When you are beginning a small nursery you need to figure out two things: what you are good at growing and what sells well. If you are reading this then you probably have a high level of interest in gardening and probably already know what you are good at growing. My advice is to write down all the plants you enjoy growing on a list. Then take your list and prioritize it. Give each plant a point for factors such as ease of growth, expense to produce, space requirements, water requirements, sun/shade requirements, and fertilizer requirements. Was the plant an annual, perennial, tree, or a shrub? Those factors will effect your production time. You can have a sale-able plant if it's an annual or perennial within the first year but it may take longer to produce a shrub or a tree. Ultimately the prices you set on your products will be determined by a combination of these factors.
If you plan on selling at a farmer's market (which is one part of my business) go visit a few and see what the plant producers are bringing to market. Take note of anything that seems missing because this could be a niche for you to fill.
Look for niches within niches! A tree niche could be broken down into a specialization in fruit, conifer, natives, nuts, or wildlife supporting trees. An edible garden could focus on edible shrubs, vegetables, vines, fruit trees. Within each of those areas you could break the niche down even further.
Your niche should be a combination of what you are interested in and what sells. Take your prioritized list and go over it after you've made your observations. Pick out the plants that seem to sell the best and focus on them. That does not mean you have to ditch all the rest of your interests, it just gives you a focus.
Keep in mind that garden niches are seasonal. Once the weather gets warm people will not be thinking of plants. Spring is when the bulk of sales will happen and you have to prepare well for them in advance. People also tend to buy when the plant is in bloom. People are very visual and want to see how the plant will look in their garden before purchasing. You can help them by providing pictures of the plants you grow with or near your plants.
Other factors can effect your niche as well. Where are you going to sell your plants? How much space do you need? Do you need structures like a greenhouse or shade house? How much time do you need to produce a plant? What is the overall cost of the plant? How do you market your nursery? We'll cover those in the upcoming weeks of this series.
My recommendation as of 2013 for selecting a niche is to focus on edibles. Grocery store prices continue to rise and more people are looking to grow healthy food that they can pick fresh from the garden.
If you consider starting vegetable plants from seed, as I do, timing is essential. You have to plan several weeks before your sales actually begin to plant the seeds. I chose to focus on heirloom vegetable plants. I recognized that there are thousands of varieties of vegetables that could be sold but aren't in the local stores. I have never seen a 'Woodle Orange' tomato at a nursery before but you can get them from The Home Garden Box.
I was talking to a friend the other day who bought plants through me last year. One of those plants was a Japanese cucumber which she said was one of the best cucumbers she ever ate. When she brought a few cucumbers to work with her one day a few Japanese co-workers wanted to know where she found them because they haven't seen them anywhere. It was a unique cucumber that filled a niche. I want my customers to recognize that they will get interesting and unique vegetables from my nursery that they can't find locally anywhere else.
Finding a niche is about filling a hole that customers are looking for or need. Ideally your specialty will overlap with a gap in the market but it may not always be the case. Sometimes you will have to just like something so that eventually you can focus on the part you love!