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Growing Points: An Edmonton landmark

May 28, 2012
By Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza


I have great memories of Arch Greenhouses that date back to the early
1980s when I met John Clement, the grower (and now the manager as well).

I have great memories of Arch Greenhouses that date back to the early 1980s when I met John Clement, the grower (and now the manager as well). An energetic young man who had recently immigrated from U.K., he was so enthusiastic to show me around. I was very impressed with his love of plants and the people around him.

Grower/manager John Clement (left) and co-worker Aaron Webb.



Arch Greenhouses was and is part of Arch Enterprises, an organization providing support services for adults with developmental challenges. It clearly demonstrated the positive relationship between plants and people – the concept of horticultural therapy was just developing in Alberta.

In 2000 they moved to a new location and built a new greenhouse. They brought some structures from the old place as well.

Quite recently, I decided to visit and talk with John and his staff at this 35,000-square-foot facility. To me, it appeared to be a well-integrated facility in an industrial area of south Edmonton.

After talking about our relationship spanning over 30 years, John and his right-hand young man, Aaron Webb, showed me around. The first thing I noticed was how clean and tidy the concrete walkways and bench areas were.

■ Before starting a tour of the greenhouse, Aaron showed me how they keep records of every plant – the plug size, supplier, arrival date, transplanting date and location in the greenhouse. From the computer it is printed for handy reference and provides a handy “traceability” document as well.

The records are kept for several years. In this way, a good experience has been acquired on transplanting schedules and flowering dates.

There were some large foliage plants at the entrance to the greenhouse, but a brugmansia yellow hybrid ‘Angel’s Trumpet’ got my instant attention, a true show-stopper. I am sure that when customers come in, they stop here and look at this majestic plant and flowers.

But what got my further attention was the sachet hanging on the inside branches of this plant for biological control. The sachets were evident everywhere on the hanging baskets and were specifically targeting thrips. John mentioned that it was about five years ago when, after some experimenting, biocontrols were used consistently with good success. Practically no pesticides are now used in the greenhouse!

While on this subject, Aaron pointed out that there are lots of spiders in the greenhouse that act as predators. They come naturally and consider Arch Greenhouses as their home and integrate well with its IPM approach.

■ Many times, customers have to be educated on the role and “responsibilities” of these spiders. John talked at length about their monitoring and control approach for thrips, aphids and spider mites. “Start early” was the advice, and monitor regularly. Know which plants are most susceptible and train your staff as well. For example, watch for foxglove aphids; they can easily outgrow your strategies very quickly.

A few other points worth mentioning:
Seeding is done for many unusual plants and large quantities of plugs are used.

New “three-in-one” liners are used from different sources. Basically three compatible plants are grown together in one plug that has three holes. It saves on transplanting labour and plants are pre-selected for compatibility.   

There are lots of custom-designed baskets. The presence of biocontrol sachets is explained to customers and the majority of them react favourably. The number of potted tomatoes in a one-gallon size – in tubs and baskets – has significantly increased as customers demand more of these “ready-to-pick” containers. Most of the time, the early fruit is ripe for picking and customers see a great benefit in this.

Customer loyalty is really rewarding and some customers have been coming for years. All plants are retailed. Some plant material, such as potted basil, is brought in from other growers.

This is a good practice and bodes well for the industry and partnership.

■ Best management practices include a focus on plant health rather than the use of pest control products; water management to avoid root diseases; the use of soilless growing mixes with mycorrhizae; and the importance of buying only from reputable suppliers.

Hypoaspis (predatory mite) is used for fungus gnat control. I did not see any fungus gnats in the greenhouse, and interestingly did not see any algae on the floor of the greenhouse either.

Hand-watering is used. When I asked John about setting up a drip irrigation system for baskets, he replied that because so many varieties and container types are grown, they prefer hand-watering. “We can look at the plants and selectively water as needed,” he explained.

On the question of labour, “a lot of people are the same. There is a great element of trust and respect and up to 70 per cent come back, once they have worked at Arch Greenhouses. Aaron Webb started as a volunteer from high school. Then he went to Olds College and now is a full-time employee here. Many students from Olds College come here for their practicum.”

John was quite passionate and energetic to show me his plants and introduce me to the people who work there. I asked him how he maintains the “energy” to keep on going. (It appeared to me that he knew each plant’s history and wanted to introduce me to them: “Dr. Mirza, meet my bacopa … or meet my scented begonias, they came from the genetics of…” well, you get the idea!”)

■ He replied that it is because of his team. He can leave any time and trust that the things that need to be done will be done. Certain tasks have to be done in time and cannot be delayed.

Arch Greenhouses, being part of community of Edmonton, enjoys welcoming students from schools, gives seminars at garden clubs, and hosts “real” gardeners to the greenhouse. At the end of the tour John showed me many unusual plants he grows every year – banana, bamboo and a dwarf elephant ear. People love them because they are different.

John wouldn’t let me leave without a beautiful hydrangea. When Aaron packed it for me in a paper sleeve, I learned that a large number of plant sleeves are made at the site.

Now this beautiful hydrangea is sitting on my kitchen table and I am learning from this plant. The other day I noticed that the flower petals were rolling inside and found it was dry. I watered it and they recovered within minutes.

Visit a greenhouse near you. See what is being grown for you and remember there is always something that can be added to our knowledge database.

Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza is a greenhouse consultant. •

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