Buy local spreads to ornamentals and boosts opportunities

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Bedding plant sections are expanding in big-box stores but at the same time, consumers are looking for locally grown, pesticide-free plants for their homes and yards.

That’s creating opportunities for people who want to grow ornamental or edible bedding plants, says Mohyuddin Mirza of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association.

Bedding plants are the specialty crops of the greenhouse world, and is a field where growers can start small and grow, he says. Some growers have started as a one-person project, selling to neighbours, then their spouse gets more and more involved and it may even become a career for the next generation.

“You do have to really like plants and flowers and be willing and able to grow healthy, good-quality plants,” says Mirza. “And, you have to develop good relationships with your customers.”

Mirza says he always recommends new entrants begin by creating a solid business plan.

“The main things are the type of plants you’ll grow, knowing your market, and whether you’ll retail plants or wholesale,” he says. “More than half of Alberta’s bedding plant producers retail plants. Margins are better and especially in smaller communities, many people like to buy direct from someone local.”

Expertise and after-sales service are becoming key, he says, noting many customers want “their plant expert” to come and look at their plants and offer advice — a service big retailers can’t match.

Larger greenhouses shouldn’t be afraid to approach big retailers and box stores and offer to be a supplier, says Mirza.

“If you produce good-quality plants and get to know your buyers, you can succeed as a commercial wholesaler,” he says.

However, he notes, suppliers need a certain scale of operation, likely five or 10 acres under glass or plastic to work successfully with large retailers.

About 48 per cent of Alberta bedding plant producers run seasonal greenhouse operations, starting up in late February and usually closing sometime in June. But the busy time is starting earlier and lasting longer as people start buying plants in April. Among the most popular spring plants are hanging baskets, already blooming and ready to provide instant colour anywhere. Containers of salad greens, tomatoes and vegetables are also popular.

Container growing makes it easier for buyers to enjoy their plants and flowers right away rather than fighting cold soil and fickle weather in spring and then frosts as harvest comes close.

“In our cold climate, we’re hungry for colour and green plants after the winter,” says Mirza.

“We need them for our spiritual well-being. Today the trend is not to plant in soil, but to fill containers with flowers and greenery people can enjoy indoors and then put out to decorate front and backyards when the weather warms up.”

Tumbler tomatoes answer today’s demand for quick results. After 40 or 50 days of growth the first fruit is almost ripe. A buyer can take a container-grown plant home, start picking within a week and keep picking until September or even October if they manage the plants well. As plant buyers purchase instant colour or crops the demand for nursery material is extending into July and August. Many bedding plant suppliers are developing garden centres with supplies as well as plants.

About half of Alberta’s bedding plant producers operate year round, growing poinsettias, Easter lilies or even edible crops.

“Our food habits are changing,” says Mirza. “We eat for health, buying more and more diverse fruits and vegetables — cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and salad greens, peppers as well as things like kale and broccoli. And these days we have the greenhouse technologies to help produce those foods locally with the minimum of pesticides.”

The Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association and its website (www.agga.ca) are excellent sources of information on greenhouse production.

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