Customers reap rewards from long-standing family business Erik Boterdaele bvba

Erik Boterdaele bvba is a family-run plant nursery specialising in evergreen shrubs,  established in 2006 in the village of Wetteren, Belgium. Owner and second generation grower Erik Boterdaele is committed to minimising or reducing the adverse environmental impact of his nursery.

Erik Boterdaele.

A bit of history to start with. In 1960, Erik’s father began growing tropical houseplants including tuberous Begonias, Asparagus and Cissus before settling on producing evergreen shrubs such as Hebe, Choisya ternata, Euonymus, Fatsia, Hedera, Prunus and Viburnum. Hebe, endemic to New Zealand and North America, is currently the company’s core product.

Erik and Isabelle Boterdaele took over the business from Erik’s parents in 2000. Today, Erik Boterdaele bvba, which has 1 ha under glass and 4 ha of field production, sells its plants to  retail and wholesale customers.

The company offers all the professional capabilities of a major national plant nursery along with the dedicated customer care and flexible service you would expect from a long-standing family business with a proud 50 year history. Erik, named Belgium’s Grower of the Year in 2014, and his team have worked hard to create an atmosphere of eco-friendly practices in their two locations.


Over the past 16 years, Erik has seen a lot of changes but probably the most dramatic one was in microeconomics with the market evolving into a buyer’s market in regards to having an adundance of choices. “We are increasingly forced to go the extra mile to sell our plants and to make buyers feel welcome. I remember when we started back in 2000 how buyer’s came over at least three times during summer. Today, we have to be proactive in reaching out to potential buyers. Whether it is participating  in trade shows such as Florall, Plantarium or the Royal FloraHolland Autumn Fair or cross promotion via sales platforms or social media, building a relationship with your customers is key,” emphasised Boterdaele.

Overall, the market seems to be more volatile than in the past. “Take the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. Due to a low pound,  the UK market, responsible for 30 to 35 per cent of our export sales, totally collapsed. More recently, the UK voted to leave the European Union with longer term issues being difficult to predict. Much will depend on what will happen to the pound.”

Considerable skill

Boterdaele bvba produces in excess of 500,000 plants annually of which 200,000 are Hebe. Though often described as a hassle-free shrub for the private garden, commercially growing Hebe in greenhouses and out in the container field is an activity that requires considerable skill. “It all boils down to a good understanding of plant growth and development and timely spacing of the crop,” said Boterdaele.

Plug plants are raised from cuttings that are flown in from Kenya, where a sizeable number of mother stock plants have been built up over the past few years. Regular prunings during the African winter provide sufficient propagation material with one, two and six cuttings placed in 10.5cm, 17cm and 27cm pots respectively.

“Starting in April we receive the first deliveries of pre-finished plants which subsequently are finished in August, September and October. Average crop time from growing on to finish take four to five months, depending on the weather conditions,” explained Boterdaele.

Product portfolio

A good start is only half the work and that’s exactly why Boterdaele exclusively works with the series Classica (variegated leaves), Donna (green leaves) and Petita (small-leaved) cultivars. All of them are bred by Danish Hebe king Kjærgårdsminde from Nyborg. “In the early years there was predominantly demand for variegated and mostly pink varieties but green-leaved cultivars have grown more popular lately as they offer a much broader range of colours. In October, however, the French market demands mostly variegated types as these are used for city container plantings bringing out spectacular foliage colour,” outlined Boterdaele.

The Boterdaele varieties were also selected on high density and uniformity with plants ready for the market at more or less the same time. Green-leaved ‘Donna Emma’, ‘Donna Camilla’ and ‘Donna Sofia’, for example feature an uniform finishing, while in the variegated series vigor and timing of ‘Donna Katarina’ and ‘Classica Golden’ are equally uniform.”

As for the generally accepted rule of thumb that small-leaved varieties are more frost resistant than the large-leaved Hebes, Erik says that once established in the soil Hebe is a hardy plant in the container. However, container grown specimen, grown as a seasonable plant, will always be more sensitive to frost.”


Erik is proud to keep the family company going. The plants that Boterdaele sells have changed markedly since the early 1960s, however their traditional values remain the same with Erik priding himself on product quality,  quality service and selection of plants. But this didn’t stop him from looking for ways to embed sustainability across the company. Erik likes to summarize today’s company philosophy with three Ps’: profit, people and planet. This so-called triple bottom line (TBL) aims to measure the financial, social and environmental performance of the plant nursery.

Efficient watering and reuse of irrigation water is a cornerstone of the company. To save water greenhouse and packing area runoff is harvested and stored in a 400m3 tank. The water from this tank is used to water the greenhouse and container field and has fertiliser injected into it as it is pumped to them.

Irrigation water is recycled  using a slow sand filtration system (Table 1) in place with the filter consisting of a bed of sand, gravel and cobblestones through which irrigation water slowly passes. Filtered water is stored in a ‘treated water’ tank. The total system has a storage capacity of 900m3 with 800,000 litres water readily available if necessary. Erik finds it difficult to outline the clear financial rewards, estimating the system allows him to save around 2000kg of fertiliser/year. “The cost saving may not be directly noticeable, but we see it as our responsibility to slowdown fertilizer runoff and to water wisely,”Boterdaele said. He added, “ But truth be told we are not 100% self-sufficient in water as we are forced to use from a nearby lake when the weather is hot.”

Labour savings

Meanwhile, replacing employees and reducing work hours through an automated potting line and forklifts to transport plants from the greenhouse to the container field have provided direct labor savings. “When we started back in 2000 we had three workers employed full time,” recalled Boterdaele. He continued, “Sixteen years on, the company has doubled in size while we are still employing three full time workers. As for the workforce, we don’t encounter serious problems retaining a qualified workforce as the Ghent area is home to large  Turkish, Morrocan and Bulgarian communities who are interested in working in greenhouse production. I also believe that the Belgian law on seasonal workers works well and it might even be the case that labour is somewhat cheaper here in Belgium than in the Netherlands where growers usually work with temp agencies. ”

Sustainable production

In terms of sustainable practices Boterdaele is always looking for ways to better use PGRs. “This can be achieved by selecting shorter varieties, such as our Petita line. We simply avoid growing vigorous plants in small pot sizes. As such we would prefer to grow a Hebe Granda Blue in a 27cm pot instead of 17cm or 19cm pots. Nikka is another example of a lavishly growing Hebe which would be too big for a 10.5cm pot.”

Whether a miniature potted Hebe or giant Hebes for instant consumer appeal, top quality is always a priority, says Boterdaele. But delivering disease-free plants is not something that should be taken for granted, he emphasised. “A vascular wilt disease can wreak havoc on Hebe, especially with constantly changing weather conditions from soaking wet to scorching heat. Just before blooming there can be a sudden outbreak. The problem is that Hebe wilt can easily go unnoticed until the symptoms become severe. One should constantly monitor his crop. Healthy mother stock plants are equally important though I am inclined to believe that this disease is in the plant’s DNA as I have heard stories of unhealthy tissue culture plants. Overall, the variegated types and some of the green-leaved types seem to be less sensitive to this disease. As for the more frequent downy mildew, we are currently testing biostimulants which are administered to the plants via overhead watering. It is too early to know the results but so far we haven’t had any serious mildew problems despite the record rainfall and damp weather in June.”


Over 30 per cent of Boterdaele plants are sold through auction to Dutch wholesalers who ship them to garden centres, supermarkets, wholesalers and florists.  “Up to 95 per cent of the plants are sold through Royal FloraHolland’s Plantconnect intermediary service. Currently I am candidate-member of the auction as I sell the minimum 20 per cent of my turnover through Royal FloraHolland. As a candidate member I am preparing for full membership against a reduced fee. In turn, I have to prove my ability to meet the full membership criteria within five years, each year selling an additional 10% of my turnover via the auction. This first year, I can easily sell the required amount of plants via the auction. How this will play out next year is difficult to say at present,” said Erik adding that the 100 per cent payment guarantee and quickness of payments are for him the major benefits of auction membership. “But it is also a question of the auction bringing worldwide supply and demand together. To me the interlinked network of traders and logistic providers is unmatched. But Boterdaele plants can also be found on the FloraXchange and PlantConnect online platforms with notably FloraXChange offering the possibility to get really connected with buyers offering them tailor-made sales via Facebook, for example.”


Hebe hotspot

True to tradition Azaleas are the quintessential ornamental plant from the Ghent area. But over the years, Ghent has also evolved into a Hebe hotspot. The region hosts four Hebe growers: Erik Boterdaele in Wetteren, Stefan de Jaeger/De Jaeger-Say in Laarne, Kris en Wim Van de Casserie in Lochristi en Stefan Floré in Lochristi. All together they cover an area of 15 hectares, producing in excess 1.5 million Hebe plants per year.    

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