by Joseph Frahm
This story appeared in the Spring 1981 issue of New Zealand Coal (Vol. 25, No. 3).
There is no “last rose of summer” at the Van Lier nursery, West Auckland because roses bloom there all year round, thanks to coal.
Coal-heater glasshouses enabled the Van Lier family to grow more than half a million roses, carnations and violets last year, plus several thousand cyclamens, gloxinias and anthuriums.
A Christchurch-built 2,500,000 BTU Hamilton boiler provides the heat needed in winter to keep the carnations at 10 C, the roses at 15 C, the violets at 17 C and the pot plants at 27 C.
Up to a tonne of coal is burned on cold nights from April to October when the boiler is in use. A 20 tonne bunker and screw unit feeds the boiler pea-grade coal supplied by Manurewa coal merchant, Bob Edwards.
In the past the nursery had a 250,000 BTU oil burner, but oil prices pushed costs up so high that in 1975 the Van Liers switched to coal. At this stage it was found that for the cost of heating three glasshouses with oil, ten glasshouses could be heated with coal.
Apart from the change of fuel, the Van Liers have also altered the position of the glasshouse heating pipes. They began by installing them overhead, but more recently constructed glasshouses have them at ground level. By changing their position the Van Liers are now waiting to see how the effect of heat from the ground will affect plant growth.
Today the Van Lier nursery has two unheated plastic houses, and 13 heated glasshouse amounting to 10,000 square metres under glass. The four hectare nursery site at Massey could even take a futher seven or eight glasshouses. Walter Van Lier is, however, quite content to leave any plans for expansion to his son Fred who assists him in managing the nursery and its staff of eight.
Another son, Theo is now in Canada as a member of a student exchange scheme. He will go from there to Aalsmeer in Holland to spend six months in a rose-breeding and growing nursery.
He has already completed a diploma course at Massey University and will in time, probably join the rest of the family at the nursery.
Walter and Mary Van Lier visited Theo in Canada recently en route to Holland where they went to check out the latest equipment and nursery techniques.
The main flower stocks at their Auckland nursery came from Holland where Walter began growing flowers about 50 years ago. He came to New Zealand early in the 1950s and now, after a lifetime growing flowers he is beginning to think of retirement.
Surrounded by glasshouses, and roses blooming in the middle of winter, Walter Van Lier can recall that when he first began growing flowers under glass his New Zealand neighbours were sure he would not get prices high enough to cover his costs. It was one thing to grow tomatoes in glasshouses, but quite another to grow roses out of season.
But he proved with a controlled environment, free from rain and wind better flowers were possible, and the public was prepared to pay for blooms without a blemish. Now flowers from the Van Lier nursery are sold throughout New Zealand and are exported to the Pacific and the Far East.
Commercial flower growing is a costly and complex venture that involves large financial investments to pay for glasshouses and equipment necessary to provide plants with a controlled environment.
The sterilised soil used in the glasshouses is tested every six months for chemical content and balance. The plants and bushes receive, through the irrigation system, a number of different fertilisers, including potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate, epsom salts and borax.
Superphosphate and lime are spread separately and the plants are also sprayed every week to control bugs and prevent disease. Until recently pest control took two men a whole day, but now a tractor-driven spray and a fog unit can do the whole job in one or two hours.
Growing in these sterile and sheltered conditions, the life of a commercial rose bush at the Van Lier nursery is about eight years, and carnation plants are replaced every two years. By staggered planting roses and carnations grow and flower the year round.
Cyclamens are grown in winter, anthurium in autumn and spring, while the gloxinias are raised to bloom at Christmas.
Of the 13 heated glasshouses at the nursery, three are for pot plants, three for carnations, and the remaining seven house approximately 22,000 rose bushes producing about a third of a million roses each year.
While the Van Liers and their staff distribute loving care, coal provides the warmth to encourage but to bloom… perfectly.