"WE TRY to keep our hands in the growing as much as possible," Bernie Dinter.
Started by Bernhardt Dinter and his wife Gertrud in 1973, after having purchased the property in 1965, Dinter Nursery has grown into a mainstay of the Cowichan Valley community.
Bernie Dinter, Bernhardt’s son, still remembers that very first sale on April 1, 42 years ago. The Freemans of Cobble Hill continued to shop at the garden centre for the next 30 or 40 years, over which time Bernie got an agriculture degree in plant science and took over the business. In the beginning, all the nursery stock was grown at home. To this day Dinter Nursery grows two-thirds to three-quarters of their bedding plants and 80 to 85 per cent of their veggies on the eight-acre nursery site and two leased acres in Cobble Hill.
"I SAW potential in this as a career," Bernie Dinter.
"BEING ABLE to create something beautiful and useful, watch something grow."
The potential has turned into something Bernie Dinter loves to do every day. He’s expanded from the original two acres beside the Trans Canada Highway, which was only two lanes when Dinter Nursery opened, enjoying the growth of the area that they saw coming even in the 1960s. The land is zoned agricultural, but because they were around before the establishment of the Agricultural Land Reserve, some of the commercial uses have been grandfathered in.
"This year has been a large jump in business," Dinter says, estimating they do about 50,000 transactions a year. Dinter Nursery is also one of the only independent garden centres left, he said, as most of the other ones have been absorbed into larger chains or closed over the last few years.
It’s also become a and Island region centre recently, he said. "We’re drawing people from the greater Victoria area the gulf Island and this year getting a lot of interest up Island, getting a lot of customers from Parksville/Qualicum/Nanaimo, and some dropping in from Courtenay/Campbell River area," said Dinter. "We’re asking them why and they’re telling us it’s because we’re a one-stop garden centre offering such a complete selection in everything." The majority of their customers are private homeowners.
"People always joking say oh, you must love deer and frost because it wipes out the plants and they’ll come back for more, but I find it’s the opposite. If people aren’t succeeding in their garden they just give up and they find another hobby. If we can get them to succeed they’ll be hooked on gardening and they’ll keep coming back as a regular customer."
Bernie Dinter relies on his trusted five managers: Della Walter, greenhouse manager; Greta Felske, nursery production manager (above); Marcia Stewart, store manager; Liz Robinson, nursery sales manager; and John Schwartz, water gardening and property management. Each of the managers has been with Dinter Nursery for 20 to 25 years, with Felske heading into her 27th year.
"It’s been a real lesson in science and magic," says Walter. "Between us we’ve got 100 years experience here."
Walter runs a crew of nine, who do all of the planting and repotting by hand. You get a sense of just how much work that is when Walter says they’ve done three batches of 14,000 tomatoes alone. One woman does all of the direct seeding. "We, to the best of our ability, grow our vegetables organically. Never use any sprays. I buy organic soil, we do a lot of organic seed, lots of open pollinated, non-GMO," she says.
Her biggest foes are the mice who take seeds from one pot and plant them in another.
This year Bernie is also pleased to be working with his daughter, Tamara Dinter (right).
Other members of larger the Dinter Nursery family include Shawn Fullerton, seen above watering in the greenhouses, Corelli Mattice, seen above moving plants from a greenhouse to the sales area, and (from left) Marcia Stewart, Meghan Rogers, Louise Dunaway, and Justis Fox by the cash register with Bernie. in the above photo.
But the area where there’s the biggest growth in demand is edible plants, Dinter says, including fruit trees.
"Gardens don’t have to be just flowers," he says. "The younger generation especially is very interested in food plants." A move towards sustainability, he says, which is driving demand for things like strawberries in hanging baskets and novelties like Ketchup and fries (left hand page), which is a potato on the bottom and a tomato on the top.
Any surplus veggie plants, which mature out of their pots quickly, are donated to Cowichan’s many community gardens.
Climate change is also driving a demand for things such as papayas, dragon fruit, and olive trees, which are now much more easily grown. Smaller lot sizes have made Japanese maples, a Dinter Nursery specialty, a best-seller.