Willy De Nolf Nurseries, a 30 ha freehold, wholesale plant production nursery, specialises in growing hardy nursery stock. The family-owned business has reaped significant benefits from broadening its horizons beyond a single product, export market or major customer.
In a tall greenhouse with seemingly choreographed perfection two workers collect freshly-pruned branches of Frangula alnus ‘Fine Line’. The harvest is from healthy, vigorous shrubs that are being grown as a finished crop. Pruning not only gives them a more uniform look but also serves as cutting material for the next generation of plants at De Nolf’s.
Speaking of next generation, Karel, Laura and Lucas De Nolf are the second generation of the family business started by their father, who in 1985, started to produce container-grown nursery stock on 15 ha land. Situated over two locations in Waregem and Lochristi, the De Nolfs currently grow 30 ha of perennials, shrubs, conifers, climbers and trees and produce in excess of 1.6 million plants annually. The unheated greenhouse and polytunnel facilities cover 5 ha including propagation facilities.
Like any other plant production nursery, propagation at De Nolf’s plays a vital role in the profitability of the business. The company attaches great importance to clean and sound propagation techniques. Karel De Nolf: “Softwood cuttings are taken from most deciduous shrubs in June and July while undergoing their annual ‘eazycut’. The cutting material is stuck in a 24 or 28 cell propagation tray or propagation plug and first transplanted into 10.5 cm (half litre) pots. Almost all of the shrubse ‘grown on’ in 3.6 litre pots whereas the vast majority of specimen-sized varieties and half standard trees are grown in 10 litre pots.”
Pots are lined out to give them space to grow on during an average of 10 months. De Nolf said that in terms of propagation, up to 75% of the plant parts are harvested from their own plants. “Additionally, we have set aside specially planted mother stock for the annual cutting harvest. The remaining tissue culture plants (some perennials and conifers) and grafting material are purchased from growers of lining out stock.”
Holding over 1,600 varieties in their portfolio, Willy De Nolf Nurseries is a prime example of business diversification, offering a wide range of products to a broad client base (garden retailers, wholesalers, webshops, landscapers and garden designers) at home (40%) and abroad (60%). Export markets include France, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Special mention should be made regarding plant exports to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which explains the company’s presence at the annual FlowersExpo trade exhibition in Moscow in September.
At De Nolf, tractors, fork-lifts, Eazy Cut trimmers and potting machinery hum away on the greenhouse floor. De Nolf sees mechanisation as one solution to rising costs, but humans will always be necessary. “In smaller pot sizes, the handling of plant material being moved, spaced, planted, potted and labelled is mechanised as much as possible. From 10 litre pots and up, the work is often physical. An automated irrigation system allow us to cover large areas.”
De Nolf has 22 permanent employees including management, which rises to 40 in season, the additional staff comprised equally of Polish and local workers. Uncertainty about the future workforce is putting pressure on the sector. In Europe, the pool of seasonal labour is reducing annually. So far, De Nolf said, the pressure is manageable and that the country’s seasonal agricultural workers scheme provides an efficient supply of labour. “We would welcome any proposal to lengthen the period of the scheme as this is currently not more than three months. On the other hand, tax benefits are clearly an advantage.”
The company takes great pride in launching every year over 50 -100 plant novelties every year. Branded products are high on the agenda. As such, De Nolf’s own flagship brand, Noble Selection, is comprised of distinctive plants that differentiate themselves by their outstanding garden performance and MPS A and MPS GAP certification.
According De Nolf, Noble Selection simplifies decision making. The brand offers ILVO trialled and tested plants. In Hydrangeas, garden roses and perennials, the cream of the crop is sold under the Endless Summer (in blue pots), Easy Elegance and First Editions brands respectively, all of which are backed and owned by Minnesota-based Bailey Nurseries. De Nolf also sells a portion of its plants under the ‘mother of all plant brands’ label: Proven Winners.
As sustainable as possible
De Nolf grows its plants as sustainably as possible. An environmental policy has earned them MPS GAP and MPS A certification. Containerised production is done on lava beds. They recently refurbished part of their beds as wheeled machinery caused compaction and puddles. Lava bases are a good example of efficient water management. The mixture of lava and sand in combination with a ‘filtering’ cloth purify the water.
A retention pond including a mechanical filter is a vital part of a closed loop water system that contains excess drain and rainwater and re-circulates it. Irrigation run offs and rainwater is collected. “There is no leaching of fertilizers since we coated slow-release coated fertilizers directly to the potting soil”, said De Nolf. He added they are in the early stages of implementing a wind turbine that will halve their electric bill, making a substantial reduction of their carbon footprint.