Why We Make Substitutions

February 18, 2020
Category: Growing Tips

“Hey, this is North Carolina Farms. We have an order shipping out for you this week, but it looks like one of the items is not available. May I speak with you about our options?”

This time of year, when the days are shorter and the skies are cloudy enough that growing young plants is a challenge, we feel like we’re saying these words more often. We know this situation can be frustrating, and we try to avoid it at every turn, but plants are living things, not widgets on a shelf, so we sometimes have to make substitutions. This article will explain the systems we have in place to avoid unnecessary substitutions and the processes we use to make decisions when problems arise.

How We Plan for Your Custom Order

When you pre-order your plants, that information is fed into our production system. Four to six weeks before your order is set to ship, our production manager and crew get to work cutting and sticking your plants. The system automatically figures that there will be some loss as the plants root. Our standard shrinkage range is 5-10%, depending on the plant. So if all orders of Lantana New Gold in production for the week total 10,000, we stick 10,500 unrooted cuttings.

Starter Plants in the Greenhouse
Liners are produced en masse 4-6 weeks before the order ships with a 5-10% shrinkage rate built in.

By and large, these shrinkage rates work really well, but if an area of the greenhouse suffers some kind of setback (an acid injector goes haywire, a watering boom is taken off of mist too soon, or a nearby botritis problem spreads–you know the drill), that can have major implications and destroy our shrinkage rate percentages. If these problems present themselves early in the plant’s life cycle, we have time to react. We can replant, call and advise of a new ship date, etc., but if it happens late, we could be forced to delay the order by 4-6 weeks in order to replant.

Another factor that we have to deal with from time to time are plants that look great in the tray, but upon final inspection show no developed roots. This kind of problem almost always happens as we are doing a quality check as the plant ships and puts everyone in a difficult situation.

Liners Ready to Ship
Each liner goes through quality control before it leaves the greenhouse.

Subs are frustrating. We know. We’ve been there.

Let’s say you did everything right. You placed your order months in advance, and everything you wanted was listed on availability. You have orders in for the plants you’re expecting to receive. And then you get our call saying we need to make substitutions. It’s not always something you can prepare for. We hate to do it–and we’re always working to improve our systems–but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the plants.

Grower Checking Starters
Our growers are always working to improve quality control systems to further reduce the number of necessary substitutions or backorders.

Our team is trained to check for any possible insect damage, fungus, sub-par rooting, and plants that just don’t look ready to ship. If they find a plant with a problem, their first recourse is to go to the overages that were planted. If the shrinkage rate was sufficient, you’ll never even know there was a problem. If it was insufficient, though, we’re left with only three options: we can substitute the plant, we can look at future projections and find out when the next crop overages will be available (backorder), or we can cancel that item off the order completely.

Because we’re plant people, too, we’re constantly bringing in patented URCs, tissue culture starters for future crops, pots and soil, and a whole lot more. We know firsthand how one missing part can push the whole project out of whack, which is why we work so hard to avoid subs in the first place–but still prefer to send them rather than backordering an item.

Liner Quality Control
We prefer to send quality substitutions than to delay shipment by backordering items.

Our Substitution Process

When we notice that an item on order is not ready to ship, the first step we take is to figure out if we have any viable substitutions. We look for a variety close in color and habit to replace the item that is not available. We know how important it is to get plants in on time, especially during this time of year while you’re gearing up for your busy season, so that’s why we try to get a viable substitute for you. 

If the sub does not work for you, or if you need the specific variety that you ordered, we will calculate when we think this variety will be able to ship. If the estimated date works for your planting schedule, we will set up a backorder and send your items out when they are ready. Otherwise, we must cancel the item. 

Stock Pots in the Greenhouse
Stock plants are used to produce the unrooted cuttings that will become rooted liners.

Because substitutions come from plants that outperformed their shrinkage projections, there will not always be subs available in the color that you need. In most of those cases, we will automatically set up a backorder for the earliest possible date of shipment.

In the event that even a backorder is impossible (the mother stock has grossly underperformed projections or died completely, an unrooted supplier has too little availability, or a backorder date would be outside a healthy planting window for the customer), we must mark the item as “not available.”


Healthy relationships thrive on communication, so we do what we can to keep you in the loop. We understand this decision affects your business, so we will notify you as soon as we know that there is going to be an issue with your order. Our team is trained to bring a solution to the table before dialing your number so that we aren’t wasting your time.

If we are unable to reach you, we will leave a message and wait for a call back. If the order is rooted and is not time bound for shipment, we may hold it until we hear back from you. Otherwise, we will make efforts to ship your order in a timely manner for the health of your plants, making the best decision we can with the information we have.

What can I do if I don’t want subs?

First of all, we will never force you to take a sub. It’s your business and you know your market–what will sell and what won’t. If you are on the phone with someone from our office, they should know what subs, if any, are available and what a backorder scenario might look like. You’re the one in control–the decision of whether to sub, backorder, or cancel is ultimately up to you.

Boxes of Plants for Shipment
When it comes time to ship your plants, we want to do what is best for you–our customer.

Some customers have their accounts flagged to automatically allow subs of the same color, others require us to call before subs, and others don’t allow subs at all. If you’d like to make a specification in your account regarding subs, simply give us a call, send us an email, or make a note of it when you place your next order. For accounts that are unspecified, our practice is to always contact the customer first.


We work hard to avoid order disruptions, and as a result we’ve seen much lower substitution/backorder rates in recent years as we’ve improved our systems. However, we’re humans, and young plants are fragile. When we see a problem developing, we try to address it promptly. Invariably, though, things pop up at the last minute that are outside our control. When they do, we want to give you the best options available and help you make an informed decision on how to best grow your business.

All photos ©Rachel Donahue, North Carolina Farms, 2020