Making up for lost time

May 04, 2010
Written by
Joel Wiersma may be a relative latecomer to the greenhouse industry, but he’s making up for lost time with his dedication to research and innovation. The result has been consistently high quality crops and many happy customers.

Alice, Steve and Joel Wiersma, of Glanbrook Gardens.
Joel and his wife Alice own Glanbrook Gardens Ltd., a cut snapdragon operation located just minutes from Hamilton, Ont., and centrally located within southwestern Ontario.

Joel had previous careers as an auto mechanic and in the telecommunications field, before he and Alice decided to establish a home business on their 13-acre property. Neither grew up in greenhouse families, but both share a love of plants.

They started with a 2,000-square-foot hoop house and began with begonias and later gloxinias. In 2001, they built a 22,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art greenhouse.

With the larger facilities, they began looking for a new crop. “We had been told to grow something that nobody else grows, because that would be our niche.” However, after they studied  a specific product, they’d be cautioned,  “there’s a reason nobody grows that.” It’s humorous to recall now, but at the time it was a little frustrating. What would they grow?

“After a lot of research, we finally decided on snapdragons,” Joel explains during an early morning tour.

Young plants, off to a good start.
Joel Wiersma with one of four probes used to monitor moisture levels. 
Cut snapdragon demand doesn’t ease in the winter, and the lights ensure optimal yields and quality during short days.

It was a good choice. Snapdragons are valuable tools for florists and floral designers because of their height and range of colours. They add considerable value to any floral display or bouquet.

Of Canada’s total cut flower production in 2008 of 236 million stems, some 14.1 million were snaps, according to Statistics Canada. It was the fifth largest cut flower crop in Canada that year, following tulips (69 million), gerbera (51.4 million), mums (14.8 million) and alstroemeria (14.6 million).

In 1998, Canada produced some 9.1 million cut snaps. Not a lot of cut flowers have seen the same rate of increase.

With his technical background, Joel is quite analytical in problem solving. Early on, when faced with plug problems, he would 50 different scenarios of various products to determine what worked best. The result was his own unique recipe for healthy plugs.

For a few years,  the Wiersmas also experienced infestations of garden sympylans (Scutigerella immaculata), sometimes called the garden centipede. The bugs would work their way down rows, eating away at the roots. Joel’s research eventually extended all the way to California, where he contacted an expert who provided key advice in solving the problem. “We were finally able to control them,” he said.

Another challenge was  maintaining consistent soil moisture levels. After extensive research, Joel settled on a capacitance probe tensiometer monitoring system. He’s not aware of other growers using these probes.

There are four probe sensors located throughout the greenhouse. “It’s been quite effective for us, helping maintain exactly the moisture levels we want,” Joel said. It’s just one less thing to worry about, though  he periodically double-checks the system with a handheld sensor.

The system saves a lot of money. “We now use much less water and fertilizer, and the growth is consistent.” Accurate watering also reduces problems associated with over-watering, such as root diseases. “And if you don’t water enough, you end up with inferior flower heads and stunted plants.”

The Wiersmas weren’t long into snaps before seeing that winter market demands can often be much higher than the supply. The solution was to install lights, something not common with snapdragon crops. While a considerable extra expense, the investment quickly paid for itself in greatly improved winter yields and consistent quality. They’re able to offer a steady, year-round supply.

Shading/energy curtains have also been installed. The primary purpose is to save heat, but just as importantly, they ensure  their lights don’t bother neighbours.

A misting system – not that common in cut snap production – helps lower temperatures in the summer. As well, it raises humidity levels to decrease plant stress.

The Wiersmas are helped by two employees two days a week in picking and grading, along with a couple of students who assist with planting. They have also been helped by their three daughters and their son. “Everyone has helped with work around the greenhouse.”

The Wiersmas rely a lot on their environmental computer, and work closely with Priva in trialling the company’s latest software versions. The computer controls irrigation frequency, pH and EC; the boilers and mixing valves; curtains and lights; the misting system, fans and vents; and the germinating room and cooler.

The greenhouse is an ideal size for them. Rather than consider an expansion, Alice says they’ve decided to “maximize the space we already have. It doesn’t always make sense to add on when you can do more with what you already have.”

There’s a possibility they might add hanging baskets as a spring crop in the future, but they want to make sure it won’t affect the main crop.

The farm has heavy clay, which was initially tough to prepare for the first crops. However, it’s now been fully worked up and has benefited from years of amendments to become quite productive. Clay soil also has the benefit of being able to hold water and nutrients especially well.

Joel regularly seeks out growers and industry suppliers when dealing with new problems and ideas, and he makes good use of the Internet in contacting other experts or sourcing new information.

“If you don’t deal with problems quickly,” notes Joel, “they’ll quickly deal with you.”

Snapdragon is one of the more challenging greenhouse crops. Aphids can be a problem, and on the disease front, botrytis is sometimes a concern.

Glanbrook Gardens uses overhead and ground level heating, the latter helping keep diseases in check. The heat rises throughout the crop, ensuring uniform temperatures.

Joel says the business can be frustrating at time, and it’s often difficult for small growers to plan holidays or other times away from the farm. However, he quickly adds there’s a great sense of accomplishment in nurturing a plant from the plug to the retail stage.

Having their own business is quite rewarding, explains Alice. “It’s a business that takes a lot of time and work,” she says, but it provides a lot of satisfaction in knowing the product that’s required so much of your time has such great value with consumers. “People really love flowers,” she says.

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