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Thunder Bay growers become destination attraction

The kind of parties that Vanderwees Home & Garden Centre throws usually brings out the cops.
John 3
Expanding the retail outlet and offering a gourmet food line has made of John Vanderwees' home and garden centre an institution for Thunder Bay greenthumbs.

The kind of parties that Vanderwees Home & Garden Centre throws usually bring out the cops.

But their job is restricted to directing traffic of the hundreds of greenthumbers who make their way out to Mapleward Road on the outskirts of Thunder Bay.

For those with the planting bug, the family-owned greenhouse business is their version of paradise.

There are five acres of plastic-roofed greenhouses and 60,000 square feet of customer walking space filled with annuals, perennials, tropical plants, vegetables, fruit, shrubs and trees in engineer-straight rows that stretch toward infinity.

After starting from modest beginnings almost 50 years ago, the business has grown through a wave of expansions to become a year-round destination store in northwestern Ontario.

The Vanderwees family certainly have nothing to fear from big box garden centres.

Their pre-Christmas festival of 100,000 lights and fireworks show is so legendary, it requires police traffic control.

Weekend fall craft fairs regularly draw 1,000 people and there's a slew of open houses, invitation-only festive savings nights, and kids' birthday parties at their small animal farm that keeps the place humming year-round.

"It’s interesting where opportunities have taken it," said company president John Vanderwees.

What began as a part-time venture started in 1960 by John's parents, Joe and Laura, has blossomed onto a 35-greenhouse operation employing 40 year-round and 110 seasonal workers.

With greenhouse lineage in the family tree, his parents, Joe and Laura, emigrated from Holland in 1952. John grew up in the business, obtaining a horticulture degree from the University of Guelph, and has been working at the store for the last 30 years. "I'm planted here."

Both of Vanderwees' parents are still involved in the business.

Laura makes soups and does some baking for the café in their on-site kitchen or at home.

Joe, officially retired, still comes in twice a day to help with pickups.

"You can find him here at 9:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon. You can almost set your clock by it.”

The site was reconfigured five years ago with the construction of a new 16,500-square-foot retail storefront stocked with plants, patio furniture, hammocks, footwear and a café featuring locally grown menu items. Murals of the Dutch countryside reflect their heritage.

"We didn't have the parking and more greenhouse area so we made the decision seven years ago that we wanted to expand," said Vanderwees. The old retail space in a drafty greenhouse was converted into more growing space.

The plants they produce, either grown from seed or small cuttings, are sold in Loblaws, Canadian Tire and independent retailers and grocers across northwestern Ontario and as far south as Duluth, MN.

Seed and giftware products are sourced from U.S. and Chinese suppliers through a 55-member garden centre co-op group.

"That’s a big part of having this much inventory at the right price, and we have to be competitive in the marketplace," said Vanderwees.

Garden centres can be almost recession-proof. When homeowners shelve vacation plans, the free time is spent sprucing up the yard. The company even employs a landscape designer to help people get started.

The business is coming off a number of expansions including a tomato house addition last year. A new growth area is their Tulips brand of gourmet products of dips, coffee, lemonade, candy and fudge, which they hope to distribute to garden centres across Canada.

One employee who has witnessed the store's dramatic growth is gift shop manager Louise Kondakow, a relative newbie among the experienced staff, with only 15 years of service.

The former Royal Bank employee and avid gardener took a part-time job making display signs. Within three months, she was full-time and has never looked back.

"The staff are amazing. We all support each other. Working here is really fun and if you love gardening, this is the place to work."