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  Operating a greener greenhouse
By Catherine Thompson - AgriNews Staff Writer

NEWINGTON-The owner of a small, wholesale perennial nursery in Eastern Ontario has started a couple of projects to reduce the use of non-renewable energy in her home and business and is encouraging others to follow suit.

"I'm looking for sustainable alternatives to the way of living we take for granted, trying to keep in mind the future of our children and grandchildren," Karen Carriere, the owner of Centre Commons Perennials, south of Finch, explains.

From January to March, 2007, Carriere tried to cut the use of electricity in her household by 20 per cent and ended in reducing it by two-thirds. Her effort at energy conservation made a large saving on her electricity bill.

That led her in October to challenge South Stormont Township residents to join an energy-saving project called the Kilowatt Countdown Challenge. If South Stormont residents cut their use of electricity by 20 per cent between January and March 2008, that would result in a carbon dioxide reduction of 64 metric tonnes.

The suggestion received the support of township council, Hydro One, Premier Dalton McGuinty and the David Suzuki Foundation. She has researched numerous energy-saving tips, which will be posted on the township's website and made available in hard copies through the libraries in South Stormont and the township office.

Carriere is concerned about the global impact of climate change and believes she can make a small difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the methods she uses in the cultivation of ornamental greenhouse plants.

Her research showed that over a billion potted plants were produced in 2005 in Ontario, with fuel costs reaching a grand total of $151,600,000 (Stats Canada).

One factor adding to the huge cost of fuel is the number of miles involved in transportation. In many cases, they come from as far as the Netherlands or the eastern United States and are shipped to the Niagara greenhouses as dormant plants. When ready for the retail market, they are shipped back to Eastern Ontario.

Carriere believes the transport of mature, potted plants increases costs to the environment, and suggests the plants could be shipped as lightweight rooted plugs, for finishing by local growers.

About three years ago, Ottawa customers started to form the majority of her customer base, and she switched her company from retail to wholesale. By making a weekly 180 km road trip to Make It Green Garden Centre in Kanata, she eliminated the need for customers to make many individual trips to her nursery. Carbon credits purchased from Climate Friendly, a gold standard vendor, cover the carbon emissions involved in transporting the plants from the nursery to the centre.

Also, by delaying the "spring gardening frenzy" around May 24 by about three weeks, Carriere halved her fuel costs and therefore greenhouse gas emissions over earlier years. "People get tired of winter and sometimes get stock in weeks ahead of time. Some could be damaged by frost. The time leading up to and after May 24 is when most sales happen. If garden centres get the plants on May 24, there's no need to protect and heat them, and people can buy them afterward," she explains.

The Carrieres buy Bullfrog Power, which provides electricity to their home and greenhouse. Located north of Toronto, the company provides electricity from clean, emission-free sources like wind power and low impact waterpower, instead of carbon-intensive sources like coal and oil.

She says the money customers pay the company for electricity goes to reinvest in green energy projects and a small surcharge goes to Hydro One, which has the infrastructure and delivers the electricity to homes and businesses. Although Bullfrog Power was founded in 2005, it has expanded to make power available to customers in Ontario and Alberta.

She suggests growers can explore the use of sustainable fuels like biogas, now used on the fringes of the industry in Canada.

Biogas is a mixture of gases, usually a combination of carbon dioxide and methane, produced by microorganisms in the absence of air. It is produced in large quantities by grazing animals and it also develops in bogs and in decaying organic matter at the bottom of lakes. When animal manure is stored in a sealed tank, the gas accumulates and can used as fuel for cook stoves and furnaces, instead of regular natural gas, which is a fossil fuel.

Instead of using Canadian peat, which is first trucked to the Niagara region from Quebec or New Brunswick, and returned to eastern garden centres as a growing medium, Carriere suggests new growing mediums could be developed in conjunction with local industries, using composts from municipal green wastes, and forest and farm by-products. In this way, "we could not only increase plant production here, but many linked businesses."

As an alternative to synthetic fertilizers that use natural gas, Carriere suggests feeding plants nutrient rich composts and by-products like kelp meal, fish by-products or composted animal manures, which are used in organic food production.

The ideal plant pot is lightweight, biodegradable and made from nearby industrial by-products, says Carriere, thus reducing strain on landfill sites. Although recycled paper fibre pots are biodegradable, they are made in central Ontario and their bulk makes them less cost efficient in heated greenhouses. However, they are good for short-term outdoor growing. Other biodegradable pots, made of rice hulls, bamboo pulp or coconut husk incur prohibitive transportation miles.

"Better pots are on the horizon. Innovative prototypes of soy pots, chicken feather pots, or Cowpots (made of guess what?) are all lightweight, as well as renewable, even feeding the plants as they decompose. None of these are available yet in the province, let alone eastern Ontario," Carriere states. "Someone will have to come up with a product."

In addition to reassessing the supply chain for ornamental plants, Carriere is concerned about the dependability of the food supply. "Now with the price of oil for shipping, we're quite vulnerable."

Through research, she has learned the food supply in North American society would only last two to three weeks. Fewer people are growing vegetables in their back yards, which was always a good source of fresh local produce. Although Cornwall business people would like to start a steady farmers' market, there are not yet enough local producers to supply a market and residents are too far from Ottawa growers.

On the other hand, "there's been a lot of interest in growing food lately, in localized areas such as Perth, Kingston and the outskirts of Ottawa," she states. "Personally, our gardens are expanding to grow more food."

Carriere is trying to make her own food supply more secure, by growing more vegetables, bringing in bushels of produce and adding pear, apricot, plum and nut trees to her orchard. She also has a productive lemon tree and mandarin orange trees in her sunny south windows.

"I'll still keep the ornamental perennials, because they're good for bees. There's a reason for flowers and it's certainly good for the soul."



Eastern Ontario AgriNews is published on the third Monday of each month. The printed version is distributed free by postal mail to farms in Eastern Ontario, Canada.

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