Sylvan Vale owners Iola Elder and Siriol Paquet

Twin sisters, Iola Elder and Siriol Paquet, are the second generation to own and manage Sylvan Vale Nursery.

Managed by owner Iola Elder and her twin sister Siriol Paquet, Sylvan Vale Nursery Ltd. is a multi-generational family affair. Their parents, Selwyn and Phyllis Jones, originally purchased the property in 1976 with a plan to farm sheep, but in 1980, when private nurseries came into being, they began to transition the property into a nursery.

In the early days, the original greenhouse was the garage attached to the house. Next, the sheep barn was converted into a greenhouse, and now, some 35 years later, the nursery has evolved to over 200,000 square feet of growing space with 44 free-standing greenhouses and 2 large gutter-connect greenhouses.

Siriol explains, “Iola and I began running the nursery on our own, in 1988, when our parents moved on to a different venture. Mom stayed on the farm and over the years has been an integral part of running the business. We owe a big thanks to both our parents.”

The sisters are working on the third generation of up and coming family members to help carry on the family business. Both Siriol and Iola have two children. After being raised on the farm, they left to go to school and now three out of the four children have returned to live, learn and work the family business.

Growing Trees in Black Creek’s Unique Microclimate

Sylvan Vale Nursery is located in Black Creek on Vancouver Island. The nursery has a custom growing program and produces both container and bareroot stock from seed or cuttings. They currently grow forest seedlings, Christmas tree seedlings, native plants, ornamentals, berry plants, grasses, plants for restoration, agroforestry, nursery liners, hedging and most anything else you ask them to.

Running a tree growing business in Black Creek is not without its challenges. The unique microclimate brings with it extreme weather patterns. It’s not uncommon for the area to get several feet of snow overnight, which can cause serious problems for the greenhouses.

Black Creek is also influenced by weather from Knight Inlet, funneling down from Oyster River, which can cause extreme cold temperatures. In the winter months, the temperature in Black Creek is often 4 degrees colder than Courtenay and in the summer months they’re usually 4 degrees hotter.

Being located in Black Creek, outside municipal water systems, means Sylvan Vale Nursery relies on catchment water. They have seven reservoirs and catch from one reservoir to the next. Because they recycle all their water they monitor their water system very closely and proudly maintain environmental farm status.

First stop: The Seed House

Sylvan Vale Nursery seed house

Siriol Paquet of Sylvan Vale Nursery describes the process for ordering and planting seeds to PFLA’s 2015 field tour participants.

PFLA was lucky enough to get a guided tour of Sylvan Vale Nursery as part of our annual conference field day back in June 2015. The tour included a visit to the seed house where Iola and Siriol explained the process for ordering and planting seeds.

First, the client — a forester, landowner, silviculturalist — asks the nursery to grow a certain number of trees for them. You can place orders any time, but the latest they’ll accept orders for the following spring planting is September or October.

It’s important to remember: when forest companies are busy, reforestation nurseries are busy too. The earlier you place an order the more certain you can be that the nursery will have room to grow your seedlings.

This year all the nurseries (including the interior) are full to capacity and then some. So orders needed to be placed early to reserve space.

Next, your seed has to be acquired. The nursery needs to get suitable seed for your property. Some seeds require a lengthy stratification; for example, white pine has a 3 to 4 month stratification period.

It’s best to start thinking about ordering seeds early.

You also need to think about what kind of seeds you want. If you’re a Crown woodlot, the nursery needs what they call select seed. Select seed comes from a seed orchard. If you’re not a Crown woodlot, you have the flexibility to choose a wild stand collection or what they call a ‘b’ class seed.

If you’re planting Douglas-fir on Vancouver Island, and it’s select seed for Crown land, you need a specific seed lot called seed zone “maritime 0 to 700 meters”.

Row upon row of blocks filled with seedlings in a greenhouse at Sylvan Vale Nursery.

Row upon row of blocks filled with seedlings in a greenhouse at Sylvan Vale Nursery.

The seed is stored at the Tree Seed Centre in Surrey. They track everything by seed lot at the seed centre and can tell you where it was collected, what the elevation was and who owns it.

If you have a private woodlot, and you have a specific tree you like, you can use that seed.

Seed is sometimes hard to purchase. It can be a challenge to find the best seed for your property, and then to find someone who has it for sale at a reasonable price. Another reason to start thinking about ordering seeds ahead of time.

This year Sylvan Vale Nursery will produce about 8 million seedlings. There is no minimum order. They are a contract grower and will grow whatever you like, but price is based on volume so the smaller the amount you need the greater the cost per unit.

Seeding Line Equipment: A Demonstration

George Shikaze, of Vancouver Bio-Machine Systems Ltd., was instrumental in helping mechanize sowing and lifting in the early days of nursery equipment.

Siriol explains, “We’re still using George’s machine. This seed line is a workhorse. It produces, on a bad day, about 1200 blocks. That’s with lots of different seed lots, or if we’re putting lots of seeds per cavity and they have to go slower. If it’s a seed lot that’s 200,000 and it’s a 412A we can sow about 4500 blocks per day.”

The nursery has a short window of time to sow everything for the coming planting season—usually about a month.

The first step in the process is to mix the soil recipe. Next, the soil gets conveyed into the block loader where the cavities are filled with soil. An electronic arm jiggles the soil and then it travels along to a machine feeder with a vacuum pump that drops a set desired amount of seeds per cavity.

The germination value will determine how many seeds per cavity. If the germination value is low, they’ll put between 4 and 6 seeds per cavity, but if it has a really good germination value they’ll put one or two seeds per cavity.

From there, the block runs along the conveyor belt and a layer of grit is placed on top of the seeds. The blocks then travel outside where they’re watered and transported to the greenhouse.

Next stop: The greenhouse

Sylvan Vale Nursery greenhouse

Talking greenhouses with Siriol Paquet at Sylvan Vale Nursery in Black Creek.

At Sylvan Vale Nursery they have two different style greenhouse—gutter-to-gutter and freestanding. The greenhouses are purposely separated by wide spaces to help facilitate snow removal.

The gutter-to-gutter greenhouses use hot water piped heat and the freestanding greenhouses use natural gas forced air heat—each creates a different growing environment.

In the freestanding greenhouses, the water, light and temperature levels are all controlled by Argus sensors. The sensors are programmed to determine how often the water comes on, what the temperature is and the sidewalls will automatically roll up or down depending on changes in temperature or moisture.

When we visited in June, the roofs were just being removed from the greenhouses so some greenhouses had plastic on them, and others didn’t. They take the roofs off because it gets hot, but also to encourage the development of wax and cutin on the roots so the trees are better conditioned when they go out to the field.

Each greenhouse holds about 1530 blocks (give or take). The two big greenhouses hold 7350 blocks each so the gutter-to-gutter connects are equivalent to 5 freestanding greenhouses.

Last stop: The lift line

The lift line is where it all ends. Seedlings leave the blocks and get packaged into boxes for storage or distribution into the field. It takes a lot of people to run the lift line. More so in the summer to keep things running smoothly.

In the winter, they lift by greenhouse. That means, they bring in an entire seed lot, lift it until it’s finished and then it goes to storage. The summer harvest, Siriol describes, “is a bit more chaotic because we’re lifting to order.”

Sylvan Vale Nursery employs 10 to 15 full time workers and in the busy times another 45 seasonal workers (give or take). They have a core group of workers who’ve been returning, seasonally, for 30 years, but they still have to hire quite a few new people each season.

A Lift Line Demonstration

Sanna

Iola Elder’s daughter, Sanna, demonstrates quality checking on the lift line.

Like the seed line, the lift line equipment is designed by George Shikaze of Vancouver Bio-Machine Systems. Siriol can’t say enough good things about George, “The belts are all different at each nursery you go to.”

The lift building is a greenhouse, which has the added bonus of supplying a lot of natural light to help the workers see and grade the seedlings.

At Sylvan Vale Nursery, they lift the seedlings by a set caliper and height. They set the conveyor belt so the trees don’t come in clumps and one person grades, stacks and bundles the trees as they go by.

If they don’t do a good job, the nursery gets penalized for sending out bad trees. Siriol explains, “A lot of people at the nursery do quality control. That’s our big thing. If we send a seed lot that’s got 10% culls it can now get rejected or a financial penalty.”

The trees are then carefully wrapped, top to bottom to protect the roots from light exposure, and packed upright into wax-coated boxes. Each box holds between 180 and 270 trees depending on the size. If the trees are going into the freezer for storage, a plastic bag is placed in the box to help protect the trees.

That’s how it all happens at Sylvan Vale Nursery—from seed to seedling 8 million times over.

A big PFLA thanks to Sylvan Vale Nursery for their hospitality (did we mention they fed us donuts?) and the informative tour. PFLA was also delighted to present Iola and Siriol, the duo Rod Bealing describes as “twin bundles of awesomeness”, with a PFLA Stewardship Award for their dedicated support of private forest owners.

You can learn more about Sylvan Vale Nursery on their website and check out more tour photos on our Facebook page.