Everything starts somewhere—ideas, automobiles, toaster ovens, plaid pants, even trees. All of the trees planted here on the coast of British Columbia owe their start to the skill, care, expertise and dedication of nursery workers.

Arbutus Grove Nursery, Pacific Regeneration Technologies (PRT) and Sylvan Vale Nursery, all provide great products and service, but in mid-December, PFLA needed trees in a hurry (the Santa Clause parade!) so we swung by our closest source, Arbutus Grove Nursery, to pick up some seedlings (a big hit by the way).

Coastal-Douglas fir tree seedlings

Impressed by the hustle and bustle of the winter lift, we couldn’t resist inviting ourselves back again for a closer look (armed with digital cameras and hand-held video devices).

Thanks to Nathaniel Stoffeslma for taking the time to tour us around their North Saanich nursery. Arbutus Grove is a family-owned and operated business established in 1981 when Nathaniel’s father planted their first crop of trees in a lone half-greenhouse. Today, the nursery boasts seven guttered-greenhouses, of various sizes, and a reputation for growing Coastal Douglas-fir well—“It’s a difficult species to grow, but we do a pretty good job at it.”

When the forest industry is healthy, business is healthy.

Over the years, Arbutus Grove Nursery has adapted and persevered to survive uncertain economic times in the coastal forest industry. During the recession in 2008, business plummeted — they saw 60% of a standard normal year. Thankfully, they were able to recover. Other nurseries in B.C. weren’t so lucky.

Holding a Coastal Douglas-fir seedling

Along with shifts in capacity, they’ve noticed a significant change in expectation, “30 years ago foresters expected 50% of trees to succeed in the field.” Today, customers at Arbutus Grove Nursery expect much more from their trees. Nathaniel estimates their trees have a growing success rate of close to 95%.

A common misconception about Arbutus Grove Nursery is the perception that they grow trees for ornamental use. Nathaniel explains, “People don’t understand how thorough the reforestation industry is—probably 35 million trees are planted, every year, here on the coast. Across B.C., it’s probably closer to 200 million trees, every year. That’s 100,000 times more trees planted each year than the ornamental tree industry.”

The planting cycle

As a contract grower, customers provide the seeds (generally) and Arbutus Grove Nursery grows the seedlings to the customers’ specifications. Coastal-Douglas fir is the most popular species they grow, but they also grow other coastal species like Western redcedar.

Orders are placed in September, October and November and seeds are stratified and prepared for sowing in February, March and April to coincide with the summer/fall planting season and the spring planting season.

Working in the lifting shed at Arbutus Grove Nursery

The winter lift is the busiest time of year at Arbutus Grove Nursery. Seedlings are lifted, in December and January, when they’re at their ideal condition for planting and then preserved in cold storage until the spring planting season begins. To accomplish this, they employ about 70 people, on two shifts, from 7 a.m. until midnight.

Working in the lifting shed at Arbutus Grove Nursery

The lifting shed is the epicenter of this bustling operation. Millions (yes, millions) of seedlings, transferred from trays, travel along conveyor belts to be checked for quality, wrapped in packs of five or ten, packed into boxes and stacked onto pallets before being transported to cold storage where their perfect condition is preserved until the planting season begins.

Boxes of tree seedlings headed for cold storage

This year, Arbutus Grove Nursery will produce about 50,000 boxes of seedlings, that’s approximately 12 million trees. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60 to 70 percent of those seedlings will be planted on private forest land.

Thanks again to Nathaniel, and the staff at Arbutus Grove Nursery, for showing us around. Check out the video above to see for yourself, or browse through the photo album on our Facebook page.