While other kids played baseball, Len Ferragine and his six siblings spent every day after school in their backyard greenhouse in Bradford, Ont. “We grew up in that greenhouse—literally,” he says, recalling box building at the tender age of seven. Ferragine took over the books when he turned 18.
Wholesale plants were big business then. They still are—but that’s just about the only thing that’s stayed constant. “I don’t even know what a garden centre is anymore and I’d challenge anyone to define it,” he says. “Is it Canadian Tire? Is it a grocer like Loblaws? Everything has changed.”
Bradford Greenhouses ships to 1,200 clients from Niagara, Ont., to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., including Canadian Tire and Loblaws. But selling direct to the customer has become increasingly challenging of late. Lot sizes have shrunk, gardens have moved indoors and toward edibles, and general interest in gardening is dwindling.
“Our demographic is getting older,” admits Ferragine, “and not many millennials do gardening.” Moreover, while the rest of the world goes digital, plants don’t ship well and probably never will. Though a plant delivery service might work in a dense urban population, people who like gardening tend to live far outside city centres.
Bradford Greenhouses decided it could just get old alongside its clientele, or it could get creative. Firstly, for stability, they’ve diversified and divided the business right down the middle. “Retail is 50% and wholesale is 50%, and we’re always trying to maintain that balance,” he says. Their tagline “From seed to bloom” is a good reminder of that dual focus.
As for the long game, Ferragine is after those reluctant young people and knows just where to find them: school. “We created this unique fundraising program—because schools are always fundraising for vegetable gardens or band trips anyway—where they promote us and we kick back 5%.” Collaborating with local schools gets kids selling, learning about and loving plants. With any luck, a least some will develop a permanent green thumb.