KWINTSHEUL, Netherlands: There’s no better way to soak up some good old Christmas atmosphere than to pay a visit to Kuivenhoven Nurseries, which grows 450,000 poinsettias for autumn sales and the Christmas period using traditional reds and a mix of novelty colours.
Familiarity may breed contempt. But when 27-year old Jordy Zwinkels walks us through the company’s poinsettia production facilities, he emphasises that despite being daily surrounded by an explosion of colours, he can still appreciate the beauty, cheerfulness and versatility of what is known as the perfect Christmas plant.
Zwinkels is the son of Mart Zwinkels, former spathiphyllum grower and Air So Pure co-founder. Jordy joined Kuivenhoven Nurseries in 2018 after a short stint as a sales manager at horticulture packaging and plastic manufacturer Van Krimpen. He determines, “I am a real plantsman and soon realised my ambitions were different. At Kuivenhoven, I plan the growing environment and the production numbers. My job is to grow profitable crop and to make best use of the available space. All this, in tandem with my colleague Rick van der Burg who steers the organisation managing the company’s employment needs and sales.”
Jordy and Rick are eager to become the future owners of the plant nursery, which is currently in possession of husband and wife team Piet and Carolien Kuivenhoven.
Piet Kuivenhoven is the fourth generation of a family that has been growing fruits, plants, vegetables and cut flowers in Poeldijk since 1916, one of the beating hearts of Dutch horticulture. Zwinkels says, “We continue to operate from the same site but is has signficantly expanded since. There have been several opportunities to buy out next door neighbours which led to the current 3.5ha of greenhouse space and 2.7ha for production in the open.”
Those who have recently travelled the Westland will acknowledge how the greenhouse capital of the Netherlands is slowly turning from glass installations into concrete constructions. Westland municipalities and the city of the Hague continue to sprawl outwards, eating up the glasshouse area. Zwinkels explains that for now, Kuivenhoven Nurseries does not sit on ‘hot land’, a regional slang used to indicate the potential rise in land value once residential planning is appointed. “ Ours may not be the squarest plots of land, but its shape is pretty much regular and easily manageable. For the future, nothing is written in stone. Instead of expanding our greenhouse area, we may increase the area with outdoor grown plants or switch to field production in Westland and build new glasshouses elsewhere. All options are open.”
It is safe to say that the Kuivenhovens have been lucky to find young horticultural talent firmly committed to their business.
The job of a grower is automatically associated with physically taxing and dirty work. Jordy admits the sector ‘has a certain reputation’ but is keen to highlight the other side of the story.
Horticulture is an increasingly global business that needs technical talents, business finance, and people management skills. He notes, “Horticulture is more and more an attractive sector of the economy to work in. Long gone are the days the job was dependent on green fingers only. Businesses have grown bigger and bigger. So, whether it is business administration or other skills, there is are so many jobs to fulfil.”
Jordy freely admits that trade, in particular that of fresh produce, is expanding and becoming multinational at a much faster pace than production. “The grower is lagging behind and may still be a mouse among elephants in the context of economies of scale, but they too expand their business.”
Kuivenhoven Nurseries has a good range of seasonal flowering plants available all year round in various colours, pots sizes and heights. These make for the perfect holiday crop such as poinsettias and helleborus gold, or patio and garden plants such as dipladenia, Senecio senetti, gazania, osteospermum, Addenda campanulas, and saxifraga Dancing Pixies. Zwinkels says, “Our aim is to inspire consumers with the best plants for each season.”
The plant nursery primarily supplies garden centres across Europe through auction-based exporters. To help garden retailers keep their plant sales steady, fresh and profitable, the nursery is committed to growing plants that are visibly superior to everyone’s else. Zwinkels elaborates, “For us, quality means sticking an extra cutting for beefier and well-established plants. In helleborus, for example, the company opted for the Helleborus Gold Collection from German breeder Heuger including hybrids grown via tissue culture.”
Another flagship product at Kuivenhoven is poinsettias. Botanically speaking, poinsettias – also known as euphorbia pulcherrima – is a deciduous shrub native to Mexico where it grows wild. Taming it when grown in pots is not a job for the faint-hearted. Think of apical dominance, appropriate bract count, post pinch stress and so on. “One should always keep an eagle eye on humidity levels, and you should space the crop on time. The early autumn poinsettias grow in the long days’ phase when growth is still extreme and you need PGRs to suppress unwanted growth. Spacing on time requires also attention because if plants are left pot tight too long can brings the risk of bracts being too stretched. So yes growing poinsettias comes with many challenges.”
Poinsettias are quintessentially warm-climate plants and prefer a steady temperature. Temperatures may vary per grower. Zwinkels outlines, “Some prefer the cool finish of specific cultivars but under most growing conditions, 18C to 24C day and 19C night temperatures are essential for the early growth of poinsettias. Sales peak in week 50 when relatively cold weather causes you to blow much money on gas. July and August by contrast are not as exciting when the crop’s heat demand is very low.”
He thinks that European gas prices, which rose to new record levels on 21 December 2021, are “tipping the balance for many growers, particularly for those who don’t work with fixed energy deals“.
Zwinkels sees their co-generation plant currently under construction as one way to lower the energy bill. “We will need more electricity to light our poinsettias so that we can advance the harvest. Also, we are looking into geothermal heat clusters such as Polanen and Trias.”
Kuivenhoven Nurseries prefer to focus on the day-to-day market instead of long-term supply contracts to deliver retail orders. Zwinkels notes, “We grow for the higher end of the market, so we do our utmost to grow plants that exceed the quality at gas stations or discounters. Garden centres need special plants next to the traditional reds and whites we do exciting new varieties. Altogether, our portfolio includes 27 cultivars. Breeders and young plant suppliers find our range jaw-dropping. We simply don’t want to disappoint customers. If you are only doing the traditional reds, you will be automatically driven towards a lower price range as reds are available anywhere. But only a handful of growers supply marble, pink, or burgundy poinsettias.”
Flipping through the catalogues of the world’s top four poinsettia breeders – Syngenta, Dümmen Orange, Beekenkamp, Selecta One – one realises it not only boils down to colour.
Zwinkels elaborates, “Breeders mostly look for total solutions. Each of them has red poinsettias but not every red poinsettia is suited for late cropping, mini pots or black cloth treatment . We cherry-pick the most promising varieties with a good V-shape and botrytis resistance and test them in-house. But it can take some trial and error. Last year, we tried an early orange variety targeting Halloween sales. It occured that the trade was not yet ready for it. Then, as a grower you can easily be wowed by a new variety which later does not allign with consumer preferences at all.”
In terms of pests and diseases, he thinks Bemisia tabaci is the sword of Damocles hanging over the poinsettia production. “Whiteflies are a common pest of poinsettias, and managing the common species is not easy but neither impossible. Bemisia tabaci, however, is extremely hard to eradicate. Monitoring has become critical since there was a major disaster with heavily infested young plant material two years ago. Yellow sticky cards hang above our starter plants, and we monitor whitefly density weekly. We aim to start with very low whitefly populations using biological control agents as long as possible. If the worst-case scenario of pest populations gets out of control, there’s at least the option insecticides left. If you spot spray right from the start brings the risk of resistant Q-biotype whiteflies leaving you empty handed.”
When a grower sells to UK customers, the management of whiteflies is not getting easier, Zwinkels acknowledges. “Fellow growers tell me that they consider stop growing poinsettia because of the highly discutable zero tolerance policy of UK customs. They have put all their time and energy in growing a beautiful crop incurring the risk of entire shipments being discarded because of the presence of one or two whiteflies.”
Zero tolerance is incredibly frustrating in the light of the high cost and limited profit margins poinsettia growers have to deal with, says Zwinkels.
“I will probably never understand why such a expensive to grow crop as poinsettia has become a commodity product with such low profit margins. Not only for growers but also for wholesalers. My brother, who works in floral wholesale, describes the November and December months as a challenging time with an awful lot of customer complaints on poinsettias. I reckon there’s still a world to win on product knowledge. It still happens too often that downstream the supply chain plants remain unsleeved after 20 days, causing them to collapse. Poor handling of plants during transportation significantly impacts shelf life.”
On pricing, Zwinkels say, “Apparantly one good day someone has decided that a poinsettia in a 10.5cm pot should sell at no more than one euro. The question is how important price is for the new generation of shoppers from my age?”
On the positive side, after months of gloomy lockdown, poinsettias have never been at a better time to bring a splash of colour to people’s homes. “Among shoppers, there’s a strong tendency to retreat into their safe havens, which is their home instead of traveling abroad. I could have easily have sold my greenhouse poinsettias twice if I would have wished. This buoyant market, however, does not mean I will double my production area next year. Prices have been good all through the season, ranging between 1.03 to 1.17 for the specials.”
Kuivenhoven Nurseries grows their poinsettias in a relatively small 10,5 cm pot, forcing them to look for varieties that ensure a nice balance between the pot and plant habit, with the coloured bracts in the top and sturdy branches. Loading efficiency on Danish trolleys also needs to be factored in. “We simply cannot grow plants that are too tall. We anticipate that the use of PGRs will become increasingly under scrutiny, so we have a keen interest in varieties that remain compact by nature. Three years ago, we started trailing the ‘Mirage’, which now reigns supreme as a red. This variety is easy to grow and has a natural compact shape which dramatically reduces the need for PGRs. Contrary to reds that mostly sell anonymously, customers specifically ask for ‘Alaska’ when ordering white poinsettias. Its clean looks makes it perhaps the best white poinsettia to date.”
Kuivenhoven is MPS A, MPS “GAP and Global GRASP certified and one of the few poinsettia growers that have also earned MPS Product Proof recognition. MPS Product Proof provides the company with a calculation tool that helps develop comprehensive and reliable inventories of possible (systemic) pesticides on their flowers and plants. An accurate assessment of substances allows Kuivenhoven to demonstrate to their customers the absence of specific active ingredients used in crop protection products and that all present substances are safe.
In other fields, Kuivenhoven also works hard to leave a positive footprint on their environment. Their poinsettias are grown in carbon-free pots, which potentially could reduce plastic waste. Contrary to black pots, the waste processor can easily detect the carbon-free pots light grey colour to get recycled. Zwinkels comments, “Above ground, I haven’t spotted any difference in the plant’s habit. However, we can see that roots develop less on the outer side when removing the carbon-free pots. Plants grown in traditional black pots, on the contrary, feature a well-developed root system. This assessment requires further research. We hope to get better insights into root development and the possible impact on shelf life by washing off roots.”