Mixed fortunes for German growers

The German horticultural association Zentralverband Gartenbau (ZVG) hosted this years’ summer meeting of the Copa Cogeca working group on flowers and plants in Cologne at the end of June.

The Copa working group is the main European-wide lobbying organisation for ornamentals growers, and as a member of Copa, the NFU plays a very active role in ensuring its lobbying represents the interests of UK growers

The group spent a day visiting nurseries in the region, and it was clear that German growers face many issues in common with us.

Copa flowers and plants wrking party at Theo Kamp The first nursery was Theo Kamp in Neuss, which grows protected ornamentals under 10,000 square metres of glass for the auctions. Plants were grown on concrete floors with flood irrigation. The floors helped with hygiene and so pesticide use was minimal. Pesticides on ornamentals are growing issue in Germany, with some environmental organisations pushing for residue limits on plants similar to the system used with edible produce. Peat use was not an issue for customers.

The business strategy at Theo Kamp was to specialise in just a few varieties (Pelargonuim, Exacum affine, Hedera) that gave higher returns. Auction prices are generally lower, so production has been rationalised – there were just 3 full-time staff, whose ranks swelled by another 2 people during the 2 month peak season. Average wages were about 10 euros per hour.

The nursery received no funding when it had invested in infrastructure, it was still heating with oil because it was not economic to switch to an alternatives, particularly as the grower did not know whether there would be a successor to him to run the company.

The next nursery, Bongartz in Korschenbroich, grew 12 million young plants per year, as well as bedding plants (7-8% of the business) and poinsettias.

Bongartz nursery, Korschenbroich, Germany_600_401

Across two sites, Bongartz grows under 33,000 square metres of glass on rolling flood benches with overhead boom sprayers for irrigation, misting and pesticide application. All benches are barcoded and tracked.

Mixed planting at Bongartz nursery_600_401

They have a biomass boiler burning waste wood and maize.

The 35 full time staff  nearly double during the peak season. Average wages are about 11 euros per hour.

The nursery used propagation material from Israel, Egypt, Kenya and Costa Rica, with a focus on new and exclusive genetics.

Bongartz sell plants in Germany themselves, but use brokers in other EU countries. Their biggest customer accounted for just 12% of their business.

Spider plants at Karl Heinz Compes nursery, KaarstKarl Heinz Compes’ nursery was next – another smaller specialist grower (10,300 square metres of glass) doing what they do well and managing costs closely. They grow spider plants, peace lillies and some bedding. 60% of their business is sold through Landgard’s ‘cash and carry’ stores.

The owners work in the business with 3 other full time staff. An additional 2 or 3 staff are taken on during the peak season.

Copa flowers and plants working party at Compes nuInvestment in the business has slowed because again, there is no successor.

As we travelled to the next nursery it was surprising to see close proximity of the urban fringe of Dusseldorf and fields of salad and flowering ornamental crops. As Dusseldorf continues to sprawl, the land here is apparently some of the highest cost land to buy in Germany.

Wilhelm Baum’s nursery consists of 17.5 ha of outdoor ornamentals, with another 1 ha of production under glass. The nursery is on the flat floodplain of the Rhine. Being so close to this major river provide a 1oC uplift in temperature that enables Baum’s to get a 1 week advance on other growers.

Wilhelm Baum nursery, Dusseldorf, Germany_600_401

The proximity of Dusseldorf and high land values has resulted in a remarkable situation where the nursery is comprised of 63 separate parcels of land, owned by 28 different owners. 80% of the site is leased, and the contracts are for just 1 year.

Half the outdoor area is mypex covered soil, the other half is around 10-12cm of volcanic rock covered in mypex. Their water supply comes via 3 boreholes and is secure. They may be required to recycle water in future, and this would require significant investment in infrastructural changes.

Bikes are the best way to get round the vast Wilhe


Dispatch area workers at Wilhelm Baum_275_184They use 100% peat and this is not seen as a current issue.

There are about 15 full-time staff, but during the peak weeks 22-32 numbers can swell up to 120 – mainly with Polish seasonal workers, all sourced through a single long-term foreman.

They are finding it harder to secure Polish labour, and the staff they get want to work for shorter periods. The seasonal staff are housed on site in portacabins.

Worker accomodation blocks at Wilhelm Baum_275_184The nursery grow a wide range of perennials, including saxifrage in spring, lavenders and coreopsis in the summer, in every pot size between 12-23cm. They can ship out 3-4000 trolleys per day.




The final nursery visit was to Peter Engels in Pulheim. The Engels grow under 5 ha of greenhouses and have 2 ha outdoors. Between 80-90% of what they grow is marketed within 90km through wholesale markets in Cologne and Dusseldorf that run 6 days a week, and by direct delivery to garden centres.

Plastic greenhouses at Peter Engels nursery_275_41

They sell over 100 products and have 8 trucks running every day. They also have a trading company to source other plants from elsewhere so they can deliver everything their customer wants.

They are part of a group of 9 growers, which operates a bit like a buying group and they try not to compete. They also manage staff together.

Under cover, Engels grow on rolling flood benches. They use negative DIF (warmer nights than days) to prevent plants from stretching.

They have been using a biomass waste wood burner since 2000. All the wood waste is bought in for free by landscapers (who would have to pay high costs to dump the waste elsewhere). Engels levy charges on the landscapers if the material is green. If they have a cold winter, they may have to buy a little wood.

Biomass at Peter Engels nursery, Pulheim_600_401


With respect to growing the business, because of the difficulty in raising prices the only opportunities appeared to be to sell more volume. Products on the rise included mixes on colours and mixes of species, particularly in coloured pots.

Mixed colour and species in coloured pots at Peter

This is a great example of simple innovation, because while the growers are basically growing the same plants as before, the customer is getting something new because the plants are being sold as a mix.

While the marketplace German growers serve has some significant differences to that in the UK, it is clear they share some of the same challenges around pressure on prices, growing demands around environmental credentials, and succession in family businesses among other things.

  • Posted by: Anthony HalsePosted on: 21/07/2014 00:18:13

    Comment: What an informative article. I run a nursery which has been in the family since 1908 and I find myself in the position of deciding, invest or wait for housing development. I sympathise with those who are unsure of their direction and I envy those who have invested in the future of the business. It reminds me of the lyrics of the Clash song, should I stay or should I go? if I stay there will be trouble if I go there will be double. We have served our local community for over 100 years and it would be difficult selling up as I love my job, but the lure of leaving the industry and taking the money is very tempting. I cannot be alone in this situation and the demise of businesses such as ours will be sad as they wont be replaced. Any advice???