HOEK VAN HOLLAND, Netherlands: In his new greenhouse complex, Perry van de Haak sat down with FCI to share his thoughts on the search for the perfect Pelargonium and on the multitude of demands that come with the seasonal business of Pelargonium propagation.
Ask Perry van der Haak for the most persuasive pelargoniums in the value chain and he’ll energetically jump up from his chair, walk into his greenhouse and immediately start to move containers around, remodelling his landscape until he has composed a series that has most uniform flower timing for growers and makes the most striking display on the retail bench. Here’s a man who developed a passion for Pelargonium and all things associated with that market.
Future-orientated family business
Having deep roots in horticulture is how you can aptly describe the company history. It’s the story of a future-oriented family business, which has developed from a one-man-band to an internationally renowned company selling Pelargonium cuttings to customers in over 25 European countries with cutting production in Africa, a state of the art rooting station in the Netherlands and a trading partner in the USA.
The Van der Haak name goes back to 1964 when Perry’s father Piet swapped growing butterhead lettuce and tomatoes for Pelargonium, the plant known for its unrivalled beauty and stable ranking. In fact, Pelargoniums are the ‘life and soul of the garden party ’ constituting for a large part the garden retailer’s ability to drive all other bedding plant sales.
“When I joined the business thirty years ago we used to grow finished and semi-finished plants and a handful of stock plants for cuttings which were sold at the local market. Slowly but steadily we expanded our cutting business, planted our first mother stock plants in Kenya and began to export our plant material. Today, we stick over 75 million cuttings per year,” says second-generation Perry van der Haak, attributing 80% of his turnover to income from exports. “Close to home (‘s-Gravenzande), the UK, Belgium, Germany, France and Austria were our first export ventures and continue to be the most successful accounting for 50% of total turnover.”
The customer base ranges from small scale growers and specialist producers to large greenhouse operations selling to big boxes and chains. “Basically we can handle anything from single trays to full-load shipments,” says Perry explaining that for transportation the company chooses groupage shipping solutions. “We make clever use of the many trucks that are on the road daily between the Dutch flower auctions and clients across Europe.”
Perry admits that for all its beauty, Pelargonium has a questionable reputation for creating nomenclatural confusion since the times of Linnaeus. Pelargoniums are incorrectly known as Geraniums, but the true geranium is a hardy perennial while Pelargoniums are frost tender bedding plants and originate mostly from South Africa. Being consistent with the Pelargonium name matters. “But the plant has a different name in different countries. In Holland, it’s called geranium but when you travel to Scandinavia they talk about Pelargonium.”
Consistency in branding may be more important. Perry references the Toscana brand, an extensive line of over a hundred Pelargoniums, ideally suited for retail promotions and specialist producers alike.
Toscana’s ancestors hail from Papenburg, Germany, he explains. “From the family-owned plant nursery Silze to be more precise. Founded in 1899, Silze made a name in Pelargonium breeding selling its genetic stock in 2012 to their long-time business partner Florensis, P. van der Haak and Ball Flora Plant, who now jointly own the Toscana brand. Developing the Toscana breeding programme is the task of Fabienne Monte at Florensis headquarters in Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht, while we do all the rooting of Toscana varieties. Ball provides an extensive global network selling Toscanas under the Galaxy brand in the North American market.”
Full steam ahead
Over the past few years, Toscana’s brand owners have been pursuing their product expansion strategy full throttle with the line of Endisch Pelargoniums being the latest addition to the Toscana family. Currently, English offspring can be spotted in Toscana’s Trend, Rainbow and Big5 series. “With Endisch we are adding value to customers active in the Eastern and Southern European market as the brand includes a number of heat-tolerant, beefy interspecific hybrids –ivy leaf varieties crossed with zonals – with outstanding garden performance.”
The team behind Toscana actively manages the product portfolio to ensure true alignment with their customers and needs. As such, Toscana classification is kept simple: X, M and C lines stand for large, medium and compact plants respectively. Much prominence is given to Toscana Dolce Vita M Line for 10.5 and 12 cm pots including a number of killer geraniums such as Mylena (dark foliage contrasting with vivid red florets), Magical Eyes (with patterns of flecks and specks) and Lollipops with white or rose petals edged in red. Attracting the attention at this year’s FlowerTrials was the specked Claire Rose Red Eye in the Castello M Line series and the Smart M Line for 10.5 and 12 cm pots and coming in a wide variety of colours.
When looking back on 30 years of experience in the Pelargonium industry, Perry says that if you could grow Pelargoniums from 30 years ago side by side today’s assortment, one would be amazed to see the degree of progress achieved in breeding resulting in plants with greater uniformity, better garden performance, extended (retail) shelf life, bolder colours and an easy-to-control greenhouse habit.
It’s no secret that dark foliage in the garden is hot. Think Benary’s Mocca Begonia or Heuchera Palace Purple. In 2002, the seed-raised AAS winner Pelargonium Black Velvet Rose truly created a stir with its exceptionally dark, chocolate foliage with a green edge which contrasts nicely with its rose blooms. Perry: “Seed and cutting raised Pelargonium are completely different worlds. In vegetative Pelargonium production, breeding focuses also on mother plants with important questions such as: Do they produce enough cuttings and are these easy to harvest and to transport? Meanwhile, Toscana Dolce Vita and Castello are good examples of how to successfully expand the darker zones on the foliage. However, truly black leaved Pelargoniums are still rare. They are seed-raised and flower very late in the season, making them unattractive from the commercial point of view.”
Perfection in Pelargonium starts with a quality cutting. A global supply chain, involving many suppliers and sub-suppliers; a product easily prone to diseases such as Ralstonia and Xanthomonas; and the need for consistent, high quality together presents a considerable range of challenges for the company. “First, we minimise risks in Kenya by growing our cuttings in NAKT Elite greenhouses. NAKT Elite is a Dutch certification scheme. Certified starting material is free from relevant pathogens, guaranteed by testing protocols in combination with a quality management system,” Perry explains.
The next step is transportation by plane which demand an extra level of care and attention. Too low a temperature will result in cold damage, while too high a temperature will cause cuttings to start producing ethylene. What’s more, daily and on-time delivery is crucial but not always something to be taken for granted. Perry: “Especially in the run-up to Valentine’s Day airfreight capacity is an issue. Cuttings delayed by one day means that the next day we have to stick two shipments with all the problems involved in staffing. My point is that at every stage of the supply chain, from the cutting farm in Kenya to the retail shelves across Europe, Pelargonium is expensive in terms of handling. Mother stock plants require space; in terms of transportation costs, cuttings are relatively heavy; and once in the greenhouse plants require spacing and lots of light. Even in the garden centre plants must be given enough space. It can, therefore, be frustrating that such a high-cost product is used for retail promotions.”
The art of Pelargonium growing
Perry stresses that there’s an art to growing Pelargonium adding that his new 3.2ha glasshouse complex built by Technokas, with 8 variable temperature zones, allows him to control the environment and create optimum conditions.
To date, cuttings continue to be stuck manually under sanitary conditions. Though the company was the first to trial the new Autostix technology by Visser. Perry is reluctant to provide any details on the outcome of these trials without expressing any preference for Autostix or ISO cutting planters. “But it’s clear that the industry is in need of a solution to address the ever-growing problem of labour shortage.”
P van der Haak supplies its cuttings in 2.5 and 3.5 Ellepots for retail and speciality crop growers respectively. Once cuttings are stuck, special attention is given to a balanced mist schedule with the callus forming first week being the most critical phase and starter plants needing an almost continuous film of water on their leaves. A good root system will have developed within 3.5 weeks and prior to shipping, acclimatisation prepares young plants for outdoor conditions. This is done the ‘attic’ of the tallest of the two new greenhouses. While the ground floor of the two-storey greenhouse is used as packing area the second floor serves as acclimatisation room with large window vents and diffused glass adapting the starter plants to tougher conditions.
The folks at P vd Haak are specialists. This means that pelargonium propagation and off-peak production of a limited number of finished plants (to keep their fingers on the pulse of the bedding plant industry) is all that they do. “In the past we have been tempted to add other products but the main benefits of being a specialist is being able to complete specific tasks at a very high level, upscaling our production to large volumes while still adding value to our products by innovative breeding,” outlines Perry as he walks us through the greenhouses where the first potted cuttings were placed on Codema’s high tech bench system at the end of 2016.
Perry opted for Codema as the company is known for having an impressive track record in horticultural logistics using high strength aluminium alloys. “For us ‘Codema’ primarily stands for reliability and safety.”
Logistics and water treatment
The company’s logistics are a prime example of ‘First in first out’ greenhousing, an inventory control method in which the first plants to come into the greenhouse are the first to leave. “Initially we thought about growing on the floor but a bench system puts less strain on the backs of our employees, saves time and also makes sanitary sense for our young plants. Speaking of sanitary: following each turnaround, benches are directed to the washing unit to be cleaned with odourless quaternary ammonium disinfectant concentrate.
Perry briefly explains that all irrigation water is recycled from the benches after it has been purified by Opticlear Diamond. This is a system developed by Wateriq for the treatment of process water combining ozone and hydrogen peroxide, molecular adsorption with an advanced oxidation process. Perry says Opticlear Diamond results in lower energy bills when compared to UV and that the system has a capacity of 24m3 of water per hour.
The Van der Haaks ensure that their large structure propagation nursery minimises its environmental footprint with measures including harvesting rainwater run-off in 6 underground water retention basins (each holding 250m3 of water) along with an IPM programme.
P vd Haak quick facts:
total greenhouse area: 5ha including 3ha greenhouse expansion in 2016.
Newly built greenhouses:
Second generation Perry van der Haak.
All irrigation water is recycled from the benches after it has been purified by Opticlear Diamond.
Off-peak production of a limited number of finished plants is meant to keep fingers on the pulse of the bedding plant industry.
Perry van der Haak: always keen to compose a series that has most uniform flower timing for growers and makes the most striking display on the retail bench.
Bird’s eye view of the ‘s-Gravenzande-based company.
This year, P vd Haak’s put on an excellent FlowerTrials show.
P vd Haak is located 6 Van Oosthuyzelaan in ’s-Gravenzande, Netherlands.
The tallest greenhouse includes a two-storey section for plant acclimatisation, cutting sticking, sorting and packing.
Variegated and coloured leaved Pelargonium: a proof that the company’s product portfolio is extensive.