The Vreugdenhil family has been growing without artificial fertilizers and chemicals for a while now. Recently, their potted plants have also been certified by Skal. With the organic label, they hope to reach more consumers who really appreciate their natural way of doing things.
After a course in soil biology, Johan Vreugdenhil realized that artificial fertilizers and chemicals are not the products that are producing the healthy and vital plants, but it is the healthy soil. "With conventional cultivation, it felt like you spray one problem to death and get another in return. That's a spiral you can't get out of."
The family business, which he runs with his parents, brother and sister and which has been in existence since 2001, stopped using chemicals and later fertilizer in 2013. "First, we still used plant enhancers like sulfur and copper, so everything that is also allowed in organic cultivation. Purely to replace chemical products. But at some point, you come to realize that you want to promote natural defenses. Nature has to do that for itself. So you have to intervene even less and pamper the plants less."
From then on, the nursery mainly focuses on feeding soil life. Vreugdenhil: "Soil life ultimately feeds the plants, giving you healthy, resilient plants. That has really been the underlying idea, then you automatically start working organically."
He calls it growing naturally. "But it's not nature. When you have a nursery, you have to produce. So you do need input. We add organic residues to feed the soil life. That soil life converts the substances into minerals that are absorbable by the plant in a healthy way."
That input consists of a wide range of mainly local residual streams, such as mulch, compost, grass clippings from roadsides, and wood chips. Since 2018, the family has been running the label Naturally Stronger. "What do we think is important about our plant? Well, mainly that it is resilient, healthy, and grown naturally. Naturally, Stronger stands for our way of growing and our vision."
Although their own plants have complied with organic certification rules since 2015, they have only now gotten certified. Why? Initially, they mainly grew hedge plants for the wholesale market. Gardeners asking for organic plants were few and far between. Later, they started focusing more on the consumer market. "You want to offer consumers a gigantically wide range, which is why we started expanding more and more," he says.
For a long time, they were struggling with the red tape and costs of certification. "Because no organic starting material is grown for our products, or hardly any, you have to apply for an exemption for many species. If you grow a few hundred species, that's going to be very expensive. We propagate some of it ourselves, but we grow more than 500 species. It is not profitable to propagate everything ourselves."
These exemptions are labor-intensive. "You have to substantiate well that there is no organic starting material available and why you need that particular product: is there no alternative? Fortunately, because we were able to submit a joint list for the exemption, the costs were not too bad."
Less than 10 percent of the garden center's customers come for the organic range, Vreugdenhil estimates. Their webshop Natuurlijk Sterker does focus on the sustainable customer. You can't just order everything there. "We pay attention to whether it can work out economically and in terms of environmental impact because otherwise, it doesn't make much sense. We try to make our business as sustainable as possible for a reason. For example, we use second-hand pots, so less energy is lost."
Even when pots are recycled, energy is needed to melt them down and turn them into new pots. Vreugdenhil reuses pots from customers and other growers without rinsing them. Weeds or mold are not a problem; soil biology takes care of that itself and restores the balance.
Peat-free potting soil
They also make their own potting soil. "The potting soil you buy is often very sterile. There is very little life in it. To get a healthy plant, you actually need soil life. We have now mostly moved to peat-free potting soil, and the potting soil that still contains peat on has 15 percent peat in it."
Regular potting soil consists of at least 80 percent peat. "If peat is extracted, it is at the expense of nature. When it is applied in potting soil, the carbon stored in it decomposes and releases CO2. We turn a dead plant back into a living plant. From green compost and roadside clippings and leaves, we make potting soil again. From that, a new plant grows again; this is how we try to complete that cycle again."
Fortunately, potting soil falls under the organic regulation. "That was a question mark beforehand: how will Skal deal with it? Most of the grass comes from Staatsbosbeheer, but they are not Skal-certified. But you know they don't use slurry or whatever, so that way, we could justify that this potting soil is organic. Fortunately, that means it complies with Skal's rules."
In recent years, their plants, grown according to organic farming rules but not certified, went into the mainstream. "We hope that now that the plants are Skal certified, they more often end up with people who also appreciate the way they were grown," he says. He does see more attention being paid to the damage done by regular cultivation on the site itself. "The chemicals blow over and end up in surface water. I hope it will start to sink in with people that you don't want residue of chemicals in your own garden and - much more importantly - that in the cultivation process, damage can occur to the environment, climate, and health."