With spring just around the corner, I asked Karen to talk with me about her greenhouse business and her love of gardening.
The interview follows ...
A: We started in 2001 when we purchased a greenhouse from the old experimental farm. The opportunity to buy a 22 x 100 foot greenhouse came up by tender. We put in a very low bid and found out two days later that we got the greenhouse and that we would have to move it to our farm about a kilometer away. We had to take it apart like a jigsaw puzzle, reassemble it at our location, and then decide what we would do with it. So it wasn't a planned thing, it was something that just came along.
At the time we thought maybe we would go into the cut flower business, but the first year we opened to the public [with bedding plants], we also offered plants as a fundraiser for the Thunder Bay Christian school. A lot of the patrons of the school are in our area. The fundraiser let people get a taste of what we were growing at a good price. Then from there it grew and grew.
A: I try to grow all the basics that would have been in your mother's garden and your grandmother's garden ― the geraniums, the petunias, the pansies, the marigolds. But then I also try to grow things that are new and different and unusual. I'm trying to be a one-stop shop where people can come and get their basics in the four-packs or full trays and they can also get things that you wouldn't find at a big commercial greenhouse. I look far and wide for things that are unusual.
Every year I have a few new things and I bring back the popular things from the years before.
I try to have the old heirloom varieties ― like the nicotiana that grows six feet tall that you just can't find anymore but people remember their grandparents growing ― and I try to have something that's just coming out on the market.
I grow a lot of vegetables. More people are interested in growing their own. We noticed last year that the trend to growing your own vegetables is gaining. And also canning, people are canning. For the vegetables, I try to have short-season varieties, things that mature early, like green peppers that will turn red within our season. Anything I grow is for our region ― Zone 2-3, 3b ― so that people will have success.
I think gardening is something a lot of people did with their parents and so those old-fashioned plants are as important as the new and unusual. Plants take them back to when they were with their parents or grandparents. It's nostalgic. I try to have that kind of feeling in my greenhouse.
― Karen Breukelman
A: One of the things people are coming for is someone who will take the time to talk to them. I have a lot of people who come to my greenhouse who don't have a lot of experience with gardening. I can take the time ― if they come on a quieter day ― to help them choose plants and just help them to understand how to garden better.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a greenhouse?
A: That's a good question. I think, how all-consuming it is at a certain time of year. You almost have to brace yourself for it because once it starts, you have to be all in. Once I start the greenhouse at the beginning of April, it's morning to night that you are thinking about it. Because we are a family-run business, it's me, my husband Gerald, and our daughter who helps when she can, when she's not in school. I don't have back up and once I start I can't leave the property for any length of time. That was what surprised me when we first started. But it's exciting, it's invigorating, it's lovely work.
Do you have time to grow a garden for yourself? What do you have here on the property?
A: Last year, because it was our transition year and we were moving [from the dairy farm which was sold to a new property and new house], I didn't have any flowerbeds. I missed it so much! We didn't even have grass. I realized how much I missed puttering in the garden. So at the end of the summer we put in sod and I outlined my beds.
There is a big oval in front of the house. I want masses of plants there, for impact. I want you to be a hundred feet away and say, 'Wow, what's going on over there?' I'm going for impact from a distance ― that is my plan. At the end of the house we put in a large perennial bed that's about 9 or 10 feet deep and about 28 feet long. I haven't started working on that one at all. I am very excited for this year.
We are also going to put in a vegetable garden. I didn't have a vegetable garden last year. Again, I missed it so much. You don't even realize how much you appreciate being able to walk out the door and get some lettuce or herbs, right? It's just so simple.
When you imagine your garden in the future – say, in five years’ time – what do you envision?
A: I think, established perennials beds, but still playing with annuals, because I have so many choices in annuals with the greenhouse and lots of fun things that I get to try. In my flowerbeds I like to try out new plants and see how they do. I like to test out different things and just play. The annuals give me that opportunity to mix it up and change it every year.
What kind of garden appeals to you?
A: I like a crowded garden. I like a flowerbed that the plants are close enough that you don't see the dirt. I guess a cottage garden style. Mixed with stepping stones and old pieces of wood, things you've collected over the years, just things that make it personal. I like to throw interesting things in that catch you off guard ― little surprises. But I'm going to have to work on that here yet, and figure out what my surprises will be!
Also find the greenhouse on Facebook.