nursery, in horticulture, an establishment or area for the propagation, breeding, and early cultivation of plants. In North America the term nursery originally specified a place where hardy woody plants, especially fruit trees, were started; but as the market for and interest in new varieties of garden plants increased, nurseries broadened their province to include the cultivation and development of all types of plants, including tropical varieties and annuals, and their sale either as seedlings ready for planting or as seeds. Until the advent of artificial irrigation and the use of vast greenhouses to control temperature, nurseries depended on natural conditions for success—as did the bulb nurseries of Holland, which were long famous for flowers and ornamental plants.
The modern nursery, staffed by horticulture experts and equipped with facilities for both experimental and mass production, supplies home gardeners, flower and fruit growers, farmers, and foresters with seeds and seedlings of specified qualities. Under nursery conditions varieties of plants have been bred that have greater yields and are hardier, longer blooming, and more disease resistant than those grown in the ordinary farm or garden, where controlled selection and hybridization is usually impractical (see plant breeding). Grafting and budding are also commonly used by nurseries to produce superior plants, and some plants are now propagated from cells grown in a sterile medium.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.