PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERMEER NURSERY
Vandermeer Nursery has been located on the same 40-acre property in Ajax, Ontario, since 1961, and it’s that history that the family of owners says is the primary reason for their success over the last half century.

But customers have changed over time, and the company’s willingness to adapt has also helped it remain a mainstay in the area for 57 years.

Vandermeer responded 10 years ago when customers requested behind-the-scenes tours of their production facilities, where they grow almost all of their annuals, perennials and roses. Now, they offer four tours in the spring before Easter and two around the holidays, when the greenhouses are full of poinsettias and other plants for Christmas.

“It increases awareness that we grow our own product,” says Saskia Kersten, a third-generation family member who recently graduated from college and is now working at Vandermeer. “The tour is run by our seed propagation manager, Sandra Hart, and covers our growing facilities, techniques, seeding procedure, cutting propagation, aquatic plant propagation, automated machinery, our integrated pest management program and our water collection system. It typically lasts one-and-a-half to two hours.”

The company, which is about 25 miles east of Toronto, has also catered to the culinary preferences of its neighborhood, stocking items like callaloo and specific types of hot peppers.

“We try to cater to all nationalities, and we have a broad mix,” says John Vandermeer, president. “What people in the local community are looking for, we try to find those things.”

Shoppers have more than 300 varieties of vegetables to choose from, and the segment has been one of the strongest at the company. Annuals, perennials and houseplants are the largest and most profitable divisions, and John says they are known for their vast selection.

“It’s our selection and our offerings. Compared to our neighbors, we have a lot more to offer. We carry about 13 different just seed varieties of petunias,” says John. The IGC has 165,000 square feet indoors for growing. “It’s the same with snapdragons; we carry five or six colors of the short ones, six colors of the mid-size ones, and six colors of the tall ones.”

MaryAnn Vandermeer, co-owner and office manager for the company, who is John’s sister, says production and planning is a year-round effort.

“We probably have about 50 varieties of peonies and over 100 varieties of daylilies that we grow. It’s a massive collection,” MaryAnn says.

Vandermeer uses biological controls in production when possible, John says, and the company also collects, filters, treats and reuses about 90 percent of the water on the property.

“It is a partially funded program through Growing Forward 2 and run by the government of Canada. At our peak, we are using about 31,700 gallons of water a day, and without our collection processes, we would have to purchase water and get it shipped in regularly for use,” Saskia says, noting that it also reduces their environmental impact. “We collect all rainwater and snowmelt from the roofs of the greenhouses and the surface water on the entire property. Additionally, we recapture any water runoff from daily watering, which equates to approximately 5000 gallons a day.”

 
From left, the family-owned nursery includes the following members of the Vandermeer family: MaryAnn Vandermeer, John Vandermeer, Jane Kersten, Pauline Vandermeer, Jake Vandermeer, Tim Vandermeer, Saskia Kersten and Adrian Vandermeer.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERMEER NURSERY
Vandermeer hosts a weeklong series of workshops for school-aged children during their March break.
PHOTO OF VANDERMEER NURSERY

Special events and celebrations

The company’s Christmas segment has also been strong — sales around the holidays increased by 10 percent last year, MaryAnn says.

“We do a pretty extensive Christmas giftware show,” Saskia adds. “We normally design about 13 or 15 different themes each year with fully decorated designer trees, giftware arrangements. We do custom bows and artificial trees as well.”

Vandermeer also operates Christmas and spring fundraisers for nonprofits, including schools, churches and choirs.

We try to cater to all nationalities, and we have a broad mix. What people in the local community are looking for, we try to find those things.” — John Vandermeer, president, Vandermeer Nursery

There are also associated events, like the Christmas open house, where Vandermeer offers workshops, demonstrations and food and drinks. And, “Pet pictures with Santa has become quite huge,” Saskia says. A local humane society runs it each year, and Vandermeer offers the group space.

There are other classes and events offered throughout the year to draw customers, such as “classic” workshops where customers can create terrariums, fairy gardens and evergreen arrangements. They also offer a week-long series of activities for kids during their March break, and the annual Victorian Afternoon Tea in February, when customers can dress in their finest themed attire, enjoy the associated beverages and bites. The event raises money for local animal shelters.

They are now preparing for Pumpkin Madness in October. Families can purchase pumpkins and carve them right at the nursery. John says they just started growing pumpkins this year because it was difficult to get the varieties they needed.

Vandermeer grows almost all of the annuals and perennials it sells.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERMEER NURSERY
Vandermeer offers tours of its production greenhouses before Easter and around Christmas.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERMEER NURSERY

Adapting to changes

One challenge for Vandermeer this year has been the weather — the company experienced one of the most brutal, cold winters on record, followed by one of the hottest, driest summers anyone can remember. But they have noticed new families who have just bought homes coming in, and an increased interest in indoor plants.

“The cost of homes has gone up a lot in this area, and they are still building new homes in our area,” MaryAnn says. “But they are starting to convert to smaller yards, and more townhomes are starting to come in. They are really worried about land use in our area. So, we’re seeing things change. [For example,] nobody really wants a big blue spruce anymore for their front yard or their backyard because there’s no space for it, so things are shrinking in size in some ways.”

Younger people, who may have fond memories of visiting Vandermeer’s kid-friendly attractions, like the 12-year-old Turtle Sanctuary for non-native pet turtles to prevent them from being dumped in local waterways, are starting to come through, too. They have gravitated to the indoor plant department, which has grown by 11 percent, and to edibles.

“We found our indoor plant department has been growing quite drastically, including tropicals, succulents, cacti, and container gardening is also growing,” Saskia says. “The other thing that I find though is the newer generation is very motivated to grow food as well, so vegetable growing is increasing.”

To cater to the increasing interest in food and where it comes from, Vandermeer started selling locally grown produce three years ago. They started growing some in-house this year, and use signage to indicate which local farms bought-in items come from, too.

There have been bans on certain pesticides in Ontario for a long time, MaryAnn adds, so it’s important to educate customers on proper care.

“We try to offer natural, biological products for consumers, or try to reassure them that maybe that bug isn’t that bad and isn’t going to eat everything in their yard,” MaryAnn says. The company sells beneficial insects like ladybugs, nematodes, praying mantises and bees.

Teaching those customers how to garden overall is also a primary focus of Vandermeer, Saskia says.

“There’s less knowledge about how to grow and how to care for certain plants, so I think education of both staff and customers through workshops, seminars — we have a manned information booth as well — just so you can make sure customers are aware of what certain products need and make sure they purchase the appropriate plants,” she says. “Something they can actually care for and that will produce satisfied customers.”