1 Million Plants and a peak season of eight weeks - Paquette Garden center is getting ready
By Manfried Helmuth Starhemberg
Right now there are over one million plants growing at Sutton's Paquette Garden Center. Pierre Lafontaine who is a sales consultant for the company and deals with chain stores from Ontario to the Maritimes afforded me the grand tour on March 17. I am still in a daze. For many years we have been purchasing our spring plantings and herbs and the occasional hanging basket from Paquettes but I never had any idea of the scope of this 30 year old family business. There is a total of 40 greenhouses, which enclose 350,000 square feet of cultivation area. Outside there are 250,000 square feet for spring and summer display and in the rear of the greenhouses are acres of plants growing in nicely manicured fields.
Many plants start as seeds in flats of 240 and will have to be transplanted by hand. In peak season the company employes about 40 full time employees, in winter the number is "at about 20" explains Pierre."We start many of our plants in summer and then create a hibernation period that mimicks nature but the plants still need to be tended, the temperature has to be monitored at all times, so is the humidity. The other problem is that one of the plastic greenhouse covers which only last for about three years, may spring a leak because of snow build up. You don't fix it immediately, you have a dead crop on your hand".
In spring and summer, the greenhouses are controlled by computers and each greenhouse has its own mico-climate as to the exact degree of humidity, the watering needs and light. Huge sensors control those climates and watering is done automatically. There are literally thousands of water nozzles overhead in every part of the plant.
Plants, after they are potted, move through the cavernous halls on endless conveyors to different staging areas, or in season, to a loading dock for shipment to the Lowes stores in Ontario, to the Canadian Tire, Home Depot, Rona or Home Hardware stores and dozens of other retail outlets. "We are to big to own our own trucks" explains Mr. Lafontaine. This part of the business goes to contractors, they can deal with all the government regulations. Also, our season is very short and does not warrant a full time fleet of trucks which would have to be maintained year round".
Can a company which produces "green stuff" get any "greener?. "Well yes", states Pierre and he demonstrated the newest fully bio-degradable readyt to plant pots which are made of coconut fibre. "Just stick it into the ground and the fiber will protect the plant and actually act as a growing medium until the plant is fully settled into its environment. Even the plastic band is bio-degradable!"
There are three generations of Paquettes still working the business. Gilles Paquette, the founder of the business is retired but he still keeps an area of turf in the back for experimental work on special bushes, flowers or new species. "I have been doing this for nine years and I have never worked for a place like this" explains Pierre. 'Everything is employee oriented, this is not a factory, rather a place where plant lovers are allowed to excell, to be crative, in a friendly and cheerful environment".
The season will begin oficially in April and Pierre explains that there "actually is only an eight week window of opportunity to do the year's business. It normally spans from April 15 to June 15, after that you gradually start working on next year's crop". Pierre's father was a financial manager for Canada Post and, as Pierre states: "He used to come home in his three piece suit, put his briefcase down and started to weed his flower beds. Pierre's brother owns 2,000 apple trees and grows perennials and his other brother is a landscape artist. Obviously the proverbial apple has not fallen to far away from the tree.
Our tour completed, I see receptionist Vicky Cyr already busy taking orders on her telephone. I am glad I had the oportunity to see this place now because in two weeks there would be no time to show me around.