Shea Doherty remembers the weird-looking plant his mom and dad ordered for their fledgling greenhouse business when he was a kid. It was a Mexican Hat-type of succulent with whorled, fleshy leaves. He and his siblings promptly dubbed it their ‘T. Rex’ plant — and were fascinated by it.
What they didn’t know then was that the plant’s other name, ‘Mother of Thousands,’ was a sign of things to come.
It was the first of what would be many, many more orders of succulents to stock their greenhouse. Today about 800 succulents grow inside Our Farm Greenhouse, their family business near Portage la Prairie. The plants are sold both retail and wholesale across Manitoba, Ontario and points west.
“Here was a plant that was really easy to look after and cool to look at and changed colour and had character,” recalls Doherty, today wholly involved with the family business. “We started to look into whether there were more.”
‘We’ were his parents, Leslie and his late father Les Doherty, who gave up their Calgary life more than two decades ago, to bring their young family of 14 to Manitoba to raise on a farm near where Les had grown up.
“They wanted to give us a better life than what the city could offer,” says Doherty. But his father wasn’t interested in conventional farming that would require heavy capitalization and a bigger land base. Instead, they bought 64 acres that included an existing strawberry farm, began growing vegetables to direct market, and built a greenhouse to produce seedlings before the succulents took off.
Doherty is aware of just one other greenhouse in Saskatchewan currently focused on succulent sales to the same extent.
“Mom and Dad wanted to be unique and they found a way to do it,” says their son.
The specialization in succulents came from more than mere fascination with one type of plant, however. They’ve paid attention to gardening trends, observing while people want to have plants around them, they also have less time to devote to fussier plants.
“We started to notice that trend and said we’re going to have to match that market,” he said.
Succulents are perfect, because as drought-tolerant plants storing water in their leaves, stems and roots, they require so little attention you can ignore them for long periods.
They buy the plants from a U.S. supplier as tiny plugs to grow out. To date they have about 500 varieties for retail sale from May to August, and also sell plants at St. Norbert Farmers’ Market. Another 300 varieties, kept in another part of the greenhouse, are under ongoing testing for suitability in a Manitoba climate.
The diverse array of blues, greys and greens, leaf shapes, textures, with curious names like Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum), Calico Kitten (Crassula ovata), Flap Hen-and-Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) and Happy Young Lady (Cotyledon) house a vast undersea landscape in the greenhouse.
Customers buy them by the armload because they’re ultra-low maintenance and produce fascinating gardens for gardeners with little or no time to look after them, says Doherty, who has put some plants to the extreme tests.
“I’ve left some dry for eight months to a year and put them in a chamber so sun pounds on them,” he said. “It will look dead, but you give it water and it comes right back.”
Those interested in living walls love succulents. Our Farm Greenhouse holds spring workshops that help people create personal artworks, or ‘living pictures,’ planting succulents in specially designed framed planters to hang on the wall. People love them and get excited about creating art with plants, says Doherty who has attracted large crowds doing demos at the Red River Ex.
Succulents are also used on green roofs, but it will take more research to adapt the green roof for Manitoba, says Doherty. Our winters are too cold and these plants aren’t cold hardy enough to survive the extreme cold and wind at higher elevations. “Summertime green roofing works but you can’t do perennial planting on a green roof in Manitoba right now,” he said. “There’s too much winterkill.”
It’s no easy feat keeping 800 succulents warm over winter in Our Farm Greenhouse either.
They must keep the facility slightly warmer than most conventional greenhouses, and it’s operating year round, plus it takes many hands to care for such a significant inventory too.
That was part of their parents’ vision too, says Doherty. They wanted a farm business that would create employment for their kids and hoped they’d learn to love the rural life too. They were successful with that as well. Eight of Doherty’s siblings, who range in age from their 20s to their 40s, are working part time with the greenhouse and vegetable production.
They chose the name Our Farm for a reason, adds Doherty. His folks were progressive thinkers who realized not only creativity and specialization were necessary to make a go of a small-farm venture, but that a farm is only as successful as it is supported by the surrounding community. They wanted their farm’s name to convey a sense of interdependence with customers who support them, said Doherty.
“We didn’t want to call it the Dohertys’ farm. Anyone who buys from us is helping us to be here. Thus the name.”