The future’s looking bright again for Belgian Dirk Mermans

In 2010, Dirk Mermans built a new extension. It was followed by a few tough years and low prices. But since 2015, prices for green plants have been going up again, so the Belgian grower is back. Mermans: “Everything goes in waves and at the moment, we’re on a green wave.”

Arie-Frans Middelburg

Dirk Mermans is a man of striking comparisons. “If you want to race, you need a racing bike. An old roadster won’t be any good, even if you’ve got the best legs in the world”, he said at the beginning of our visit to his company in Wommelgem, just outside Antwerp. Mermans used this comparison to explain the new 1.4-ha greenhouse that he built in 2010, adjacent to the existing 6,000-m2, old greenhouse.

He had to. Until then, he had been working in four different locations, making his logistics anything but efficient. And energy costs were soaring. As if he was trying to win a stage of the Tour de France on a roadster.

A new greenhouse with CHP, humidification, three sections, two of which have diffused light, two aisles – ‘we often get smaller orders these days’ – brought him back in the race. The land wasn’t a problem, he already owned it, and prices of greenhouses had gone down. Mermans had to get used to the new greenhouse, though. “It took me two years to get to grips with it.” And on top of that, the market for green plants wasn’t great. From the third quarter of 2008, sales had been tough. Mermans was only just getting by.

Double blow

In fact, many growers of green plants didn’t survive. But Mermans did. Despite the fact that, according to himself, he was facing a double blow. He grew his green plants using hydroponics and soil – both were doing badly. “Many growers had to give up. Only the real stayers made it to today”, he said.

In 2015, the sale of green plants finally went up a bit, and by 2016, demand was bigger than supply, explains the Belgian. At the moment, green plants are in high demand, they’re trendy. Plants in hydroponics are also popular throughout Europe. Mermans: “Everything goes in waves and at the moment, we’re on a green wave.”

He illustrates his point when we reach the rows of Monstera. Mermans says that he recently got a higher price for his second-choice Monstera at the auction than from direct trade. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t even get half the normal rate at the auction. That tells you something about the demand.”

Another telling sign is that Mermans’ stand at Trade Fair in Naaldwijk gained a lot of attraction from traders. “That was remarkable. My stand was very simple, a few plants and hardly any decorations, but it attracted lots of visitors. I wasn’t getting those same numbers of visitors four years ago.”

Niche products

“If there is demand, the price is secondary. If there’s no demand, any price is too high. In that case, they simply don’t want your product, that’s it”, says Mermans. Or, as he puts it in other words: “You need products, you need customers, you need to be able to help each other – that’s when you’re off to a good start. My advantage is that the plants I grow are very popular nowadays. Sometimes, you just need a bit of luck.”

Mermans’ plants are nice products. His assortment consists of twenty different types of green plants on clay pebbles or in soil, in a number of different pot sizes. For most plants, Mermans uses his own cuttings. That makes his cultivation labour intensive, but it also means that many of his products are unique. The first thing he shows us when we arrive in the greenhouse, is an 800-m2 area of Zamioculcas on clay pebbles. He’s the only grower in Europe who has them. “Actually, this product has always sold well”, says Mermans. “In principle, there’s a permanent market for it. It’s been more difficult to get the quality just right than to try and sell these.”

He also grows Philodendron pedatum. “At some point I thought I would give that up. But nowadays, it’s in high demand.” Mermans is one of only two growers in total who cultivate Aspidistra and he’s “experimenting” with Sparrmannia. Another less common product that he has in his assortment is Clusia rosea. And a final example: Schefflera Amate. Cuttings are no longer available in Costa Rica. So, Mermans decided to do it by himself.

Hardly ever ‘no’

Mermans is a FloraHolland member. He ships to Aalsmeer and/or Naaldwijk twice a day. He sells his plants through exporters and cash and carry to garden centres and DIY stores. Nieuwkoop Europe is one of his big customers. He grows a lot of hydroponic plants for them, to order. He does this for others, too. “Customers say: I can’t get this or that, can you make it for us? I hardly ever say no.”

He’s been collaborating with Ammerlaan The Green Innovator in Pijnacker for four years. Some of Mermans’ plants go to this wholesale nursery – it’s a good way to get closer to the market.

But he prefers direct sales. He only brings very little to the auction; a few Aspidistras and some second-choice products.

When he’s asked whether he fears a strong increase in the  competition for green plants, Mermans says: “What would they grow? It is difficult to predict the market. You can’t just start growing green plants off the cuff. You need customers.”

Dutch Belgian

Because his father is getting ready to retire, Mermans took over the old 3,000-m2 nursery in Borsbeek, which had been set-aside for five years, and put it back into production. He had a concrete floor installed and bought a climate computer. Mermans is considering to expand his own company in Wommelgem as well. When I say that he could be a Dutchman because he immediately wants to expand as soon as things are going well, he starts laughing. “A buyer from a German garden centre chain always calls me the most Dutch Belgian he’s ever met.” Mermans is aware that the saturation point for green plants might be nearing, as nobody really knows the extent of the shortage. But, he adds: “Entrepreneurship is about taking risks.” And he puts his plans into perspective too. “I would increase my acreage by a third. In 2010, I tripled it.”

Mermans is a fifth generation grower and there might even be a sixth after him. “If one of my daughters takes over, I’ll never get out. Just look at my father, he’s 72 years old and still involved.”

For now, Mermans is in good shape. Business is going well “But my focus isn’t on the money. As long as my plants are growing well and my customers are happy. That’s what I’m trying to teach my daughters, too. It’s so important to get fulfilment from your work. Success and happy customers can give you that.”



1870 The Van Baast family moves from Tilburg to Ekeren and starts with the cultivation of garden roses

1920 Great-grandfather Van Baast begins with the cultivation of bedding plants and chrysanthemums after working for a baron

1946 Grandfather Mermans also begins with the cultivation of bedding plants and chrysanthemums

1964 Father Mermans starts working in the nursery and they begin with the cultivation of indoor plants, including ferns and monstera

1993 Dirk finalises his studies and starts working in his father’s nursery in November

2003 Dirk takes over a vegetable greenhouse in Wommelgem

2010 He extends the greenhouse to a total of 20,000 m²

2012 Awarded Belgian Ornamental Grower of the Year and winner of the bronze rose in the ‘International grower of the year’ awards

0 Reacties
Inline feedbacks
Bekijk alle reacties