BIZ New Orleans, March 2019
By Pamela Marquis
Three years ago, in a completely haphazard fashion, Mark Sanders built a burgeoning business with only $100 and the engrossing desire for a bit of privacy.
His business, Ninth Ward Nursery, is a small-scale garden center specializing in tropical plants, especially non-invasive varieties of bamboo for use as a natural privacy screen.
“I had a two-story house behind mine that I didn't want to see,” he says. “I found a nursery about a two-hour drive from town that was selling small ‘clumping’ or non-invasive bamboo plants for $10 each. I bought 10, brought them home, and my wife immediately said there was no way I was planting that much bamboo in our backyard.”
He then had the idea to sell half of them on Craigslist and double the asking price. When he posted an online ad, just to test the waters, he immediately started receiving calls and quickly doubled his $100.
“I started thinking about how fun it would be to see how far I could make my investment go,” he says. “So I went back to the nursery and purchased $200 worth of plants, brought them back to New Orleans, and upsold those for $400.”
What began as a game to see how far he could "flip" that initial $100 investment turned into an idea to make some passive income in order to pay off his student loan debt. He started taking cuttings of plants, learned more about bamboo species, and set up a makeshift nursery in his backyard.
“Within a few months, I had dozens of bamboos potted up, and had a steady stream of Craigslisters coming to my house to purchase plants,” he says. That's about when my wife suggested I find a piece of property where I could expand my backyard operation.”
He found a .1-acre vacant lot online that was commercially zoned, for less than $5,000 in the Lower 9th Ward, and went about setting up two greenhouses. He paid for it and everything that came after from money he made selling bamboo. He’s never had to take out money for a business loan.
“It’s in a part of town that was decimated by Katrina,” he says. “The nursery sits in an area full of vacant and overgrown lots. In the evenings, I can sometimes hear the coyotes howling. There's an old man in the neighborhood who traps rabbits in the yard behind mine; he says he catches them for putting in his gumbo.”
Sanders’ works full-time as the editor for several travel magazines, but he now finds himself learning about inventory control and ruthlessly getting rid of plants if they don’t move.
“Every square foot is real estate and the plants need to earn their rent,” he says. “It’s all about learning how to anticipate the market.”
Sanders also purchased a 2-acre farm in New Orleans East where he is starting to grow a few different varieties of bamboo. He’ll likely harvest his first crop next spring.
He believes bamboo is a wonderful plant for many reasons, one of which being that it propagates well from root divisions and it constitutes about 90 percent of his business, though he’s expanding his inventory to include rare plants.
When asked about tips about growing bamboo in Louisiana he playfully suggests: “The No. 1 tip about bamboo is to buy it from me.”