Investment and consolidation to gain economies of scale among findings from North American grower tour

The degree of investment and consolidation going on within the North American ornamentals production industry to gain economies of scale and extend market share with retailers was a standout feature during a grower tour of nurseries in the US and Canada.

A group of bedding and herbaceous plant growers from around the UK visited the ornamentals businesses based in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon states to gain a better understanding of the ornamental industry in the area, how they are managed, and how crops are grown and marketed into a range of retailers.

WD Smith director Michael Smith helped organise the BPOA/AHDB event.

Some growers visited such as Northwest Horticulture, Smith Gardens and DeVry Greenhouses had multiple sites (often in other states) making them large overall, but in terms of individual sites most were comparable to medium and large scale nursery businesses found in the UK.

Common themes included the degree of investment and consolidation within the industry to gain economies of scale and extend market share with retailers.

In the case of Northwest Horticulture, they had recently purchased Skagit Gardens, a well-known producer of annuals and perennials among independent retailers and landscapers, to complement the plugs and young plants generated by the three sites (totalling 250 hectares) which make up Northwest Horticulture.

DeVry Greenhouses had also grown, having bought out a number of local bedding plant businesses in the process. Smith Gardens were in the process of building an extra four hectares of ‘cutting edge’ glass, while Rainbow Greenhouses had previously invested heavily in the installation of conveyers, transplanting and plug making machinery to cope with the production peaks of the business, along with LED lights and biomass boilers to improve energy efficiency.

A range of growing structures were used by the various nurseries visited, glasshouses of various dimensions and complexity were common to all the sites, but there was also a wide range of plastic structures to grow and harden off plant material.

Some tunnels simply had roll up sides to increase ventilation, while others had pull back roofs or cabriolet roofs and such structures were used to either harden off crops or protect them from adverse bouts of weather.

Not all the sites visited were necessarily heavily automated/mechanised, and quite often delegates saw pricking-out/transplanting/potting-on teams at work on the nursery, generally made up of migrant labour.

To make such labour intensive procedures as efficient as possible (and also in response to the minimum wage), several of the businesses were in the process of implementing Lean management strategies, using the assistance of external consultants.

Smith Gardens chief executive Eric Smith said the strategies were being implemented not to drive and monitor staff, but rather to seek their creative input into the current nursery operations, such as order collation and dispatch, to obtain further efficiencies by adopting new approaches.

One element which appeared unique to the area was the widespread use of flags inserted into crops or batches of plants to indicate specific treatments to a crop/batch (often different plant growth regulator treatments) or a marketing stage attained.

As almost all the nurseries were growing a wide range of species and varieties the flag system aided staff to make a rapid assessment of the state of crops over a large area, it also made it easier to instruct migrant staff whose first language was not English about crop treatments.

The range of plant genera, species, varieties and products offered by the nurseries was generally quite diverse and the extent resembled the situation found on many UK nurseries.

Blooming Nurseries for example, who supply both annuals and perennials to a range of garden centres and landscapers, offered more than 2,300 plant varieties, under the ‘Blooming Advantage’ brand. Although Terra Nova Nurseries only offered around 50 plant genera in comparison, they had almost 80 heuchera varieties and almost 50 coleus varieties listed in their catalogue, the vast majority coming out of their own intensive breeding and micro-propagation programmes.

Terra Nova has a worldwide network of young plant licensees which then propagate and sell on material developed at Terra Nova Nurseries. Biological pest control was a common practice on many nurseries, but the degree to which it was combined with conventional chemistry to create integrated pest and disease management programmes varied between businesses.

At Nordic Nurseries, grower Mark Laskoone explained that banker plants were being used to build up aphid parasitoid populations and to act as feeding stations, while at Terra Nova Nurseries Chuck Pavlich, who heads the plant breeding team, pointed out the breeding boxes for the rove beetle Atheta coriaria (now Dalotia coriaria) used for sciarid fly control within the young plant crops grown on benching.

The restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid based insecticides was also an issue for the growers in the USA as it is for growers in the UK. Little pack bedding product was noted being grown during the study tour, and, like the nurseries visited on the east coast of the USA, the production trend was towards larger containers, mixed planters, hanging baskets and added value lines.

Many of the bedding plant nurseries visited produced their own young plants in bespoke propagation houses or facilities (either from seed and/or via unrooted cuttings) and a number also acted as ‘rooting stations’ for various international plant breeding companies such as Proven Winners, as was the case at Nordic Nurseries.

Such plant material was then sold onto smaller surrounding nurseries and other businesses.

Rainbow Nurseries woodchip

Like other areas of the USA, the DIY and supermarket chains (including Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Loblaws etc.) dominate the market, but unlike the east coast of the USA, the chain and independent garden centres are still important in terms of the overall market share. Businesses though still often have to deliver over several states, which sometimes means journeys of 12 hours or more to make a delivery.

As many of the businesses had their own fleets of delivery trucks, parameters such as minimum order size and value, number of shelves per trolley, frequency of deliveries, route logistics etc. needed to be very closely managed to maintain profitability.

Surprisingly, winter/spring pansies were not a ‘strong’ crop and a wider range of pot-grown primroses were noted during the study tour. The main genera noted at all the garden centres visited was Helleborus (argutifolius, foetidus, niger, orientalis etc.) offered in a wide range of pot sizes and retailing at up to $50-60 for the larger plants.

The garden centres visited did not offer A-Z plant lines, but focused primarily on ‘looking good’ and impulse lines. Added value and non-gardening items featured heavily in most, but with the exception of Minter Country Garden Store, they lacked cafes or restaurants and were not really viewed yet as ‘destination centres’ as many garden centres have become in the UK.

DeVry seeding line

The study tour group flew into Vancouver International Airport, British Columbia, Canada and drove down via coach through BC and into the NW USA, travelling through both Washington and Oregon States, before travelling back to Vancouver for the flight home.

Sites visited during the study tour included nurseries, garden centres and a state educational facility.

  • Northwest Horticulture including Skagit Gardens, Mt Vernon, Washington
  • Terra Nova Nurseries, Canby, Oregon 
  • Smith Gardens, Aurora, Oregon 
  • Al’s Garden Centre, Hubbard, Oregon 
  • Oregon State University (Plant Clinic Department), Corvallis, Oregon 
  • Blooming Nursery, Cornelius, Oregon 
  • Nordic Nurseries, Aldergrove, British Columbia 
  • Minter Country Garden Store, Chilliwack, British Columbia 
  • DeVry Greenhouses, Chilliwack, British Columbia 
  • Rainbow Greenhouses, Chilliwack, British Columbia 
  • Garden Works, Vancouver, British Columbia

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