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.