In Flanders Fields, where ornamental trees and plants grow – Episode 2

The Flanders’ Agricultural Marketing Board (VLAM) invited FCI to see a cross-section of ornamental horticulture in the province of Antwerp and the Kempen, aka Campine. Episode two takes us to Fargesia and Hydrangea specialist Plant Select in Rijkevorsel, Boomkwekerij Peers in Ranst and De Bruyn Boomkwekerij in Begijnendijk.

The self-governing Flanders Region includes the provinces of Antwerp, East Flanders, Limburg, Flemish Brabant, and West Flanders. Ornamental horticulture geographically concentrates in East Flanders, with Wetteren and Lochristie being epicentres of nursery stock and flowering pot plant production, respectively.

In the province of Antwerp, nursery stock and potted plant growers are much more scattered. So, the tiny town of Lier, 20km east of Antwerp, is a great location to explore seven of the region’s leading companies. Because departing from Lier’s city centre, they are all within a 50km radius.

Feico Smit is Plant Select’s business development manager.

Plant Select

Plant Select in Rijkevorsel is firmly rooted in ornamental horticulture and owns a 1,300m2 newly-build tissue culture laboratory, an adjoining 6ha of greenhouse space, with a total output of 1.2 million containerised (Fargesia) plants, and 100,000 (Hydrangea) plug plants.

The company’s forerunner, Oprins, had been selling nursery stock since 1991, with Jan and Paul Oprins and Chantal Quirijnen establishing markets across Europe.

The latter has held the CEO position since private equity firm Group MC acquired the company and management in 2020. Quirijnen’s colleague and the company’s business development manager, Feico Smit, has a long track record in the ornamentals sector worldwide. Smit has fulfilled different management roles at flower farms abroad, having worked for rose grower Mount Elgon Orchards in Kenya, Sjaak van Schie Hydrangeas in Portugal, Royal Van Zanten’s Chrysanthemum cutting farm in Uganda, and for rose grower Terra Nigra’s Kenya branch.

While he greatly enjoyed being ‘out in Africa’, he loves working closer to home. He savours the good things of the garden plant industry: its friendly, down-to-earth atmosphere, pervasive product range and a strong focus on plant quality and diversity rather than on mass production and quick turnarounds.

Smit says, “I take pride in working for a unique company, in that we are the only business which multiplies Fargesia, a non-running bamboo, and speciality Hydrangeas through tissue culture to ensure the cleanest, most uniform, and quickest stock availability. The bamboo’s spiritual and cultural significance, attractiveness and versatility are also at stake. It can be used to decorate gardens and patio pots, in construction, clothing, and fuel and energy. It perfectly fits the sustainability era as it soaks up five times more carbon dioxide than trees because of its quick-growing capabilities. Nine out of ten images featuring pandas depict them eating bamboo. So, the plant also has a soft, cuddly power.”

Private equity firms such as Group MC, which also owns fruit tree grower Carolus Fruit Trees from Nieuwerkerken and apple and pear breeder ABC2 from Hasselt, have always looked for innovative companies with growth potential. Smit reckons that apart from the money, Group MC brings substantial knowledge in horticultural production and royalty management as they manage several lines of PBR-protected fruit trees. Smit explains, “Private equity can be reluctant to invest in horticulture out of fear of losing control in an unfamiliar world. This is typically not the case with Group MC, a family business that knows exactly what the plant talk is about.”

Smit adds that ‘differentiating yourself in a crowded marketplace’ provides a strong basis for success. “Jan Oprins, his colleague Hilde, Head of the Laboratory, in collaboration with reputed research institutes such as ILVO, have been developing a unique tissue culture protocol for Fargesia for 30 years and are still fine-tuning it.”

As with other bamboo, large-scale Fargesia propagation is daunting because the plants flower at long intervals and some species are sterile. Vegetative propagation by division is complex, lengthy, and involves weighty, difficult-to-extract clumps.

Smit puts it this way: “If bamboo number one causes troublesome propagation, the next one undoubtedly will cause even more trouble. Experts tell me that in lavender, for example, you can easily establish a mother stock between 4-8 weeks using tissue culture. It can take two years or much longer in bamboo. More recently, Plant Select helped a desperate Fargesia breeder who had proudly created a new cultivar but found it impossible to multiplicate by division.”

Plant Select grows Fargesia plants under the typical tissue culture laboratory conditions, multiplicates clumps roots, and weans them, after which they are grown in two-litre pots sold to predominantly bamboo growers across Europe who finish them. Customers in the Netherlands include Fargesia specialists such as Hoogeveen Plants, Bamboekwekerij Hoekse Waard and Kolster. A smaller portion of same-size pots find their way into the retail supply chain. Smit enthuses, “Retailers simply love them. We grow our plants evenly and uniformly, bringing great loading efficiency. One Danish trolley easily fits 600 P9 pots.”

Following the same stages to micropropagation are the woodiest and thus most complex Hydrangeas to multiplicate, such as serrata, quercifolia, and aspera. Smits explains, “Other Hydrangeas are much easier raised from cuttings. Yet, the breeder will still use micropropagation as this leads to better-branched specimens.”

Occupying pride of place are wholly-owned Hydrangea paniculata ‘Wim’s Red’ with burgundy-red young wood and the ground-covering ‘Magic Pillow’ plus a swath of other speciality Hydrangeas, mostly bought from third parties.

Plant Select sells its Hydrangea plug plants to growers who finish them. Plant Select also produces saleable plants for retail chains across Europe.

Smit concludes by saying there’s growing interest from Dutch plant breeders to micro-propagate small batches of ‘first breeds’. He elaborates, “At that stage, breeders are still assessing the market potential of new cultivars and find in Plant Select a partner who can keep and treat their newly bred plants in confidence.”

Another side business is growing Phyllostachys for biomass now that additional space is available in the recently completed laboratory.

When asked if tissue culture in Belgium is not too much of a capital-intensive and costly endeavour considering the high labour costs, Smit concludes, “While the unit price per plant might be lower when sourcing TC plantlets from India or Indonesia, the pertinent question is what quality of plants you receive. If half of the plants have died during shipment, you might think twice. Our short distance to the market and profound and specific crop knowledge is the perfect recipe for success.”

Boomkwekerij Peers

“The price of almost everything is increasing, including peat, labour, and energy. When looking at 2022, price hikes have generally been deeper and more frequent, occurring six times in a single year,” says second-generation Dimitri Peers, who since 2013 has been at the helm of Boomkwekerij Peers. Peers is a 20ha freehold nursery growing a wide range of hedging plants, conifers, shrubs, and perennials.

Dimitri Peers, of Boomkwekerij Peers, took his early education in engineering and currently oversees the plant nursery his parents started.

He, his parents, and a team of 11 staff try to navigate the higher inflationary environment by prudently adjusting the prices for the company’s customer base, predominantly comprised of landscapers, garden maintenance companies and garden centres. Making sure they are justified from a cost standpoint.

Established in 1980 by Dimitri’s parents, Louis de Swert and Sonja Peers, Peers sustains a shared identity as a family focused on business efficiency, high-density production and thus quick turnarounds, cost-savings, and selling plants of the ‘right quality, delivered at the right quantity and the right price’.

Dimitri says investing in machinery and greenhouses is critical to maintaining their competitive edge, referencing the 1,000m2 shade hall with a retractable roof. The greenhouse structure protects against wind, hail, and solar radiation, helps modify the environment and extends the growing season in cold and warm weather. The shade house also reduces irrigation needs during the summer.

Environmental concerns, increasing risk of supply limitations and stringent EU legislation are leading the company to review its water management practices. While still relying on overhead irrigation, recently completed closed-loop gravel beds linked to a retention pond and sand filter are designed to harvest, store and re-use excess irrigation and rainwater. The system also reduces nutrient leaching and pesticide run-off. It also helps to minimise labour costs as there is less need for weeding.

Dimitri explains that the company relies primarily on hand weeding. It is more expensive than a herbicide programme with three people out in the field facing what he calls a challenging task’ of regular monitoring so prompt action can be taken, including removing any weeds. Pine (Pinus sylvestris) bark mini-nugget mulch helps to control weeds successfully.

Another labour-intensive job is the potting, repotting, and transplanting in trays, plugs and pots of the approximately one million softwood cuttings harvested in June and July by Easycut.

Half of the plants are grown in P9 pots using a growing medium containing less peat. Finding tailormade recipes for peat alternatives is a work in progress, with the company currently using a medium comprised of 35-40 per cent wood and coir.

Commenting on the current market demand, Dimitri recalls how, during COVID-19, practically any plant nursery did very well, and Peers is no different. We were running out of supply in Buddleias, Deutzias and Philadelphus, but there’s currently more market equilibrium. Prunus lusitanica angustifolia and Buxus ‘substitutes’ such as Ilex crenata, Taxus (seed-raised and sourced from speciality growers in Zundert) and Ligustrum are among the company’s strongest sellers.

Zundert in the Netherlands is also an important export destination, with Peers attributing 50 per cent of its turnover to income from exports to Zundert, a market that is served daily.

De Bruyn Boomkwekerij

A one-stop shop for quality nursery stock, the 150ha tree nursery De Bruyn at Begijnendijk, halfway Heist op den Berg and Aarschot, offers landscapers, garden designers and local authorities an extensive range of deciduous trees, evergreens, conifers, shrubs, hedging plants, perennials, and grasses in over 1,000 different genera, species, cultivars, and types of plants.

Ben Verlinden is Head of Sales at De Bruyn.

The company is owned by Thierry De Bruyn, whose grandfather began growing fruit trees and conifers in the 1920s. After an interval in the 1970s when the land and buildings were sold, the company re-emerged in a different location spanning 3ha. Initially, De Bruyn also included a landscaping section, which was discontinued in 2006.

From there, the focus has been on nursery stock production only, with the company growing by leaps and bounds. Today, the nursery is one of the largest in Belgium, covering 150 ha of land.

A team of 26 employees takes care of replanting, staking, pruning, grubbing, selling, and delivering plant material of the highest quality, produced and handled with respect for the plant and its environment. Perennials and shrubs are still sold so that both green professionals and private customers can find everything they need for their green projects from start to finish.

De Bruyn Tree Nursery offers green solutions for projects of all sizes in public and private gardens. Their trees and plants can be found in public spaces, streets, landscapes, parks, and gardens. They regularly receive groups of professionals or students at the nursery, thus contributing to lifelong learning about trees in both the public and private domain.

At De Bruyn, diversity and biodiversity go hand in hand. So, the range is cultivated with respect for the plant and its environment. For ten years, the nursery has no longer used insecticides and fungicides.

The grass strips between the trees are sown with flowers to stimulate biodiversity. Butterflies, bees, and other insects have a food source and ensure pollination.
De Bruyn Tree Nursery is MPS-A certified.

In the future, they will stay focused on cultivating sustainably. They contribute by participating in events to support greening goals, for example, by supporting the Climate Pact, a joint venture between Flanders and the VVSG (Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities). In this way, they also try to inform public authorities of the possibilities and mobilise them to put biodiversity on the agenda. De Bruyn Tree Nursery will promote known species and new varieties that fit this vision.

Planting of trees with the help of GPS.

This article was first published in the November 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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