Cultivating the Family Tree
The Phulka family is proof that following their passion and passing on knowledge to the next generation has ensured the success of Maple Leaf Nursery.
Brothers Harjit and Amarjit Phulka immigrated to Canada in the 1980s. Because of his years of experience in farming back home in Punjab, India, Harjit found work in an Abbotsford nursery. He spent six years acquiring skills and knowledge from his employer until he felt it was time for him to start his own business.
In 1990 the brothers purchased 25 acres on the Matsqui Prairie, and growing trees soon became their passion. Being immigrants, the most difficult tasks, according to Harjit, weren’t to do with the growing of trees, but everything else that related to the business: dealing with customers, invoicing, tracking inventory, and organizing transportation logistics.
Today the brothers and their sons, Chanmit and Sunny, operate a 250-acre wholesale nursery spanning six parcels of land in Abbotsford, BC.
“There’s nothing like being out in the fresh air,” Chanmit says as he walks the rows upon rows of grafted young trees, his shoes sinking into the soft, fertile soil. “You can’t beat working outdoors and being active on a daily basis. This industry is the perfect blend of farming and business. There are days when we put on the boots and get into the mud but there are also days when we need to put on our suits and go sell some trees!”
Chanmit and Sunny completed their diplomas in Greenhouse and Nursery Production from Kwantlen Polytechnic University. But they found that the most important knowledge of the business is learned on site. Dealing with all the different types of trees and learning each of their growing habits can only happen in the field.
“Generational knowledge is very important in this business because everything is learned hands on,” Chanmit points out. “Knowledge that my father passed on to me came from years of trial and error. He knows what each variety needs to be grown successfully.”
Maple Leaf Nursery (a division of PBN Nurseries Ltd.) plants over 200 different varieties of nursery stock including flowering trees, shade trees, hedging cedars, and fruit trees. They ship to wholesalers, landscapers, garden centers, contractors, chain stores and others involved in the nursery industry all across Canada and into the USA.
Their largest customers are other nurseries in Ontario and big box stores like Home Depot and Canadian Tire.
“The dollar makes a huge impact,” explains Chanmit. “When the US dollar is strong, companies in Canada can’t afford to go to the USA to purchase trees. They are forced to buy domestically and that boosts our sales incredibly.”
The biggest sellers are the Japanese maples, Norway maples, magnolia trees, dogwood trees, and rubrum maples.
All plants are planted and grown outdoors and are hardy varieties because they must thrive in zones across Canada and into the states. Some plants just don’t grow in colder climates, and knowledge of the preferred root stocks and growing habits is critical.
Sunny Phulka, Managing Director, faces the same challenge each year of trying to predict the popularity of certain trees and plan for the year ahead.
The two cousins proudly describe their work as they pass the rows of maples planted the year before— already reaching over six feet in height.
Each plant is grafted by hand, and each worker will graft about 1,000 plants a day, amounting to roughly 200,000 plants each year. The purpose of grafting is to utilize roots of varieties with desirable traits and root systems that are not as susceptible to pests and diseases.
“It’s called chip budding,” explains Sunny. “You make a cut into the plant, and then take a cutting off of the variety that you want, so the grown tree will have the roots of the original plant, but what you grow is what was inserted into it.”
Families of flowering trees such as Japanese maples or magnolias can only be grafted onto particular root stock or the graft will be rejected.
The Phulkas and their employees graft over 100,000 plants during the summer. This does not include the 100,000 rooted cuttings and liners that are planted. Each plant needs to be staked with either bamboo or steel, trained up the stake using tape, trimmed and lower branches stripped to meet the industry standard. They must be fertilized, sprayed for weed control, graded individually, and then dug out and stored with bare roots or rootballs in 20,000 square foot coolers. The entire process takes two to three years.
Harvesting trees and shipping is done from February to May. Maple Leaf employs 20 local employees year round and an additional 20 Mexican workers are brought in during busy season. Busy season, from end of January to August, can see upwards of 40 employees at the nursery.
Chanmit finds staffing to be one of their biggest hurdles. “It has been very difficult over the past few years to find anyone interested in working in the nursery industry. Finding a skilled worker—someone with experience—is next to impossible.”
The BC Landscape & Nursery Association (BCLNA) provides training and certification to over 500 members. Maple Leaf Nursery has been a member since 1990. The BCLNA’s website contains information on jobs in the horticulture industry as well as courses, certification and information on events and industry updates.
BCLNA provides a standard for each type of tree. They have requirements which must be met when grading trees. It is clearly stated how each tree should be categorized depending on height.
The Clean Plants Certification is awarded to approved nurseries every year so they can include the certification number on each shipment. Buyers can be assured that plants have been documented and inspected for pests and diseases.
Traceability is very important to the Phulkas. They track each plant from the time it is planted, to when it is dug and sold to make sure phytosanitary standards are upheld.
“When first planted we make a map for every single variety—which farm it is planted on, how many rows are planted, and how many per row,” Chanmit describes. “Before digging, each variety is then counted and recorded by grade so we know how many we have to sell in each size. Then, when they are dug, each tree is labelled and the final counts are inserted into our updated inventory. Once they are shipped, the inventory is updated accordingly.”
Keeping the business in the family has been instrumental to Maple Leaf Nursery’s success.
“It doesn’t matter who you hire or how much you pay them,” says Sunny, “family will always treat the business in a special way. We are in the business to grow an exceptional product that will be planted in someone’s garden. Our trees are being planted in cities across North America. We are providing greenery and clean air.”
The Maple Leaf Nursery catalogue can be found online at www.mapleleafnursery.ca
[infobox title=’The Phulka Family Tree Sprouts Success ‘]The Phulka family, owners and operators of Maple Leaf Nursery in Abbotsford, BC, believe success is dependent on pursuing your passions. They have been heavily involved in the sporting community over the past decade. Chanmit Phulka is a Pan American Champion wrestler. Chanmit’s younger brother Jasmit is a multiple-time BC Champion, National Champion and Junior Commonwealth Champion in wrestling. He is currently pursuing his dream of competing at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo representing Canada. Sunny Phulka’s younger brother Jobanjit is completing his Bachelor of Science at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is on his way to fulfilling his dream of being a doctor. He is also on the McMaster varsity wrestling team and won a silver medal at the CIS Championships[/infobox]