Growing and selling flowers is often a seasonal business over at Windmill Gardens in Sumner, with the peak season being summertime.
Now, as summer comes to a close, Windmill Gardens plans to embark on a new year-round business venture to grow and sell leafy greens, including different types of lettuce.
“The flower business is very seasonal and this is a year-round thing,” said Wendy Pedersen, the administrative controller at Windmill Gardens who helps design the business’s events and weddings.
Ben DeGoede Sr., whose father founded Windmill Gardens in 1967, is using a hydroponic system with the help of his son, Benjamin DeGoede Jr., to grow their lettuce. In the hydroponic system, plants are grown with nutrient-rich water under the cover of a controlled environment enclosure instead of out in fields. The enclosure is lit with LED lights special for growing, which gives the plants the illusion that the sun is always out — even if it’s not.
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“Here in Washington, we can get around 6 to 8 hours of light during the day in the winter, when 14 hours are needed for plants, said DeGoede Jr. “The LEDs have certain colors that the plants react to.”
Currently, Windmill Gardens is growing three types of lettuce: romaine lettuce, mixed and red butter bib, as well as several herbs, including basil.
It takes up to 20 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce. We can grow the same amount of lettuce in a (fraction) of the space.
Benjamin DeGoede Sr.
The DeGoedes have been growing test crops hydroponically for one year and continue to plant in stages, hoping to eventually harvest around 5,000 heads of lettuce a week.
“It takes up to 20 gallons of water to grow one head of lettuce,” DeGoede Sr. said. “We can grow the same amount of lettuce in a (fraction) of the space.”
An acre worth of lettuce fills only a fourth of the space at the Windmill enclosure. The DeGoedes will have up to 25,000 plants growing in their facility when it comes time to harvest the first bunch, which they hope will be ready to sell to businesses, schools, hospitals and at farmers markets in the area by November.
“Our main goal here is to support locally,” Pedersen said, by helping employ local people and creating local food.
While the six-figure investment is “more efficient” and “technology-based rather than labor-intensive,” said DeGoede Jr., that doesn’t mean Windmill will have a reduced staff — in fact, the business needs more people to stick around when the summer season ends.
“We can’t keep a lot of people year-round,” Pedersen said. “Ben (Sr.) really wants to be able to do that.”
Already, some employees have been asked to stay to help in the greenhouse. Research and development of the new operation took about six months, and Windmill staff members are currently taste-testing the product.
As a gardener there’s a lot of trial and error, but things are succeeding.
Benjamin DeGoede Jr.
The on-site flower shop, formerly known as Blooms at the Windmill, was renamed Windmill Floral Studio in July when it returned to Windmill Gardens ownership. The shop is open year-round for custom flower arrangements, gifts and holiday decorations.
“We kept Windmill in the name and added ‘studio’ to it (for) a fresh vibe,” Pedersen said.
Windmill also offers weddings year-round in its gardens next to the shop, and the staff plans up to 50 weddings a year.
As the staff grows poinsettias in preparation for the holiday season, it’s also preparing for the launch of the lettuce operation, a venture the DeGoedes hope will be profitable.
“As a gardener there’s a lot of trial and error,” said DeGoede Jr., “but things are succeeding.”