Gardening under Glass

Container gardening has been one trend that has continued to grow reliably over the past several years, with the style and contents of containers continuing to evolve.

March 22, 2007 | | Back Issues

For most local gardeners, February is a month of dreams. The first seed catalogues have begun to sprout in the mailbox, but the first blush of outdoor colour is still many long weeks off. In the area’s large commercial greenhouses, however, work is already well underway. Under massive glass canopies, microscopic seeds and tiny cuttings are being coaxed to life in conditions that can mimic the hottest summer day, reaching temperatures of 35°C when the sun is strong. For greenhouse growers the race toward summer has begun.

The day I stopped by last May to interview Cindy and Bill Spaans at their Alton Greenhouses and Garden Centre, it was obvious those wintery labours had paid off. Cindy was barely visible among lush hanging baskets and tables overflowing with colourful plants.

She was filling a large order, so I thought I might be better to come at another time. I asked when she might not be as busy. “Never,” she replied with a smile. She wasn’t putting me off – it was simply the truth.

Running a massive greenhouse operation is a 24/7 job and for the Spaans it is a way of life. Bill, a third-generation Ontario greenhouse operator, says his gardening genes go back seven generations to his ancestors in Holland. For Cindy, who grew up on a farm near Laurel, the greenhouse work came with the marriage contract.

Beginning as a wholesale operation in 1980, Alton Greenhouses supplied local grocery stores and garden centres with bedding plants and shipped perennials to Quebec – there was next to no Ontario perennial market at the time.

For twenty years the Spaans specialized in growing cyclamens, a finicky plant that requires knowledge and nurturing to produce healthy blooms from the expensive seeds. Their retail experience began when Cindy sold the overflow plants at a “serve yourself” bench on the roadside. Retail now makes up about 60 per cent of their business.

Producing a quality product is just good business, Bill says. “My belief is that if your flowers die you are going to lose interest in gardening, so it is in our best interest to provide healthy plants.”

Open year-round (except January), the business continues to evolve and expand. This year they’ve added fiberglass urns that can be updated with three seasonal arrangements and a line of garden furniture. And they have recently affiliated with Botanix, a co-operative buying group.

The 100,000 square feet of greenhouse hold a high-tech operation with computerized vents, heating systems and fully automated watering benches. A seeding machine dispenses individual miniscule seeds into tiny cell packs. Over time, these are replanted into larger and larger cells before their final growing place in a pot or basket. A series of gauges set to control and monitor fertilizer mixtures, humidity, and pH levels in the water makes me realize that Bill is spot on when he has to be part chemist.

“Automation has allowed growers to maintain their volume and keep staff at a reasonable number,” Cindy says, acknowledging the support of their staff of six.

Alton Greenhouses is perhaps best known for its large, high-performance varieties of geraniums. They’ll pot up more than 15,000 of them this year. It’s a staggering number, but still only a portion of the total plant production. At their peak in 2000, the Spaans produced about 50,000 flats and potted up about 30,000 baskets of all varieties.

Due north of Alton, at GGG Greenhouses in Amaranth, I’m greeted by Jazzy Girl, a Lab/Doberman cross who erupts into a frenzy of barking and tail wagging as I park my car. Dumped at the end of the long driveway in 1997, Jazzy Girl has become the unofficial welcoming party.

When Tony and Lucie Ghanima are not working as flight attendants for Air Canada they can be found at their home-based greenhouse operation, raising their two sons and enthusiastically toiling at a labour of love that has expanded over the last decade to include 20,000 square feet of heated greenhouses.

Tony, 43, purchased the country property in 1991 and started grading for the first greenhouse in 1994, while continuing a landscaping and maintenance business in Mississauga as well as his job with Air Canada.

“The winter of 1995 was my first experience as a grower and it was a disaster,” Tony remembers. “The boilers shut down. All our heating system and pipes froze and burst. There was a high repair bill, but we never gave up. Year after year, there were days that I would swear I shouldn’t have started this business, but I continued and here we are today.”

Despite an out-of-the-way location on the 4th Line of Amaranth, a simple sign at the end of the driveway that indicated “Bedding plants for sale” brought in local traffic en route to the nearby garbage dump. And word of mouth became responsible for the expanding business.

Now in their eleventh year, the Ghanimas operate five greenhouses. Not fully automated, the greenhouses demand hours of manual labour. Tony’s dad, Abdo, is the “watering manager,” without whom they acknowledge the business would not survive. They employ three part-time and one full-time staff. Valerie Durie, an Orangeville Horticultural Society member, has shared her considerable knowledge with GGG customers for nine years and creates the business’s custom wedding baskets.

The Ghanimas are ahead of schedule with their long-range plans to have the greenhouses operational year-round when they retire from Air Canada. In the past they have opened the last week of April and closed at the end of July. This year they are extending their hours to the end of October and hope to qualify as a “farming tourism” operation. “It means we have to hustle right now and juggle our schedules and family,” Lucie admits.

They’ll offer pick-your-own raspberries in mid-July, fall mums in September, as well as bins of loose cedar mulch and soil, and a variety of deciduous shrubs grown on site from cuttings and hardy enough to survive in climate zones three and four. They’re also experimenting with growing blackberries for the retail market.

Tony’s ebullient grin and high spirits are something of a trademark at GGG. He insists he never forgets the preferences of his regular customers. He takes obvious delight in recounting the story of a customer he recognized when he was working on a flight to Rome. After the safety demonstration he surprised the passenger by asking her how many red geraniums she would like that year.

“The woman didn’t recognize me until I said I was Tony from GGG Greenhouses,” he says. “She was shocked and said, ‘My god, you sure clean up well! Make sure you save those beautiful red geraniums for me.’”

South of King Street on Caledon’s Chinguacousy Road, a large glass structure looms between the rolling farmland’s stately brick farmhouses. Stephanie’s Country Greenhouse is a creation of Stephanie Judge. From one small greenhouse in 1998, Stephanie has expanded the operation to five large greenhouses.

The driving force behind her success is the assistance of her mother, Sherry Judge, but the whole family plays a role. With additional support from her father, brother, sister-in-law, cousin and uncle, the business has stepped up to the plate as a greenhouse to be reckoned with.

During the busy months before she opens to the public, Stephanie and her family receive the weekly assistance of volunteers from the Peel Children’s Centre. The teenagers help pot, assemble trays, price items and tidy up as part of the centre’s educational program.

Stephanie, now 31, got the greenhouse “bug” in her late teens when she was working in a Norval greenhouse. She offers bedding plants, herbs and some perennials, but her specialty is hanging baskets and container gardening.

It is a short, fierce season for Stephanie’s Greenhouse, opening the end of April and closing by mid June. She learned early on that ordering too many plant plugs too early in the season caused containers to become overgrown, demanding laborious cutting back to retain their best look. Luckily, one of Stephanie’s favourite activities is trimming plants.

All three greenhouses buy from Ball Superior, the world’s largest plant distributor. Whether they’re starting with seeds, cuttings or plugs (where the seed has been rooted), they start ordering in June for the following year’s stock.

“A lot of varieties are first come, first served,” Tony says. “If you are late in your schedule the product is late, and if the product is late to flower then you’re stuck with it. If it is not in full bloom by mid-May, it doesn’t move.”

And it’s a fickle market. “At one time you could never grow enough salmon geraniums,” Bill Spaans says, “but a few years ago the bottom fell out of the market – nobody wanted salmon. When you’re buying ten months in advance you have no idea what the market will be like.”

Container gardening has been one trend that has continued to grow reliably over the past several years, with the style and contents of containers continuing to evolve. Stephanie gleans some of her creative ideas at an annual five-day Ohio tradeshow she attends with her mother. At Alton Greenhouses Cindy has spent ten years working to improve basket and pot designs that are specially prepared for areas of wind, full sun or shade. She feels it’s important to source her containers from Canadian suppliers, but says that’s getting harder with the growing influx of cheap imports from China. GGG Greenhouses makes a particular specialty of its over-sized 18-inch baskets. All three greenhouses also do custom plantings for customers who bring in their own containers.

However everything is not “coming up roses” for those who toil to make our gardens spectacular during our short Canadian summers.

Months of heating the greenhouses, watering, fertilizing, clipping and replanting require a huge investment in money and labour.

Surprisingly, even in the controlled greenhouse environment, weather is another major issue for growers. With fuel costs skyrocketing, a long, cold winter translates into staggering heating bills. Rising oil prices also influence the price of petroleum-based products such as pots and cell packs. And a cloudy spring can make for anemic seedlings that become straggly reaching for light. Too much heat and humidity encourages mildew, pests and fungus, and daily scrutiny is required to keep problems in check.

The Ghanimas’ Amaranth location is subject to large amounts of snow and high winds. In minus-twenty-degree weather, losing hydro for even thirty minutes before the generators kick in can mean the loss of the entire crop.

Tony recalls the sudden wind storm that knocked out local hydro in December. His generator needed repair, but the snow-free weather had made him confident things were secure. The greenhouse was filled with tender new shoots of begonia and other tuberous plants. When the power went off, “I nearly lost all of them,” he says.

Snow loads on greenhouse roofs are a constant concern and, because of the high-risk nature of the operation, insurance companies charge high rates for the structures and customer liability, and they will not insure the crop.

The surge in popularity of gardening has been a boon to the greenhouse industry. But that very popularity has introduced another concern for growers, as the big box stores and grocery chains jump on the bandwagon, offering temporary garden centres, often selling plants at or below cost to attract customers.

Although the big stores don’t offer the variety or personal service of the independent growers, by selling plants as “loss leaders” they depress prices the growers can charge and still stay competitive, and profitable.

“I have respect for every grower in the vicinity,” Tony says. “We are not a plant depot, we are growers from start to finish. A grower goes through a lot of hard work to produce results.”

Problems aside, these growers are in love with this blooming business. And chances are there will always be gardeners who prefer to wander thoughtfully among the greenhouse aisles than to toss a plant into a grocery cart with their cereal or plumbing supplies.

I couldn’t resist buying a few plants at each greenhouse I visited, and each time I received advice and care instructions to ensure I enjoyed the full benefits of the growers’ labours. Quality plants from growers who care – a rose is not always just a rose.

About the Author More by Michele Green

Michele Green is a freelance writer who lives near Belfountain.

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