Alberta offers fertile ground for greenhouse

Bedding plant production Wind is the biggest production challenge at deVry Greenhouses

PICTURE BUTTE, Alta. — The colourful bracts on poinsettias that will brighten Canadian homes during the coming holiday season have yet to appear on this sea of green plants.

Once they do, nearly 13 acres of them now developing in a greenhouse near Picture Butte, Alta., will be shipped to retailers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The deVry Greenhouses facility is one of three operated by the parent company, which is based in Chilliwack, B.C. The wholesale operation grows bedding plants for the spring market, mums and perennials for fall and poinsettias for early winter, as well as Easter lilies and smaller crops for minor demand.

Facility manager Elden Van Klei said southern Alberta was chosen for deVry’s expansion in 2007 because of several attributes.

“We have a good solid water supply from the irrigation system, we have very high light levels and we have warmer temperatures than, let’s say, Red Deer, which would be a more central location,” he said.

“We have the chinooks, which come through, and actually our heating in the winter is not much different than it would be in B.C. There, they vent off humidity. Here, we have to heat for the temperature and that’s it.”

An Alberta location also eliminates the cost of trucking plants over the Rockies from British Columbia and satisfies retailer desires for Alberta-grown product.

Most of the bedding plants here are started from seed in B.C. and then shipped to Alberta for growing out and sale to retailers. Plants started from cuttings are propagated on site.

Van Klei said no supplementary light is provided to plants in the greenhouse. A curtain system is used to limit sunlight when necessary in summer, while radiant hot water heat is provided in winter by two 20 million BTU boilers.

The poinsettias now perched in pots at deVry are kept at about 19 C and vented if temperatures reach 22 C.

“Every crop is different, and it depends on the stage of the crop,” Van Klei said about preferred temperatures.

“Humidity we don’t worry too much about. If it gets too high we will vent, above let’s say 80 (percent), which very rarely happens in Alberta. We barely ever have a humidity problem in Alberta.”

However, the region’s persistent winds do require special management. Wind on a hot summer day can keep the greenhouse from becoming excessively hot, but the vents can’t be opened if the wind is too strong.

“We’re usually about two to three degrees minimum above the outside temperature when it’s hot,” he said.

“If there’s no wind it could be more, and if it’s a good wind, about 30 km-h wind, it’s the best. Once it goes higher than that, we have to start closing vents and then it can get very hot in here.”

A central computer controls heating, venting and irrigation. The bays are sloped toward two central drains, and plastic and ground cloth beneath the bays prevent moisture loss into the water table. Rainwater is collected from the roof for later use by the plants.

Van Klei said insect problems are almost inevitable. Thrips, aphids and white flies are the most common pests. Biological controls are the first plan of attack, though chemicals are often needed as a secondary measure.

The facility employs 45 people at peak operations, including those who work part-time.

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