Glasshouse Orchids

September 2012

Growing orchids in glasshouses for a local market

In the middle of the last century, a Dutch immigrant family started market gardening near Richmond. Growing cucumbers and lettuces in unheated glasshouses proved a profitable sideline for a time, until heated glasshouses became more common. As an alternative, they tried growing cymbidium orchids and successfully exported much of their production. Exports ceased in 2007 when transport costs and commissions made the trade uneconomic, but the business has continued to produce blooms in unheated glasshouses for the local market using a choice of varieties and management techniques to extend the flowering season for six months. Most blooms are sold to South Island florists, funeral directors and other users, as well as the local Nelson Wednesday farmers’ market and Saturday central market. The story is one of successfully adapting to changing circumstances and market conditions.

Tony Zwart’s father emigrated from Holland in 1952 and established a market garden on 25 acres near Nelson. The location had a favourable microclimate and he took advantage of that, making the most of high prices at the beginning or end of growing seasons. He successfully grew lettuces in winter, supplying markets from June until November and also harvested potatoes well before other growers. His family in Holland grew cyclamens, freesias and roses and after frequent visits home he would come back and try out their techniques. He was often ahead of other growers in NZ but sometimes the markets here were not ready for what he was doing, for instance he grew capsicums and aubergines five years before they became commonly used and the public didn’t really know what they were.

He was one of the first to use glasshouses for cucumber production, but as heated glasshouses became more numerous and his were unheated, he lost market share. Looking for alternatives he first grew roses, which had to be picked every day, and then changed to orchids that had to be picked only once a week.

A shortage of vegetable crates prompted the company to look at polystyrene options, and despite the rapid increase in the cost of the raw materials at the time, they went ahead and built the necessary plant, also supplying polystyrene boxes to the fishing industry.

Orchid production started in the mid-80s, and around the same time Tony took over management of vegetable production. Tony’s father continued to look after orchid production and exports, assisted by teenager Janine Regan to whom he taught the techniques of day-to-day orchid culture.

“When my father started he bought local plants and broke them up to multiply them. He also brought tissue cultures over from Holland but that was a bit of a hassle with regulations and it took five or six years before the tissue culture plants started blooming,” says Tony. “He would often go back to Holland just at the beginning of their flowering season to see what was going on and look at the colours and discuss trends with his brothers. We ended up with about 20 different varieties and colours, which gives us a flowering season from June to December.”

The long flowering period is one advantage of using cold glasshouses. Most growers today use hothouses and concentrate on a three-month window of opportunity in the American and Japanese markets when they are not being supplied by other countries.

Tony’s father managed the export of blooms as well as selling locally and the exports continued for some years after he died in 1997 . Tony’s mother Will continued until the costs of freight and commissions became too big to make it worthwhile. For the past five years the business has supplied the local market, mainly retailers and end users in the South Island. The long season means they command good prices in early winter and in late spring and early summer, which is the “wedding season”.

About seven years ago Tony decided to close down the market garden business. “It was starting to be a struggle with needing staff seven days a week, and the capital investment required for cool storage etc simply couldn’t be justified,” he says. “So now we are focused on the polystyrene business and we’ve continued with the orchids, which Janine manages.”

Janine Regan started working at the Zwart’s market garden almost straight out of high school. For a time she helped only occasionally with the orchids, and later worked fulltime with Tony’s father.

“He taught me how to feed plants, use sprays and look after the vegetable and flower seedlings for the market garden,” says Janine. “We used to grow polyanthus as well as orchids for the market. When he died in 1997 we continued to export for some years until the costs got too high, and now we grow for the NZ market only.”

Janine has about 14,000 orchids in her care. Each is grown in coarse bark in a plastic pot.

The dormant season for cymbidium orchids is summer. During January, the plants are stressed by starving them of nutrients and reducing water. This results in the production of more “spikes” – the first stage of flower development. Initiation of spiking also requires night temperatures to fall below 10 deg C. In Nelson this starts generally in March and the first spikes appear soon after.

“When Tony’s father started the orchid business he set up for the very early export market chasing the Japanese Obon festival for flowers in June and the late NZ wedding market in September to December, so we actually flower for six months of the year. He chose varieties that would give a continual supply for those six months,” says Janine.

“However, seasons are becoming less reliable. In the past two years temperature drops have been delayed as late as May and that is affecting flowering. In times past the automatic frost fans used to come on in March but these days it seldom happens. Sometimes low temperatures in March will precipitate early spiking, and then low temperatures again in June or July will cause the plants to throw a second spiking”.

Spikes are tied up with elastic and the blooms emerge three months later. During that time they require close monitoring for pests and diseases, and must be protected from temperature extremes. Orchids prefer temperatures between 10 and 18 C, so automatic frost fans come on when the temperatures drops below 5 C and vents open on hot days.

When flowers are ready they are picked, packaged and shipped.

Says Janine: “Today we supply retailers, florists, funeral homes and the general public, and recently we have begun selling at the Nelson Saturday market and the Wednesday farmers market. I like the farmers market because it is a grower’s market and people enjoy talking about the orchids. We also lease some potted orchids to local begonia house Washbourne Gardens as a winter alternative when the begonias are dormant.

After “starving” in January plants are given an NPK 10:12:28 bloom booster in February plus a bit of calcium nitrate to support the new growth because new growth comes in at the same time as spikes. Low N feeding continues until about October, and then high N in different forms depending on the condition of the plants, until January.

“We grow them in coarse bark, big lumpy bits because the better drainage, the better the plant and the better the flowers. We generally irrigate the nutrients on but I also use overhead watering which they love but it takes time so I give them a good soaking with a rose when I can. You should hold the rose over them until you see the water pour out from bottom of the pot, when you do that, you get all the fines out which makes the plants happier because orchids don’t like fines in their root systems. All the pots sit on boards and in rows, nothing is on the ground. Orchids need dry roots – they have to be watered well and then dried out well. We don’t water until underneath the pot is dry – we lift it up and if the board is wet we don’t water.”

“Orchid bulbs have sleeping eyes and it is all down to the weather as to whether an eye throws a spike or new growth. These little holes will open up around the bulb and tell you what they will throw. I have one bulb that decided it would throw four flowers from four sleeping eyes on that one bulb, and it should have thrown new growth not flowers so that is an amazing thing to see.”