GreenBalanz, of Kudelstaart, is the first Dutch pot plant grower to introduce organically grown phalaenopsis to the market. Although it is still a small number and a modest range, grower Lennard van der Weijden has full confidence in the production and marketing. However, the market still lacks a supply of other organically grown pot plants.
In 2009 Handelskwekerij Van der Weijden was renamed GreenBalanz. This was to underline the sustainable character of the company and allow the owner to better differentiate his company on the market. “We have a greenhouse without gas, we work with natural crop protection products, we use heat pumps and green energy, recirculate our water and do whatever possible to grow as cleanly and responsibly as possible,” he explains. “Our carbon footprint is therefore very modest. In addition, we conduct an active social policy because this is part of our corporate social responsibility.”
Despite all efforts to make the business more sustainable, in 2008 a Swiss customer felt that things should go a step further. “To be able to call ourselves really green the customer felt we should also grow organically,” says the grower. “That meant no chemicals and only organic fertilisers. The buyer wanted us to do this even if it was just in part of the nursery, because then the retail chain Coop – the client in question – could also differentiate itself better.”
Van der Weijden picked up the gauntlet but soon realised he was going to have invent the wheel himself. Apart from encouraging words, breeders, substrate suppliers and knowledge centres had little to offer that could give him some tailwind. “Apart from biological crop protection, which we were already using, biological cultivation of orchids was completely virgin territory,” he says.
The grower did not give up and instead started years of searching for a solution in which plant nutrition stood and still plays a central role. Two factors raised hurdles: the long cultivation period of orchids and the poor growth medium, which is almost completely composed of bark.
“Phalaenopsis is a epiphyte and grows best on bark,” explains the grower. “Bark, however, has hardly any buffer capacity. For standard production that’s not really a problem because in principle all nutrients can be supplied in an available form via the fertiliser. When you apply organic fertilisers, the organic ingredients first have to be converted into inorganic components. That takes a few days and really you don’t have this time. Every time you water, you flush out a large part of the nutrients that after the previous watering were converted into an absorbable form. In addition, bark is a medium with a very poor environment, without any rich soil life that can promote the conversion.”
It took years for the grower to devise the mixture of vegetable and animal manure with which he now achieves acceptable results. He makes the manure into a thin ‘soup’ in a stock container, where the conversion process also starts. Via a separate watering installation – the organic cultivation is strictly separated from the conventional cultivation – this soup is added to the irrigation water.
Slower response, longer cultivation period
The second difficult factor is the long cultivation period. Van der Weijden: “You can try new things and push many different buttons but the results are only visible in the plants five to six months later.”
The limitations imposed by the use of organic fertilisers and the necessity to keep the crop as generative as possible during the hardening off phase does, however, force a steady cultivation regime.
“The quality is no less than that of conventionally grown plants but a completely organic production takes at least three months longer,” says the Dutchman. For that reason he purposefully limits the organic range to the strongest growing varieties. Depending on the progress that is being steadily made the assortment will certainly be expanded.
It is clear that the development of a profitable organic cultivation method requires infinite patience and cannot be carried out on a large scale. In 2014 Van der Weijden eventually reached the point that he was returning reasonable production results that met the official Dutch guidelines (SKAL). “It took a lot of time and energy because initially SKAL did not want us to source material from meristem culture,” he says. “Fortunately, after two years we got the green light, otherwise I’d have thrown in the towel.”
Share my experiences
The first organic phalaenopsis plants were launched on the market early in 2015. In addition to Coop, which loyally stuck to its promises, the grower also supplies other highly-positioned supermarket chains and garden centres in Europe. Although demand is still growing, the share of organic production on the nursery is still less than 10 per cent. It is understandable that it isn’t storming along due to the higher cost- and sales price. However, the market potential is far from fully exploited.
“Over the last 12 months I’ve spoken to several buyers who would like to sell more organic products than just phalaenopsis,” says the grower. “They find the offer still too narrow and therefore remain reticent.”
When prompted Van der Weijden says that he has not yet been approached by growers who want to copy his initiative. “That surprises me. I am happy to share my experiences with growers who sincerely want to make a start with organic production. Such cooperation can mutually benefit both partners. But it’s logical that I’m not waiting for other phalaenopsis growers to come along. With more of the same we won’t raise the entire organic segment to a higher level.”
Learned a lot
If colleagues join or not, GreenBalanz continues to search for further optimisation. Trials are running with fertilisers, plant improvers and preparations and new varieties are continually being tested.
“We still have a lot to learn,” says the green grower. “What I find very positive is that this project has also yielded a lot for the conventional crop. For the last two years we haven’t had to treat the entire greenhouse for mealybugs, because due to our approach in the organic section we were overall more alert and scouting was more intensive. Previously it was an ‘effort’ that no one looked forward to. Now it is a responsible task with clear added value, which two employees really enjoy doing.”
Another change that has been implemented throughout the nursery is the disinfection of auction containers by placing them in a freezer cell for 24 hours at -20ºC before and after use. The containers are an important contamination source of aphids but the insects can’t survive a temperature of 20 degrees below. “Actually the auction should do that itself, now we do it,” says the grower. “Fortunately it brings us significant savings.”
Text and images: Jan van Staalduinen