The trend is striking independent plant nurseries like caterpillars on cabbage: A combination of lingering recession, pressure from big box stores and back-to-back wet springs has swept countless small nurseries into a sea of debt the last four years.

Late last week, news of another victim circulated in Sacaramento's tightly knit gardening circles: Carmichael's Windmill Nursery is closing.

"The economy is killing everybody," Windmill owner Paul Niemann said. "We tried to fight it as long as we could. We had to eliminate some (product) lines (primarily in the gift shop) so we could keep plants in stock."

Nursery industry officials blame the poor economy and bad weather.

As home construction came to a standstill, so did creation of new landscapes, the backbone of the nursery business.

"In our area, I personally believe the real estate market and the plight of the state workers have conspired against garden centers, just like they have for other retail segments," said John Adams, owner of Roseville's Sierra Nursery.

"I believe the same number of customers still came through the doors, but I saw a shift in projects from large trees and shrubs to more color (annuals and perennials) as part of the pattern. Smaller projects equals smaller purchases."

Complicating matters were back-to-back cold, wet spring seasons. Instead of tempting gardeners to get to work, the bad weather kept them inside – and away from nurseries.

"In the nursery business, March through June is our Christmas Season," Niemann said. "If you don't make enough out of those spring months, it's hard to make it through the year. And we had two very rainy springs in a row.

Fred Hoffman longtime host of garden radio shows on KSTE and KFBK, said he has seen many nurseries on the brink.

"Everybody is hanging on by their fingernails," Hoffman said. "(Nursery owners) are using their credit cards to pay bills. Talk to any nurseryman and you'll detect nervousness in their voices. I don't know how they've stayed in business this long."

Windmill Nursery built its reputation on customer servicve and a close relationship with local gardeners.

"Everywhere I look in my garden is something from Windmill Nursery," said Nancy Stimson, a regular customer. "This was a place where neighbors would bump into each other or gather, a place at the heart of the Carmichael community."

Nationally, vegetable sales have increased in the past three years, but that hasn't been enough to bolster sluggish business overall.

"Business is very slow; it's just deadly," said Janet Simkins, Sierra's nursery manager. "We're still alive, but it's scary. It's very, very difficult to pay bills and buy new stuff. People are still economizing. They may be interested in growing veggies, but they're not redoing the whole yard."

Located on Windmill Way, a small side street off Winding Way, Windmill Nursery had the added hurdle of poor location; a Home Depot is one traffic signal away.

Competition from big box stores, which now account for almost half of all nursery sales, has hurt many family-owned nurseries.

Hundreds of mom-and-pop operations have folded during the past four years, according to industry sources; by some estimates, about 15 percent have gone out of business since 2007.

But times are tough for all nurseries. According to the National Gardening Association, overall sales of do-it-yourself lawn and garden activities declined by 5 percent in 2010 to $28.4 billion, down from $30.1 billion in 2009.

Farmers feel it, too. In California, nursery stock represents a $2.8 billion crop, behind only milk and grapes, according to the USDA.

Still, the demise of Windmill is a shock to local gardeners.

"They've done everything right," Hoffman said. "They concentrated on a niche market – drought-tolerant, native plants. People loved the place. They had an excellent email newsletter and a good website. They did classes almost every weekend, and yet they still couldn't make it."

The nursery will remain open until the last of its stock is sold, probably another four weeks, Niemann estimates.

"It's been an extraordinarily busy weekend, but also a very emotional weekend," Niemann said Monday. "A lot of customers are visibly upset; there's been a lot of crying around here.

"We're an establishment; we've been part of this community for 15 years. People couldn't imagine that we'd just go away."

Related Stories: Rural Lifestyle Dealer examined the nursery market back in April of 2010.