“Every day, we feel the urge to do something new.” Lode De Waele is not resting on his laurels. He represents the fourth generation of growers in his family. What began modestly in 1927 as a classic azalea nursery has today grown into a modern floriculture company with a sales market that extends deep into Europe. And they still have plenty of growth ahead of them.
Almost a century of craftsmanship
Today, Lode manages a nursery whose history spans almost a century. He looks back on a few pivotal moments. “2011 was an important year. That’s when we took over the Wilwoodii nursery from Willy Devriendt in Lochristi. Willy mainly specialised in Ellwoodii and Goldcrest Wilma.
In 2012, we further expanded our Lochristi branch with a new warehouse, a 2.5-hectare greenhouse and 2 hectares of container fields. A 1-hectare greenhouse was added in 2017, followed by a 3.5-hectare greenhouse last summer. In total, including the location in Wachtebeke, De Waele – Wilwoodii covers around 18 hectares, comprising 9 hectares of greenhouses and 9 hectares of container fields.”
Wide range in different pot sizes
The range has also grown along with the company. “We grow Pieris, Azalea Japonica, Ellwoodii, Cupressus Goldcrest, Rhododendron, Camelia and Choisya in various pot sizes. These are the basic crops. We also experiment with test crops. There’s always an urge to try something new, but I have to be careful not to overdo it and to keep working efficiently [laughs].”
Making life easier for customers
With this wide range, the nursery tries to satisfy customer demand as closely as possible. This is something which really makes them stand out. “Thanks to the large numbers we grow, we can deliver high-quality products all year round. This makes us ideal for the retail sector. If a large retailer has 100 different stores, we can supply 100 mixed trolleys with a varied range in different pot sizes. And that ready-to-go range on the trolley is transported directly to the retail outlet. It’s our way of making life easier for our customers, as for retailers this means a significant reduction in labour and transport costs.”
Putting together these kinds of trolleys is quite labour-intensive. But fortunately, technology is providing a helping hand. “Where possible, we are automating to make it easier to offer uniform batches. Automation doesn’t mean that we no longer need people, but that we are greatly reducing time-consuming routine jobs. And the fact that we can now process uniform batches efficiently can only be an asset. Or in the words of our colleagues from the Netherlands: ‘Nothing beats a sleek trolley.’”
Looking forward to a brighter future with Floréac
Lode can still see many opportunities in the range of mixed trolleys and regards Floréac as the ideal sparring partner. “We’ve been working together for years and it’s partly thanks to them that we know what the market trends are and can tailor our range accordingly. Sometimes the demand is very high, which is a reason for us to step up our game. We know how much we mean to each other and I’m looking forward to an even brighter future for both of us.”
Sustainability from plant to customer
Nursery De Waele – Wilwoodii is clearly keeping up with the times. You also notice this when we get to the subject of sustainability. “For me, that’s been self-evident for a long time. In fact, when you apply sustainability as a guiding principle, you can identify plenty of opportunities. Okay, it’s not always easy. But if you focus on this, it does give you a head start.
Among other things, we have obtained the Global Gap and GRASP certificates and are affiliated with Vegaplan. Our efforts are paying off. Let me give you just a few examples. Our pots are carbon-free and if the customer requires, we can also deliver in carbon-free planters. Because these come with a higher price tag, we leave it up to the customer to decide.
For our potting soil, we are using 45% less peat. We also top our pots with tree bark or container mulch, do not use heating in our new greenhouse and will soon try to use as much electricity as possible from our solar panels during the day so that we consume less externally generated power.
And I haven’t even mentioned water recovery, which is a hot topic at the moment, but something we’ve already been doing for years. With the arrival of the new greenhouse, we created a water basin that is the size of a football field and five metres deep. As a result, we are able to collect rainwater. We will also be switching to hydrogen shortly. This is how we are making our company future-proof.”
Joining forces beyond national borders
Now we’re talking about the future, what trends can Lode identify? “I find it difficult to make predictions. What I do think is that after a very successful period, we will have to be prepared to see sales drop a little. Life is becoming more expensive, so people are spending less on affordable luxury products like ours.
I am also expecting a shift within the sector. On the one hand, I notice that there are fewer growers and that’s a pity. Not only will this reduce the range, but it’s also bad news for the region, because if there are fewer growers in Lochristi and the surrounding area, foreign clients will be less interested in coming here.
On the other hand, we must think beyond just trading locally. The Netherlands is a stone’s throw away, so it will be better to join forces beyond national borders.”