From Nantucket to Holland -November/December 2009

The nursery trade in the Netherlands

by: Hilary Newell

Growing and selling plants is in the blood of the Dutch, and it showed every minute we were in Holland. It started with a simple e-mail from the Perennial Plant Association, challenging garden centers in the United States and Canada to create a unique plant display using perennials.

My co-worker Lori Kunz and I created the display, The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here, using perennials that are deer-resistant and that grow well in our seaside conditions. Photos were submitted, courtesy of Lori’s husband, Noah Learner, along with a short narrative describing the display, and after months of waiting, the winning display was chosen. We got the phone call about a week before Christmas that we won.

The grand prize? Travel and lodging for three nights in The Netherlands to visit a large nursery trade show, and to learn about the flower trade in Holland. Eight months after discovering we had won, we finally landed at Schiphol Airport. Itinerary in hand, we were transported to a small city about an hour south of Amsterdam called Alphen aan den Rijn.

Our contact at the PPA had been vague about our accommodations, because she wanted us to be surprised. Yikes … what’s that supposed to mean? We were pleasantly surprised though, as The Hotel Avifauna is connected to a famous exotic bird park, featuring birds from all over the world. We were fortunate to have time to wander around before our guide picked us up the next day. Our gracious hostess Helma, of Perennial Plant Holland, (the co-sponsor of the contest) whisked us away in the morning and deposited us at Plantarium, Holland’s largest nursery trade show. Greeted with coffee and snacks, we soon began our wanderings through the trade show. The preparation for the show must have been immense. A large greenhouse had been transformed into several halls full of shrubs, perennials, novelties and old favorites. And every plant was perfect. The “novelty plants” (a bad translation for “new plants”), were perfectly displayed, many of them being new varieties of plants we are already familiar with, like gentians, campanulas, buddleias and coleus. Hebe is a very popular plant in Holland and was much in evidence at the show. Although probably an annual here on Nantucket, Hebe is an attractive shrubby-looking perennial, 12 to 14 inches tall, with dense flower spikes and shiny, deep-green foliage. Named after the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe is a genus of plants native to French Polynesia, the Falkland Islands, South America and New Zealand, where it is represented by at least 90 species.

Holland’s climate is a temperate maritime one, with cool summers and moderate winters. Tempered by the waters of the North Sea, the daytime temperature in winter is usually between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Rarely there is a cold snap in January or February and the canals freeze (think Hans Brinker), though usually only for a short time. Hebes are tolerant of this sort of winter, probably similar to our zone 8. That means we (zone 7 ) need to think of them as annuals, and be happy with the several months of bloom we could enjoy here. There are tons of species, some growing to seven feet tall, with most growing like small shrubs to 12-24 inches.

Eryngium (sea holly) and astilbes were present in large quantities. There weren’t a lot of new varieties, but we enjoyed seeing them in perfect form, reminding us of the possibilities. We noticed a display with 16 different types of fruiting shrubs and vines in small pots.

I got the impression the Dutch are really into the concept of the “edible landscape.” The labeling was beautiful and informative. Well, I assume it was informative … I don’t speak Dutch, but there seemed to be a lot of information there. Another interesting display showed “Bungeemums.” I’m not sure of the direct translation, but these little chrysanthemum-like plants were short. Three to four inches and that was it. They would be perfect carpeting the edge of a patio or in a container that could be viewed from above. Extremely floriferous, these cute and colorful mums will be a fun addition to our plant collection once the breeding finally gets to the United States. The Dutch are a few years ahead of us in some of their plant-breeding and consumer trends, so we can expect to see ideas implemented here in a few years that we observed in Holland on this trip. Obviously, we choose plant species for their tolerance to local conditions, and with climate change, some of the plants that grow well in Holland now may become trendy in a few years in the United States.

After Plantarium, Helma drove us to a garden center specializing in Acer species. With a canal running right through the middle of the display area, it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Their displays were simple, color-coordinated and effective. Everything was arranged logically in squares and rows. This garden center was all about the plants and their effective garden use. Comfortably-worn wooden benches were appealing and drew us right into the perennial presentations.

The late-summer colors were muted and easy on the eye, but our interest kept being pulled toward the canal.

At this time of year, the water is in full bloom, so to speak. The small-leaved, aquatic plants that were covering the surface of the water created the most beautiful carpet of color. As we crossed the bridge, I stood and stared at the colors and was amazed. We learned that after August, this growth diminishes and the canals become clear for the rest of the year. As we continued through the garden center, we observed at least 100 named varieties of Acer (Japanese maple.) The owner has had a long-time fascination with the species and has collected them over a lifetime. His passion for all plants showed as we wandered around. It made this garden-center visit a fascinating experience.

The last organized activity of the day, and one of the high points of the whole trip, was a canal-boat ride through Boskoop. The Nursery Museum in Boskoop was the starting point of the cruise, and we were greeted by Wim Hoogendoorn, a distinguished retired nurseryman from the area. As the canal boat left the Nursery Museum dock, he began telling the fascinating history of the nursery industry in Boskoop. With over 700 nurseries in the city, there was a lot to tell. As the boat cruised along the canals, we were surprised to see how close the perennials and shrubs were to the water. How do they keep the chemicals and fertilizer out of the canals, we asked? Wim assured us that great care is taken to preserve the quality of the water and soil, with special concrete lining the beds of each nursery to prevent run-off into the canals. Boskoop is known for its canals and for its history as a nursery town. As a result, there is great care given to the protection of both. Helma informed us that it is illegal to grow tomatoes or potatoes in the town. This is a protection against possible infection from various pathogens (like the late blight) that we experienced in New England this summer. The nursery industry is the whole economy in Boskoop, and an infection like that could have devastating consequences.

The canals are not static. Nursery owners sometimes reconfigure their canals, but they must not let the water level change. If someone wants to dig a new canal, another one has to be filled in to offset it, and vice versa … any canal that needs to be filled in has to have the same volume of soil removed from another area in the system. The canal system is a little more than two meters below sea level. Indeed, 60 percent of the country is below sea level. A side jaunt under a bridge brought us to the remains of an unused lock system, and we could clearly see that we were about seven feet below the surface of the river.

A description of this canal-boat ride wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the bridge tender. A necessary member of the crew on these types of boats, the bridge tender also gets the most exercise. The canals are criss-crossed with bridges for residents to get back and forth into their homes, and for traffic to flow smoothly through the town. Each bridge is no more than three to four feet above the water level, so each one has to be opened for the boat to pass through. The bridge tender rides on the front of the boat, and gets off when the boat approaches the bridge. He hops off, opens the bridge, waits for the boat to go through (mind your hands and heads, please) and closes it after it passes through. Traffic waits on the road as we cruise by casually, as boats have the right of way in Boskoop.

Sometimes, there are several bridges in a short stretch, and instead of getting back on the boat, the bridge tender runs alongside the canal and opens the bridge before the boat gets there and closes it after it passes through. He then runs ahead another 100 feet or so and does the same thing again and again, all with a smile. It was a fascinating glimpse into the canal lifestyle.

The following day, we were taken to the world’s largest cut-flower auction in Aalsmeer. At our leisurely arrival time of 10:30 a.m., the auctions which begin at 6 a.m. each day were almost over. There were still hundreds of thousands of cut flowers in the warehouse, but most had been purchased and were being sorted into separate bays for loading onto purchasers’ trucks. Cut flowers begin arriving from thousands of growers, mostly from Europe, but also from South America, Africa and the Middle East, by 5:30 in the afternoon each day. Theyare put into coolers with other flowers of the same type (roses with roses, chrysanthemums with chrysanthemums, etc.) and at 4 a.m., the quality inspectors perform random quality checks. At 6 a.m., trolleys of flowers begin to arrive at “The Clock,” the nickname for the actual auctions. In a matter of hours, the auction sells millions of stems in about 60,000 transactions. That’s over 300 transactions a minute. This happens all over again, every day. And there’s no credit. Every transaction is paid for before it leaves the complex, which we were told is the size of 200 football fields.

The 13 auction rooms themselves are fascinating. Set up with stadium seating, there are around 200 seats for buyers. There are either two or four auctions going on at the same time, with plants being moved through on trolleys, which are basically shelved pallets on wheels that are strung together and pulled by small electric tractors driven by the employees designated as “distributors.” Each auction has its own clock and its own auctioneer and they are all operated independently of each other, but all at the same time. Using the buttons on his desk, the buyer can switch between auctions. The flowers being auctioned are shown on a screen and the buyers can see the inspector’s quality remarks, the name of the grower, and the quantity of stems available. The auction begins with the auctioneer determining the price at which the clock will start. This is a Dutch auction, so the price goes from high to low with the clock running down from 100 to 0. If the price is above 100 Eurocents (one Euro) there is an indicator for that, too. The price on the clock is the price per unit, usually one stem. The buyer presses his button at the price he is prepared to pay, and the clock stops there. The buyer speaks through his microphone to the auctioneer to say how many stems he is purchasing at that price. If he only buys part of the batch, the rest goes on sale again. This goes on until the whole batch has been sold. From the time the pallet first appears until the time the whole batch is sold, less than 30 seconds has passed. We could watch the buyer number on the clock change with each new transaction. Within a couple hours, everything is sold, and flowers are in the process of being distributed to their final locations. Eighty percent of the flowers sold at Aalsmeer are for export, so hundreds of trucks are loaded and sent out on the road. Any overseas purchases are sent to Schiphol Airport and within 48 hours of being picked, most of the flowers are at their final location, whether it’s the Boston Flower Market, a mom and pop flower cart at Victoria Station, a supermarket in Prague, or a garden center in Michigan. As soon as the building is cleared out, it is cleaned and swept and the next day’s flowers start to arrive.

This business runs 24 hours a day. With 4,500 employees, 13 auction rooms (one room is just for roses) and 40 auction clocks, the logistics and efficiency of this system create a turnover of 16 million Euros ($23.4 million) and 48 million flowers and plants each day. That is 4 billion Euros ($5.9 billion) and 12 billion flowers and plants each year. According to the FloraHolland brochure, as of Jan. 1, 2008, when two flower-auction companies merged under the name of FloraHolland, there is no place on earth that auctions as many flowers and plants as this company. Run as a cooperative, the members (approximately 6,000 growers) are the owners of the business. There is a great deal of pride in the efficient and economical way it is run.

As we passed through the warehouse (more like a small city with its own European equivalent of a zip code) we were completely amazed at every step of the way. Great care is taken to be sure the employees, buyers and plant material are all treated with a reverence reserved for the most important enterprise in the country … the growing and selling of flowers.

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett’s Farm and compiles “The Farm Dirt” each week.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.