Nip those worries in the bud

By Donna Lampkin Stephens

Gardeners all over the 501 have been dealing with brown, withered plants after December’s devastating cold snap, but fear not — all hope isn’t lost.

That’s the message of Brett Battle, owner of The Plant Outlet, based in Conway, which is celebrating its 25th year in business just months after weathering the biggest catastrophe in its history.

“Everybody in the state lost a ton of plant material,” said Battle, 62. “The temperature went from 50 (degrees) during the day to minus-22 wind chill at night. A lot of plants in Arkansas can’t tolerate that. The loss factor is tremendous.”

Gardenias, azaleas and hydrangeas, among others, may indeed be dead, but Battle urged gardeners not to give up on them before trying one thing:

“The first thing for homeowners is to evaluate their current plants,” he said. “The way to do that is to scratch the bark on the plant with a fingernail. If you see green underneath the bark, that plant is still alive at that point. Keep scratching down until you find green. If you don’t find any, they’re toast.”

If gardeners find green, they should prune hard to that point, fertilize with time-release granulated fertilizer and, when the rain lets up, water.

“Everybody wants to use liquid MiracleGro, but granulated lasts three, six or nine months, and MiracleGro liquid lasts seven days,” Battle said. “Once you prune and fertilize, it’s a waiting game. In most cases, they should respond and start to grow. The other thing we need is sunshine and warmth.”

He has been rehabilitating his own 15-year-old encore azaleas, which were 5 feet tall in December but lost every leaf.

“I pruned them hard to the green, fertilized heavy, and mine have 50 percent of their leaves back,” he said. “Another three, four, five months and they’ll be back. But they’re going to be ugly this year. People aren’t going to see any blooms this year, but for those who are patient, I think a lot of those azaleas will come back out.”

As new growth comes on any damaged plant, gardeners should continue to prune any dead wood.

“The reason we prune is because pruning stimulates new growth,” Battle said.

He said that most deciduous plants, which lose their leaves annually, aren’t hurt by the cold. He remembered a snow and ice event more than 20 years ago when the temperature didn’t get above freezing for several days, but that paled in comparison to the December ‘22 freeze.

“Snow and ice insulates the plants,” he said. “This time, we knew it was going to be cold, but we never thought for a second it would get to minus-22.”

He and his staff covered the nursery’s inventory with insulated cloths, but it didn’t stop a $250,000 loss of product. With no insurance on perishable products, it was a tough loss. Afterward, Battle and his staff christened a section of the nursery “the hospital,” pruning and fertilizing everything. Now they are in the process of throwing away anything that isn’t showing signs of life.

“Everything we’ve sold so far this spring is new product,” he said. “Some things are showing signs of life, and if it comes out and looks pretty, we’ll sell it. If it looks half-sided ugly, we’ll throw it away.”

So what advice does he have for gardeners who face replacing dead plants?

“A lot of people say they don’t want to go back in with a gardenia again, but I have to counsel them — this was a once-in-a-100-year thing,” Battle said. “I would suggest that you go with what you like. Don’t shy away just because you lost all this plant material. Go back with what you had in the first place. You planted it for a reason, and you like it.”

Battle moved to the United States from Perth, Australia, 35 years ago. After four years coaching basketball in Oregon, he moved to Arkansas as an assistant coach at UA-Monticello. He moved to Conway in 1998 to start The Plant Outlet. After a year in business, he purchased an acre on Hogan Lane, long before it was a major thoroughfare. The business eventually expanded to the current approximate eight acres.

In 2010, he bought 53 acres on the west end of Dave Ward Drive “to build and grow products of our own.”

“This was mainly so we could control inventory and quality,” he said.

He credits his wife, Michelle, as the backbone of the business, praising “her unbelievable hard work and the hours she puts in, her creativity to make the greenhouse so much of a destination that people want to come and see it, and her ability to be an amazing soundboard for many of my stupid ideas. People think she just runs our greenhouse, but she runs our growing facility and grows some amazing plants. How she gets it all done, I don’t know. But believe me when I say this business is so very much better because of her.

“Wow — what a ride.”

Battle said another key to business success is a good relationship with a smart banker. He has that with Johnny Adams, now president and CEO of First Security Bank in Conway. 

“Twenty-five years ago, I walked into a banker’s office and asked for a big loan with no idea what I was doing,” Battle said. “Rather than laugh at my ignorance, Johnny Adams worked with me, and eventually we got a loan done that started The Plant Outlet.” 

He credits Adams for helping the business navigate minefields such as the financial crisis and housing market crash of 2008. “Johnny was there to guide us, help us, and I can tell you he 100 percent saved us,” he said. “Today, as financing is not as critical for us, Johnny is still there as my banker, my mentor and my friend.”

Donna Stephens