editor: Rob Witherspoon. Guelph Turf Grass Institute. Tel: 519-824-4120 ext. 6886 Fax: 519-766-1704.

Scientific Journals



Many colleges and universities offer horticulture, business, marketing and computer courses over the winter months. The OMAFRA Nursery Crops Specialist also offers nursery workshops, (519) 824-4120 ext. 2671.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300