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Kuhlmann's greenhouse providing produce for nearly 60 years

The family-owned business is adapting to a world with COVID-19 with the same hard work that got them this far
Anita McDonald shows off the growing tomato plants at the Kuhlmann family greenhouse and market garden in northeast Edmonton. The nearly 60-year business is adapting to a world with COVID-19 with the same hard work that got them this far. LUCY HAINES/St. Albert Gazette

How do I grow vegetables from seed? What are the best plants for a hanging basket? What's a zone, and which one am I in?

That's life each spring and summer at Kuhlmann's Greenhouse Garden Market – a steady stream of questions from new and long-time green thumbs who descend on the bustling garden shop in northeast Edmonton, just across the road from where the family business started in 1962. 

Over the years, the greenhouse has collected long-time, loyal customers through farmers' markets in St. Albert, downtown Edmonton and Capilano.

With over 200 acres of vegetables – potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, beets, peas, chard, lettuces, spinach, kale and more – family and seasonal staff (about 60 summertime pickers) are busy on the farm much of the year, planting, picking and planting again for next year's crop.

Add to that 12 quonset huts where tender seedlings and flowers are grown or shipped in, transplanted and watered until the eager public can buy them each May, and it's no wonder why it takes a Kuhlmann-led small army to keep everything in motion, all year round.

That's how it works most years. But this one is anything but ordinary.

Dieter Kuhlmann and wife Elizabeth, now in their 80s, are still active partners in the family business, with Elizabeth working behind the scenes and Dieter largely involved with agriculture industry committees and community farmers' markets.

It's been mostly steady growth, from a pick-your-own site in the 70s to expansion into a bigger site and market garden, floral arrangement and gift shop.

Though they've weathered ups and downs through many decades, said Dieter, COVID-19 has been a unique challenge.

"I've never seen anything like this – I can't ever remember such a serious situation," he said. "We've made changes in the greenhouse – put porta potties outside and made the aisles wider for shopping. How long will this last? Will it change things for good? No one can say, but we adapt and continue."

Leading a staff of around 50 full and part-timers is daughter Anita McDonald – walkie-talkie at the ready as she manages the bustling operation – answering customer questions about the seed package supply (quantities were already running out as the season began, thanks to a COVID-19-inspired rush on vegetable seeds) and those in search of their favourite geraniums, pansies and begonias.

Today, McDonald, her sister and their two husbands are part owners of the business too, making it a real family affair. Sister Angela Kruk manages the garden centre, while McDonald's husband Doug 'The Farmer' oversees watering, seeding and harvesting in the market garden.

"I love working in the greenhouse, especially in January when it's sunny and warm in here," said McDonald. "It was a lot of hard work growing up – we'd spend long hours harvesting on summer days, getting produce ready for the farmers' markets – that's a big part of our business."

As for the fall crops – mostly cabbage, potatoes and carrots – pickers harvest and store these in 10-pound bags to sell at the market garden through the winter – though some cabbage is reserved to make the popular Kuhlmann sauerkraut.

While it seems like business as usual, Kuhlmann's has had to rejig the greenhouse and store's checkout area and paths between rows of flowers to meet social distancing requirements. Gift items are cleared out, the floral department is pared down and fewer checkouts remain – all to create less congestion between shoppers and staff.

A more automated operation today than in decades past, Kuhlmann's brings in already-seeded trays from warmer U.S. locales so they don't have to start the greenhouse up as early in the spring. Where staff used to water hanging baskets by hand, drip tubes now hydrate flowers as they start to grow, up and down the rows and back again in timed fashion.

"We pretty much grow all the plants we sell – three acres of bedding plants, and the majority are flowers for containers, basket stuffers and for annual colour in flower beds," said McDonald of the 25,000 geraniums, 20,000 flats of seedlings and some 100,000 vegetable plants readied for sale each spring. "And when it's not busy, we even give tours to garden clubs and church groups to show them what we do in the back, or to help them with projects like 'planting a patio."

"But late spring isn't the time for tours," she laughed. "When we moved across the road in 1983, it was because dad decided we should grow something bigger and better – and here we are today. We're so glad customers know they can rely on us – that they feel this is a safe place to come, especially in uncertain times."