COVER

Flower Power

Keen to shrug off long winters, Canadians keep the gardening business blooming

D’ARCY JENISH April 30 2001
COVER

Flower Power

Keen to shrug off long winters, Canadians keep the gardening business blooming

D’ARCY JENISH April 30 2001

Flower Power

COVER

D’ARCY JENISH

Cole Cacciavillani is inspecting flowers, acres and acres of them, all growing under glass at his family-owned CF Greenhouses in the southwestern Ontario town of Leamington. There are dozens of varieties—the ever-popular impatiens, petunias, geraniums and begonias among them— being cultivated in trays, pots and containers, not to mention hanging baskets suspended in long rows two deep from the ceilings. Everywhere he turns, the 45-year-old Cacciavillani sees blossoms sprinkled here and there amid blankets of lush, green foliage. On this early April day, several weeks before the flowers will be shipped to garden centres, supermarkets and home improvement centres across the province, Cacciavillani is looking for what he calls uniformity. “We want our flowers to look like soldiers,” he says. “When someone buys them, they should all be the same height and should all have blossoms.”

Big growers like Cacciavillani, based mainly in southern Ontario and British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, like to boast that they ggj| can churn out flowers like an automaker produces cars. HMKIÉF' Many have taken over small family businesses started by their Dutch or Italian immigrant parents, but they have built greenhouses that make a typical big-box department store look petite. And their ■CjL low-maintenance, high-performance annuals, -*5wi" bred to bloom from early spring till the first fall

frost, have become the backbone of the country’s ^Er^ $4-billion-a-year gardening industry. Aided by assembly-line production techniques, and computVI; ers that control watering, heating and fertilizing, they will deliver millions of plants to retail oudets in rm ™ time for the Victoria Day holiday weekend, the unofficial start of the gardening season in most parts of the country. “We work around the clock in the 10 days before May 24,” says Cacciavillani. “After that, you can turn out the lights.”

Well, not quite. Greenhouse operators now produce yearround and generate revenues of close to $150 million annually from the sale of potted flowers, such as Christmas poinsettias, Easter lilies, mums for Mother’s Day. And almost daily, 16-m

Keen to shrug off long winters, Canadians keep the gardening business blooming

transport trucks leave greenhouses in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula loaded with potted mini-roses, mums, calla lilies and other varieties destined for hundreds of American department stores. Last year, those exports totalled just over $300 million, and gave Canada a trade surplus with the United States of $234 million in floral and nursery products—the fourth straight positive balance. “Niagara’s potted-plant industry is now the largest in North America,” boasts John Albers of Vineland, one of the peninsula’s biggest producers. “We like to say that our market is east of the Mississippi and north of the Gulf of Mexico.”

But Canadians snap up most of the plants—particularly the spring bedding sort—to beautify their backyards, decks and apartment balconies. Gardening has become one of the most popular leisure activities in the country, a trend widely attributed to a prolonged period of rising affluence and shifting public attitudes.

“My theory is that the Depression and World War II killed gardening for pleasure for a whole generation of Canadians,” says Tom Thomson, horticulturist with Humber Nurseries of Brampton, Ont. “People ripped up flower gardens and planted vegetables. It was a patriotic duty. It has come back with a generation that knows nothing about wars or depressions.” That would be the baby boomers, who, Albers notes, “like to plant flowers, and give them as gifts because they are cheap and beautiful.”

Others say rooting around in the garden on a warm spring day is the ideal way to shrug off Canada’s long, cold winters. West Coast residents are blessed with a climate in which daffodils sometimes bloom in February, and annuals can go in the ground by early March. But on the Prairies and in Newfoundland,

petunia, which this spring comes in three new shades—pink, lilac and purple, with lavender due out next year. “Flowers tend to come in and out of fashion,” says John Barrett, sales and marketing director with P.E.I.-based Veseys Seeds Ltd. “A few years ago, sunflowers began showing up in home decor items, which drove sales. Now we carry 25 varieties. Wild, eh?”

For many Canadians, a full-blown passion for gardening often begins by planting a few annuals. At 51, Joanne Klumper is just discovering the pleasure of a garden, something she did not have

A sophisticated industry has grown up to satisfy an insatiable demand for no-fuss, no-muss bedding plants

killer frosts can occur as late as mid-June. Gardeners in those parts of the country respond by packing as much as they can into a short season. “Prairie gardeners are nuts,” says Susan Rebbeck, retail greenhouse manager with a nursery in Headingley, Man., on the outskirts of Winnipeg. “They plant, plant, plant even before the last frost dates. You can drive up and down the streets at night and everybody’s got their gardens covered with sheets. It’s amazing.”

No matter where they live, gardeners want colour, and lots of it. Canadian growers acquire most new spring annuals from American, European or Japanese seed developers, who exhibit flowers grown from their seeds at shows in California every April. This spring, growers are touting dragon-wing begonia, which can take more sun than most begonias and produces clusters of hanging red blossoms. Last year, one of the big sellers was the tidal wave petunia, which produces a mass of cherry or hot pink blossoms. Before the tidal wave, there was the hugely successful wave

time for when she was a single mother raising three children. Now she lives on a half-acre property west of Winnipeg with her second husband, and in early spring satisfies her gardening itch by filling her windows with trays of geraniums, marigolds, pansies and lobelias. “I have flowers everywhere in the house,” she says. “We have such long winters that you’re craving colour by spring.” Judi Marshall has gone from dabbler to enthusiast for reasons she doesn’t fully understand. “I don’t know what bit me,” says the 55-year-old resident of Saint John, N.B., who has lived with her husband in the same small bungalow for 34 years but never ventured beyond annuals until last spring. “I bought 10 shrubs and a whole bunch of perennials. Now my friends don’t want to talk to me because all I think about is gardening.” Gardeners who possess the proverbial green thumb, of course, are often even more adventurous. “A lot of people use ornamental grasses, which you didn’t see a few years ago,” says B.C. author and broadcaster Des Kennedy, who has written two books on gardening. “And I was in one of the big retail outlets recently and they had rows of a shrub called evergreen huckleberry, which is native to this part

of the world.” In fact, the variety of available plants is staggering. Thomson says the nursery he works for carries, among other things, 3,000 perennials, 600 aquatic plants and 100 landscape ferns. “Ifwe were to produce a catalogue that listed and described every item,” he says, “it would be the size of two Toronto phone books.”

For all that selection, most Canadian gardeners still prefer nomuss, no-fuss petunias, geraniums and a few other favourites, and a sophisticated industry has emerged to satisfy the demand. Some growers have expanded dramatically over the past decade, largely because of the introduction of new technology. Cacciavillani says his parents, Floyd, 71, and Bruna, 60, who emigrated from Italy after the Second World War, built their first greenhouse, a 10-m by 61-m structure, in 1956 and expanded slowly over the next three decades. By the mid-1980s, they had 1.2 hectares under glass. Since then, they have grown to four hectares and doubled their output per hectare, improvements made possible by a Dutch-developed computer system that controls the distribution of water, fertilizer, heat and light. “We use to have one guy in charge of watering,” says Cacciavillani. “Now we can do it in 15 minutes before we go home at night.”

The computer ensures that many varieties of plants receive the right mix of water and nutrients required at different stages of their life cycles. It adjusts the heat—temperatures can vary by up to 10 degrees within the green house—on the basis of information from an outdoor sensing device that monitors air temperature, wind speed and its direction. It also operates mechanized screens used to reduce the amount of sunlight plants receive. By regulat-

ing the flow of heat, light and nutrients, Cacciavillani says, greenhouse operators can control the growth rates of the crops and deliver made-to-measure bedding plants to retail outlets.

Many growers have also increased their output by investing in mechanized seeders and transplanting machines. Marc Shane, who started Milner Greenhouses Ltd. near Langley, B.C., 30 km southeast of Vancouver, with wife Dianne in 1992, says they used to rely on a saltshaker to sow seeds on flats. The transplanting of seedlings, he adds, was all done by hand. Shane and his wife have since purchased more than $ 1 million worth of equipment that eliminates much of the painstaking labour. One machine can place seeds the size of a grain of sand in the middle of a one-centimetre-square plug of soil. Another device puts soil into flats and drills holes for seedlings. The transplanter then lifts the seedlings out of the plugs and places them in the holes. A conveyor belt moves the flats past a labelling device, through a watering tunnel and into the greenhouse. “We call it our McDonalds line,” Shane says. “Its just like making a hamburger.”

Over the past year, greenhouse operators have been hit hard by rising energy costs. Most heat with natural gas, and spot market prices have doubled to about $18 per thousand cubic metres. Growers who are supplying the mass marketers—grocery chains, home improvement centres and department stores—have not been able to pass on all of those costs to their customers.

But Shane and his wife have come up with an unusual solution to the problem. Two years ago, they acquired a 1.6-hectare greenhouse operation in Biggar, Sask, the largest one in the province. Fuel costs there, he says, are much lower than on the coast, even in midwinter, because the brilliant Prairie sunshine heats the greenhouse during the day. And the dry air means they spend less removing humidity, which causes disease. “We are actually growing bedding plants in Saskatchewan and shipping them to British Columbia,” Shane says. “Believe it or not, it is economically viable.”

But even with high-tech systems, growers and retailers say their fortunes still hang on the weather. “If the sun shines, our phone rings off the hook, especially around May 24,” says John Ondejko, president of SeaclifF Farms in Leamington. “If its cold and rainy, people aren’t buying flowers.” Gordon Kennedy, manager of Holland Nurseries in St. John’s, Nfld., has also seen how brief the window of opportunity can be. “If we don’t get good weather till the 20th of June, people say forget it,” he says. “The urge is gone.” This year, some operators say, economic uncertainty could put a dent in their business because flowers are a discretionary item in most family budgets. “An amazingly large percentage of people have something in the markets and I haven’t seen a happy investor lately,” says Bruce Peacock, owner of Peacock’s Garden Centre in Saint John. “I don’t know how they’re going to react to this perceived poverty.” Never fear. In a nation that knows winter all too well—and that has grown a multimilliondollar business out of its blooming antidote— there is no betting against Flower Power. E3

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