“Yes, it’s a time-consuming hobby,” laughs Sebastiaan van der Heijden, co-owner of Van Son & Koot nursery. With 36 hectares of Japanese maples and other garden plants, this might sound like an understatement. Yet among all these plants, people come first. A heart-warming story, as well as a first!
Van Son & Koot nursery originally saw the light of day on 1 January 1999, following a serendipitous turn of events. Arjan van Son from Kaatsheuvel was looking for a partner and Jim Koot from Boskoop was looking for a larger plot. There was an immediate click between the two, as both grew garden plants and offered a different range. A win-win situation! In 2014, Arjan left the company and Sebastiaan van der Heijden took his place. Today, he runs the company together with Arjen and Jordy.
From 5 to 36 hectares
“Van Son & Koot grows more than 100 different plant species,” says Sebastiaan van der Heijden. “Our emphasis lies on the Acer palmatum, better known as Japanese maple. There are as many as 1,000 species worldwide, and we grow around sixty of them ourselves. We stand out as a result of our new varieties, as well as our different pot sizes and growth habits.” By way of illustration, Sebastiaan shows us various examples. Intense shades of red, yellow, brown and green that appeal to the imagination.
As well as the Japanese maple, Van Son & Koot also grows other garden plants. With shrubs such as the Skimmia, Eucalyptus, Camellia and Hydrangea, they offer their customers a complete range. “We want to remain innovative and surprise our customers all year round with a range that is out of the ordinary. As a result, we travel all over the world in search of new varieties and also use agents who put out their feelers on our behalf. In addition, we breed new varieties ourselves. Every year, we innovate with a wide range of products. This allows us to remain relevant to our customers.”
A party every spring
This innovation is certainly bearing fruit. Their selections are winning many prestigious awards, such as ‘Plant of the Year’ at the Chelsea Flower Show, ‘The Glass Tulip’, ‘Best Novelty’ at IPM Essen and so on… So what is Van Son & Koot’s secret? Sebastiaan: “Our philosophy! We put people first. Our team is the most valuable pillar of our company. We give our people the chance to develop and grow. For example, we recently launched the Van Son & Koot Academy. We consider it important for everyone to feel good here. For people to work with passion. Every now and then, we do let our hair down though. A good example: we always end the busy spring period with a party. Every year, it feels like a victory. That feeling of ‘Together, we pulled it off!’. We actually celebrate quite a lot: Saint Nicholas gives our employees’ children a treat, and on Fridays we sometimes drink a beer together. All these things ensure social cohesion.”
A sustainable approach to employees is a cornerstone of the company. How do they extend this sustainability to the nursery? Sebastiaan: “This year, we launched our own breeding company Botanic Experience, which specialises in the genetics of garden plants. In concrete terms, our breeders seek out plant species that no longer need chemical control. We also have the highest attainable MPS-GAP A+ certificate and use organic pesticides. We deploy natural plant enhancers, which are fungi that we add to the soil to make the plant stronger. In addition, we recycle and reuse water.”
A first: Nature 2 Nature
On the subject of sustainability, with some pride Sebastiaan tells us about a new plant concept: Nature 2 Nature. “By means of the above measures, we are contributing to a better climate. However, we are also taking things a step further: we also want to use nature to promote biodiversity. This spring, for example, we are introducing a range that is particularly attractive to bees, ladybirds, butterflies and birds.”
Collaboration on solid foundations
Sebastiaan has already indicated that collaboration is important, so what about a partner like Floréac? “This year, we will have been working together for 20 years. A partnership that continues to grow thanks to its solid foundations: mutual trust and respect. We have already developed various strategic plans together, such as the logistics key. This is a tool that allows us to draw up a detailed schedule together with the client to ensure rapid and fresh deliveries. We also put together client-specific ranges for Floréac. We complement each other well. Just like in a 20-year marriage, however, we do have the occasional clash. But these clashes always lead to insights that take us a step further.”
Paving slabs out, green in
Growing together, that’s how it’s supposed to be. How does Sebastian see the future? “Society is greening. You can see this everywhere. And that’s a good thing, too. COVID-19 has only served to accelerate this trend. People are buying more plants and are increasingly replacing their concrete driveway with plants. Another development that I believe will develop further is the switch from chemical to biological crop protection. These are all evolutions that I encourage. I can also see various challenges ahead of us, such as rising commodity prices, as well as the increasing scarcity of labour. However, I would rather end on a positive note. Van Son & Koot is doing well and we are continuing to grow. Not just in terms of size and hectares, our employees are also developing their skills. We’re ready for it all: digitisation, automation, robotisation, business intelligence… Bring it on!”