For many of us, it’s second nature to buy a peach grown nearby over one imported from the U.S. When you choose local produce, you’re supporting your own economy and you’re saving the extra environmental cost incurred when transporting produce from a long distance. And because the produce doesn’t travel as far, it’s usually in better shape by the time it reaches your kitchen. We could use the same logic when choosing cut flowers and potted plants, but it’s not something many of us think of doing.
When Garden Making was exhibiting at Landscape Ontario’s EXPO last week, I spoke to Alannah Westerhoff from Flowers Canada and pickOntario. EXPO is a trade show where plant growers and retailers meet, and pickOntario was there to encourage garden centres and florists to sell locally grown cut flowers and potted plants, as well as support greenhouses and growers that are either already members or considering becoming members of the program.
I had seen pickOntario’s name at garden shows and in florists and garden centres before, but I had never heard the whole story on why the program exists. The pickOntario program launched in 2008, around the time that the 100-mile diet was gaining popularity and people were starting to look for local options in grocery stores. Today, about 250 greenhouses participate in the program, which means they can label their flowers and plants as part of pickOntario. The program is part of Flowers Canada, and it markets Ontario-grown flowers and plants to the public through in-store labelling and advertising, so customers know they have the option to buy local.
Speaking to Alannah last week, I learned that buying local flowers is just as important as buying local produce, whether you’re in Ontario or elsewhere in Canada. The pickOntario program encourages member greenhouses to use more environmentally friendly ways of dealing with pests whenever possible, such as using good bugs to get rid of bad bugs. This is safer for employees and customers, too. Also, the long trip from Colombia and Ecuador that many cut flowers take not only has a toll on the environment, but it also affects the quality of the flowers that arrive in Canada. For example, pickOntario flowers are wet-packed in buckets so the stems don’t dry out, meaning you don’t need to cut as much off the bottom before putting them in a vase. Flowers arriving from South America are dry-packed in boxes, and the cells at the bottom of the stems die during the trip.
Alannah told me that the impact of the free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia started being felt by the flower industry in Ontario about five years ago, especially by the carnation and rose growers. Most roses you see in stores are imported from Colombia and Ecuador — indeed, Ontario greenhouses only grow the smaller sweetheart, tea and spray roses these days. With such tough competition from Colombia and Ecuador, it’s not economically viable for Ontario greenhouses to grow classic roses, carnations and many tropical flowers like bird-of-paradise.
Alannah grew up in the greenhouses industry in Ontario, and has seen first-hand how the importation of flowers has changed the industry. PickOntario strives to help greenhouses get picked up by retailers by doing the marketing for them — retailers know that the pickOntario label that comes with flowers from member greenhouses will attract customers.
A list of garden centres, grocery stores and florists that carry pickOntario flowers is on their website. The website also has a great list of flowers available from pickOntario growers during each month of the year. You can look up a specific flower or a specific month. Just as we are beginning to instinctively choose a local peach over an imported one, it’s time to do the same with the roses, peonies, sunflowers and mums that grace our homes.