When he started Markus Farms in Silverton, Ore., in 2007, Brent Markus was simply trying to build up his own supply of the trees he wanted in the landscapes he was designing in the Greater Chicago area—jobs he started taking on when he was still in high school.
He’d experienced the frustration of not being able to buy as many of the exact specimens he wanted for his designs, and he wanted to change that.
“I thought it would be a really good selling point for me to utilize a better, more readily available assortment of trees,” he said. “I essentially startedit so I could supply my own projects.”
Growing for gardeners of all kinds
Today, Markus runs what has become a go-to source for both the individual collector or gardener and garden centers, serving customers across the United States through two businesses—Rare Tree Nursery and Conifer Kingdom.
Rare Tree Nursery is the wholesale side of the business, selling to garden centers and landscapers. Conifer Kingdom is the mail-order retail business.
Both specialize in high-quality Japanese maples and dwarf conifers, a category Markus first became interested in as a teenager, when he re-made his parents’ Chicago-area yard and won the honor of Best Collector’s Garden from the Chicago Tribune.
Depth of information is key
The websites for both Rare Tree Nursery and Conifer Kingdom are distinguished by the rich amount of information they include on the more than 1,000 varieties these businesses sell.
Descriptions include good detail on growing information, and photos show how the foliage changes over the course of the seasons.
Gardeners can browse by color, leaf type, form, growth rate and many other features to select the perfect plants for their spaces.
“No paper catalog has as much information as our site does now,” Markus said, adding that Conifer Kingdom did just send out its first paper catalog to highlight new varieties. “Every year we are adding around 2,000 images to the site.”
Plants Map makes ordering accurate signs easy
Many of Conifer Kingdom’s plants also have beautifully photographed profile pages on Plants Map. Markus was impressed with the interactive plant signs Plants Map offers when he saw them in a friend’s garden.
“Over the years, a lot of our customers have wanted nicer plant tags, and it’s something we’ve never been able to offer. We thought, ‘Let’s just give Plants Map our entire database and let our customers, or botanical gardens or arboreta, order them,” he said.
A big motivation for doing this is to make sure information on the varieties Conifer Kingdom and Rare Tree Nursery sell is kept accurate.
“We’re meticulous about the plant nomenclature, spelling and history, and we’re the first source for a lot of these plants,” Markus said. “If we keep it straight and pass it along directly to Plants Map in a database, then it’s going to stay straight for our customers.”
The next generation of horticulture pros
Keeping all of that information straight, photographing plants and making sure customers have access to helpful, accurate information requires a good team, and a team member who is instrumental in this process can trace his interest in horticulture back to his teenage years, just like Markus.
Sam Pratt was a popular contributor to the GardenWeb conifer forum when Markus started reading his posts. From the beautiful images, meticulous detail and depth of knowledge the posts demonstrated, Markus had always assumed he had many years of garden experience under his belt.
But one day, when Pratt commented on a post bemoaning the lack of young people entering the nursery industry by saying he was 17 and hoped to work in the field for the rest of his life, Markus took note.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I’ve been following this kid’s posts for the past three years,’” he said. “I emailed him out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, do you want a job?’ Six months later, he started working for me.’”
Today, Pratt oversees customer support, photography and maintains the plant database.
Learning is easier than ever
The proliferation of ways to learn about plants and connect with plant experts has brought the process of garden research a long way from the days of flipping through catalogs and hoping that an order came in right.
“The rate at which a potential customer can learn and become well-versed in the product they are purchasing is so much faster,” Markus said. He’s shipped plants to all 50 states, and said most of the people who find him do so organically, through Web searches for the plants they are seeking.
Plants Map’s tags, with their QR codes that enable people to access rich online profiles with a simple scan of their smartphone, add another layer to that web of information.
Someone standing in a botanical garden in winter could pull up a profile of a Japanese maple, for example, “and they could see the gorgeous pink spring flush of the new leaves that then fade to green and the brilliant crimson fall color,” Markus said.
“Someone would go home and type all of the questions into Google… which they now have right at their fingertips.”
To learn more, visit Conifer Kingdom on Plants Map.