How Kalamazoo's Greenhouses Grew

Oct 12, 2017

Pansies at Klooster Greenhouse in October. Early fall is a relatively quiet period for the local bedding plant industry.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

You don’t need a green thumb to notice that Kalamazoo is full of greenhouses.

“And they aren’t small ones. They’re very, very large,” says listener Barbara Bott.

They grow bedding plants – flowers and vegetables for home gardens. Barbara wants to know: why so many? Why here?

What in Southwest Michigan makes you curious?

To find out, we paid a visit to two separate establishments, where we interviewed two veterans of the local bedding plant business. Mel Klooster is retired from the greenhouse that he helped found in Comstock. And Dave Corstange owns a greenhouse in Portage. From here, we let them do the explaining.

Dave Corstange: The greenhouse business really was an offshoot of the celery business.

Mel Klooster: Kalamazoo is really on a bowl. And in the bowl is a lot of muck land - lowland - very close to wetland but not quite. And so that will grow almost anything and that used to be celery.

DC: A lot of the Dutch heritage…

MK: They come from the Netherlands, which is lowland.

Succulents at Corstange Greenhouse in Portage.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

DC: They were selling to little fruit markets and grocery stores.

MK: Mechanization came in and California celery came in and the combination of things, it caused the celery industry in this area to die off.

DC: They started growing a few flats of flowers…

MK: And everybody wants flowers. So 1960, we started growing flowers on a sideline.

DC: And it just grew and mushroomed from there.

MK: Man, it went pretty good!

DC: Now it’s tougher. The box stores kind of control everything in the nation.

MK: Big boxes have really changed our customer base.

DC: Because of the trucking, labor cost, there’s a number of large growers in this area that have bought operations in Georgia and the Carolinas and – that eastern seaboard, it’s easier to hit the Wal-Marts and everything along there.

MK: We’ll take a short walk through it and show you what I can…now here we have a group of pansies that are in baskets.

Barbara Bott: My gosh, where are all these going?

MK: They’re all going south. They will all go south next week, there are three semi-loads here.

DC: We’ve got a whole lot of succulents because that is the hot item right now.

MK: Do you know what a begonia is?

BB: Yes.

MK: How many seeds do you think is in an ounce?

BB: Hmmm.

MK: Begonia’s a relatively small seed.

BB: We’ll say 500.

MK: Three hundred thousand.

Markers at Klooster Greenhouse
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

DC: Everything is patented nowadays. And you pay a royalty fees and you’ve got to be licensed. They come in, they have – we call them the “plant police” come in, and they make sure you’re not taking illegal cuttings and selling them.

MK: If you’re wondering what the yellow tape is, that’s to check to see what insects are around. We use as little insecticide as possible.

DC: We had a customer, we had bought some bugs that eat the bad bugs, and – ‘I don’t want it! You’re full of bugs!’ I said, ‘no, that’s the good bug, take your picture’ – the picture she took of it – I said, ‘blow it up, you’ll see it’s got another bug in its mouth!’

MK: Everything we ship gets watered first because if we bring it to Home Depot, we set it on the ground they probably aren’t going to look at it for at least three days unless somebody buys it so they don’t want to water it, they don’t want to take the time, they don’t want to spend the money. So we’ve got to make sure they’re wet when they leave.

BB: It sure is efficient.

MK: Well, you try really, really hard to make it efficient, yes.

DC: We try to buy machines to eliminate people, which sounds bad but when you can’t find people you need that machine.

MK: I’ll go to any city in the United States and I’ll go to a plat where the little homes are, you take 10 homes. How many of them have got flowers? Three? It used to be three. It may be up to four now but that’s pretty much the norm. Three to four out of the ten. I said, ‘you’ve got seven – six or seven potential customers to sell to. So you’ve still got – you’ve got an industry that’s still growing.’

Corstange Greenhouse in October.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

DC: The next big one is marijuana.

BB: So a couple of years from now we’ll see this all in –

DC: No you won’t.

If something in Southwest Michigan has made you curious, ask “Why’s That?”