Despite having gained a growing reputation in the world of plant breeding over the years, cultivation of pot and bedding plants is still German breeder Westhoff’s main focus. Owner Christian Westhoff swears by this unique combination as – as he puts it – it creates a win-win situation. His breeding operations encompass a wide range of pot and bedding plants.
The German town of Südlohn, near the border with the Netherlands, is the home base of this plant breeder. It’s not a typical horticultural area and is by no means the kind of region where you’d expect to find one of the country’s leading pot and bedding plant producers. “The nearest horticultural business is around 80 km down the road. We are very much a fish out of water in this region, which is predominantly agricultural,” says Christian Westhoff, the current manager of the business.
The foundation for the present-day business was laid 60 years ago by Christian’s father Heinrich and uncle Josef. They started out growing young vegetable plants and cultivating chrysanthemums on an area of 80 m2.
The company underwent a sudden growth spurt in the 1970s when the Westhoffs won the contract to supply the “green” mail-order company Ahrens+Sieberz. “We started growing pot and bedding plants then, and that gradually became our largest product group,” Westhoff says. “In the mid-1990s it was time to take the next step: breeding our own pot and bedding plants, as the mail-order company wanted to be able to regularly feature new products in its range. To begin with we focused on developing new Lobelias and Scaevolas, but now our breeding activities cover a wide range of pot and bedding plants. We propagate them from cuttings.”
The company gradually built up its position as a breeder and is now one of the mid-sized businesses in the sector. The launch of a number of successful new plants played a key role in this. Westhoff: “In 1995 we introduced Scaevola ‘Saphira’, for example, which featured good branching and compact growth. In the years that followed we did very well with plants like the heat-resistant Lobelia Hot series, the two-colour Petunia Crazytunia and Calibrachoa Kameleon, which changes colour in different temperatures. Our Karneval concept, which we launched in 2004, also caught on. It consists of several different coloured Calibrachoas in one pot and is still one of our best sellers today. In breeding we are seeing a growing trend in bright colours: multicoloured flowers are on the up.”
Worldwide, there are around twenty young plant nurseries that carry Westhoff genetics, including Florensis, Beekenkamp and Schneider. They then supply the individual growers. “Europe and North America are by far our biggest markets,” Westhoff adds.
Despite the growth the breeding division has undergone over the years, cultivating pot and bedding plants is still the cornerstone of Westhoff’s business. Tens of millions of plants are grown at the Südlohn site, which has 20 hectares of Venlo greenhouses, making it one of the biggest pot and bedding plant suppliers in Germany. “We supply supermarket and DIY chains and various online stores, mainly in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic,” Westhoff says. “We carry a wide product range but the emphasis is on Calibrachoa, Lobelia, Verbena, Scaevola and Petunia. Incidentally, we don’t only grow our own varieties but those of other breeders too.”
Production has grown by around 30 percent in recent years. In 2014 they added a further four hectares to their growing space. Westhoff again: “The fact that we have been supplying flowering plants early in the season for a few years played a big part in this. We are on the market at the end of March, a month earlier than most other suppliers. This has proved to be a good move, as consumer habits have changed over the years. In the past, nobody used to start gardening before mid-May, but now they want things in flower as soon as the sun comes out, even in March when it’s only early spring in the northern hemisphere. Delivering early meant we had to make some adjustments to our cultivation strategy: for example, we now start planting in October and November and we have invested in assimilation lighting.”
According to Westhoff, they are one of the few breeders who also produce their own plants. For the grower this combination has clear added value, not least because it means the new varieties can be tested in a production environment before they come onto the market. “That gives us a better understanding of their potential than you can get from testing them in a research department. It also means we can advise growers better.”
On the other hand, breeding produces added value for customers of their finished pot and bedding plants. “We can regularly offer them something new, which makes us an attractive supplier. In other words, the two pillars reinforce each other and together determine our company’s success. That’s why we want to keep on maintaining this course going forward.”
Focusing on automation
The company currently has no plans to expand further. But Westhoff is intending to invest in more automation over the next few years. “We have already made considerable progress in this area in recent years,” he says. “We have invested in plant robots and we now have an automatic mobile bench system in one part of the nursery. This makes us more flexible, and it also has benefits for the crop: it enables us to target a particular batch for pruning or lighting, for example. But at least as importantly, it saves us work.”
At present the grower, who employs 60 permanent staff and around 100 Polish seasonal workers, sees finding good people as the biggest challenge for the future. “Fewer and fewer young people are considering horticulture as a career option. At the same time, it is becoming harder to find enough people from Poland as prosperity rises there. So automation is a must for that reason. But also because labour is by far our biggest cost item, especially since the minimum wage was introduced in Germany in 2015: that pushed up our staffing costs by several tens of percent.”
Mechanisation is the company’s number one focus for the upcoming years and is a must if it is to make itself future-proof. So what is Westhoff thinking about specifically at the moment? “To begin with, the cuttings robots and a further extension of our mobile bench system,” he says. “But that’s just for starters.”
Westhoff is a well-known German breeder of pot and bedding plants. The company also produces plants itself, supplying tens of millions of flowering plants to retail every year. There is a clear interaction between the two divisions. For the grower this combination has demonstrable added value. Its plans for the future focus mainly on automation because finding enough good workers is becoming a problem in Germany.
Text and images: Ank van Lier.
Quality is the top priority at Gärtnerei Wolter in Babenhausen, Germany, where Ute Gorges and Jörg Wolter specialise in supplying pot plants to the upper market segment. The siblings have adapted their growing strategy accordingly and have invested heavily in automated systems. “That helps us to supply a uniform and high-quality product and means we need less labour.”
Gärtnerei Wolter is situated at the heart of the Federal Republic of Germany, near Frankfurt in the state of Hesse. But the family originates from more than 400 kilometres to the north east: in the region of Magdeburg in former East Germany. “That was where our grandfather started the company in 1898. He initially grew fruit,” says Jörg Wolter. “Our parents moved to Babenhausen at the end of the 1950s – just before the Wall was built. My father started out working for various horticultural companies and began his own nursery in 1968. He built his own greenhouse where he started growing chrysanthemums and gerberas.”
Over time the company expanded and at the end of the 1980s cut flowers were replaced by pot plants and bedding plants. “As the volume of cut flowers imported from the Netherlands grew, profit margins came under increasing pressure,” the grower says. “So my father decided to switch to growing pot plants and bedding plants. My sister Ute and I continued this line of business. We took over the company from our parents in 1999, having already been managing the nursery ourselves for a few years. After the reunification of Germany the state returned my father’s property in former East Germany and he spent several years renovating it.”
Mix and match
When the brother and sister acquired the company it covered 4.3 hectares, which has now expanded to 6.9 hectares. Around 4.6 hectares of land is devoted to growing plants outdoors in pots and containers and the rest is under glass. The majority of the greenhouses are the Venlo type with a span of 12.8 metres.
The range cultivated today has three categories: spring-flowering plants, bedding plants and autumn-flowering plants. Wolter: “In early spring – February and March – we focus on large and small flowering pansies and Bellis perennis daisies. Some of these plants are sold to other growers to be grown on. This allows us to start concentrating on growing our bedding plants earlier. We offer a huge range of bedding plants that includes calibrachoa, petunia, fuchsia, lobelia and verbena, which we mainly supply in 12-centimetre pots. And we are increasingly combining several varieties in the same pot. The trend is all about mix and match!”
The bedding plant season lasts until the end of May. By then the first preparations have been made for the autumn season. “We start potting up Calluna vulgaris in early April. In the autumn we also have other members of the heather family such as erica and empetrum. We also grow various grass varieties, heuchera and calocephalus in the autumn. So we really focus on seasonal products here.”
Majority via direct sales
The plants mainly go to local garden centres and cemetery horticulturists. “This is a typically German phenomenon ¬– companies that tend graves on behalf of the relatives”, he explains. “But we also supply other nurseries and sell to the specialist trade. In addition, around 30 percent of our products are sold via the German marketing organisation Landgard’s cash and carry outlets. But we supply the majority via direct sales, which is a big plus. The margins are much better.”
Wolter emphasises that direct sales also involve considerable organisational challenges. Preparing all these orders for dispatch takes up a lot of time. What’s more, during the season his sister Ute is busy the whole day taking orders and planning the transport. “We have two trailers of our own and we hire the services of an external transport company as well. The fact that most of our products are sold locally here in the Rhine-Main region is an advantage, as the trailers can make several journeys a day.”
Investing in quality
Wolter emphasises that the plants are not sold at giveaway prices. “What our customers, and of course their customers too, want to see is a high-quality product. And they are prepared to pay more for that level of quality. It’s not our aim to supply average quality plants, but absolutely top quality. Only the best is good enough.”
In order to deliver perfect quality, the pot plants and bedding plants are given more space. “The average distance between the pots is 23 centimetres, so the plants are not forced to grow upwards but have space to spread and develop into lovely, bushy plants. There’s no way you could permit that luxury if you were just supplying DIY centres.”
Most of the greenhouses are also open at the sides: instead of glass the sides are closed off with mesh screens that are rolled up and down automatically. This gives better ventilation and the climate is cooler in the greenhouse. This results in more compact plants.
Wolter also says that this approach generally makes for plants that are hardened off better, as just one hectare of the greenhouses is equipped with heating. The grower can’t heat the other greenhouses. “If it gets too cold in winter or early spring, we cover the plants with frost barrier fabric. It requires extra labour input, but it also means that our energy costs are low. And just as importantly, the plants are hardened off better, also when they are planted out in consumers’ gardens.”
The siblings have also invested heavily in automated systems in recent years. For instance, they bought a fully automated production line, a planting robot, a potting machine, a transplanter, a system that processes and doses substrate from big bales, and a sowing line with a tray filler. “In fact, the only thing we do manually is collect the plants that are ready for delivery and prepare the orders,” Wolter explains.
“When we first took over the nursery we had a workforce of ten; now we only employ five people – despite the fact that we underwent significant growth between 2002 and 2012. The fact that we need less labour is a big advantage, as it is getting increasingly difficult to find workers. But what is just as important is that machines always work with precision. Thanks to the automated systems we can supply a more uniform, high quality product.”
According to the grower, the biggest challenge for the future is sustainable and environmentally-friendly cultivation. “The use of crop protection products is increasingly being limited, especially products that are harmful to the bee population. That’s a huge issue here in Germany.”
Aphids are particularly difficult to control, he continues. “We can just about manage with the products still permitted at the moment, but I’m worried about the future. We have also tried using biological predators, but that simply doesn’t work here. We introduced the predators into the greenhouse with a special blower, but most of them ended up on the ground and not in the pots.”
Keeping up with the times
There are no plans to further expand the nursery due to a probable lack of successors to take over the business. “In that position, why should we expand any further?” Wolter asks. “We can continue as we are until we retire.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the company, which is already more than a century old, will cease to exist one day. “One option is to find an external party to carry on the business. But we haven’t yet reached a stage where we are actively looking, so we will wait and see what happens. But in any case, developments won’t stop; we think it’s important to keep up with the times. That also maintains the commercial value of the business. So, the key words for the coming years are automation and optimisation. We have already taken great steps in this area, but there is always room for improvement. As we said, quality is our trade mark. And it has to stay that way.”
Ute Gorges and Jörg Wolter run a pot plant nursery of almost seven hectares in Germany. The focus is on seasonal products, including spring flowering plants, bedding plants and typical autumnal plants such as heathers. Their products are mainly delivered direct to customers including garden centres. The main criterion for their customers is quality; price is less important. In order to deliver the best possible quality, the siblings have invested heavily in automated systems in recent years.
Text and images: Ank van Lier.
Wolfgang and André Ripkens have made a lot of progress in recent years. Apart from investing heavily in automation, the German pot plant growers have also introduced three new sales concepts: Silver-Land, Out-Land and Stone-Land. It turned out to be a great move; the market has responded enthusiastically to the combination of a recognisable look and premium quality. This is generating a lot of added value for father and son.
Topfpflanzen Ripkens is situated in Straelen in the heart of the German Lower Rhine region. This area near the Dutch border is one of Germany’s main horticultural regions. It is plain to see in Straelen: nearly every street boasts at least one horticultural business.
Laurenz Ripkens founded the family business in 1971. Initially they grew both vegetables and cut flowers, but from 1980 pot plants started to play an increasingly important role in the business and in 1990 they switched completely to pot plants. “We’ve tried all sorts of things to find out what suited us best,” says Wolfgang Ripkens (56), who joined the business in 1978. “Cyclamen have played a central part in our cultivation plan. They are particularly interesting because the season covers a large proportion of the year: we deliver cyclamen from the end of June until February. At present we ship 400,000 cyclamen every year, all in 11 cm pots.”
Aside from cyclamen, silver leaf plants are also an important pillar of the business; the entrepreneurs grow Calocephalus, Sanatolina and Festuca, among others. “We deliver around one million silver leaf plants annually, between July and November. Some varieties grow in greenhouses and the rest are kept outside, on the container field,” André explains. He joined the company three years ago and runs it alongside his father.
Lavender became part of the cultivation plan five years ago, and from mid-May onwards father and son deliver around 250,000 lavender plants every year. “We started growing lavender because we didn’t like the container field standing empty for so long every spring,” says Wolfgang. “Our product range is rounded off with Culphea and several Sedum varieties, which are shipped in spring and summer. The variety in our crops keeps us busy year-round and means we can employ our workers throughout the year. We only work with permanent staff and employ ten people in total.”
Expansion and automation
The Ripkens pot plant business comprises 1.5 hectares of greenhouses and 4 hectares of container fields. Most of their greenhouses were built in the 1990s, with 0.4 hectares of new glass being added in 2012. “We use only Venlo greenhouses with 4-metre roofs. Nothing special, really, but it works well for us, especially with the combined energy and sunshade screens that we use.”
In 2012 the container field was also expanded by two hectares, but further growth was not an option, according to Wolfgang. “Our land parcel was packed to the hilt. The only expansion opportunity I can see is if the businesses across the road eventually close. Buying or renting a different location would be too inefficient.”
To boost their existing production, the entrepreneurs recently invested in rolling benches and an internal transportation system. “The optimal use of space that comes with these investments allows us to deliver 20 to 30% more plants annually. That is why this investment more than pays for itself,” André confirms.
Investments in automation
To enable them to process larger quantities and be less dependent on staff, they have also invested heavily in automation over time. In addition to two potting machines with pot dispensers and ejectors, the company works with a special forklift combined with a release fork. “All our potting and ejection machines are supplied by Mayer. We chose Mayer for their quality and service. If there is ever a problem, they always send a mechanic very quickly,” André tells us.
His father emphasises that the high degree of automation helps them to maximise the output of the business. “Despite the increase in production numbers, we haven’t had to hire extra manpower in recent years.”
It doesn’t happen overnight
Father and son Ripkens were keen to up their production as a result of increasing demand, which was all due to the success of the sales concepts they had developed. “It started in 2007 with the Silver-Land concept,” Wolfgang explains. “We had been growing the silver leaf Calocephalus since the 1980s, but because more and more breeders were including this plant in their assortment, the auction price plummeted. That’s when we hit on the idea of combining various silver leaf plants in a single tray, with a recognisable name and look. We called it Silver-Land and put the plants in a blue 12 cm pot with special pot labels. Our triangular blue and green logo also provides a certain level of recognition.”
The market responded well to this concept, which was quite innovative for its time, according to Wolfgang. “But it didn’t happen by itself: we visited many garden centres in the first few years, as well as many trade fairs. We certainly wouldn’t suggest it happened overnight. But we’ve seen great improvements in the past three to four years; our concept is gaining popularity and demand is on the increase.”
Faith in the future
Following this positive market response, the entrepreneurs introduced several other sales concepts. They combine different varieties of cyclamen in a single tray under the name Out-Land, for example, and Sedum varieties are marketed under the Stone-Land flag. “These concepts also embody quality and uniformity. Automation provides added value here as well. In order to be able to deliver a product with optimal uniformity, they always pot large batches of plants and prune the plants every five weeks. Garden centres have indicated that the quality and look of their products give them a competitive edge.
Now Wolfgang and André sell all their potted plants under the Land Concepts flag. This has made supplying auctions a thing of the past; they only sell directly to traders and garden centres. “We deliver to higher-quality garden centres, not to discounters,” Wolfgang Ripkens emphasises. “It goes without saying that selling through this channel yields a better sales price; consumers who buy at higher-end garden centres don’t mind paying a little more for products that appeal to the senses and are guaranteed to be good quality. Because we hold a patent on our products, other businesses can’t just run with them. In other words: our products can no longer be substituted by others. That gives us certainty and faith in the future.”
Wolfgang and André Ripkens grow a large variety of plants in the German town of Straelen: cyclamen, various silver leaf plants, lavender, Culphea and several Sedum varieties. In order to be able to increase production despite the company’s limited opportunities for expansion, they invested in rolling benches and an internal transportation system a few years ago. They have also made significant progress on sales in recent years, introducing various sales concepts with a recognisable look and a focus on quality.
Text and images: Ank van Lier.