The New World
In 1957, an asipiring young German finishing his horticultural apprenticeship in Sweden, decided to immigrate to Canada. He saved enough money working on the docks in Sweden to afford passage to Canada. He landed in the new world in Halifax, Nova Scoita. Figuring the best opportunities for his future were in a country's capital, he headed for Ottawa. Somewhere along the line, he met up with a Dutch family who gave him room and board in Richmond.
When he left home for Canada, his father who was a farmer in Bavaria gave him some war-time advice. "Son, if you can, buy land. They may be able to drop a bomb on it, but it's still yours." He took his father's advice and searched for land. In 1958 he was offered a small parcel of land called "Ottawa Park" in Richmond, at the dead-end of Ottawa street near the Jock River. Since water is the key to plants, it was the perfect location.
Using his horitcultural knowledge and hard work ethics, he found a job at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. While working there, he decided to grow his own strawberries. People called him daft at the time, but nothing would deter him from his dreams. He planted his strawberries on his small piece of land and had his first commercial harvest around 1960.
There was no Richmond Nursery at the time, but rather George's Berry Patch as it was known. George worked tirelessly in his field after a full day of work at the Experimental Farm. Not long after, he met his wife, Claudia, and they were soon married. George and Claudia built their life-long home on a lot adjoining the berry plantation in the early 1960's.
We Need Some Colour
Although strawberries started everything off, there was far more crops to be grown. Landscaping was in it's infancy and very few growers were willing to ship plants. George and Claudia began growing evergreens for the Ottawa landscape industry. This also helped to extend the season since berry season was a relatively short period of income.
Before too long, the adjoining piece of land was purchased summing the two parcels of land into a 31-acre plot along the banks of the Jock River. With the new land available, small "hoop houses" were erected to grow annuals and flowers. The first year was a mild winter and the entire greenhouse was heated with two small electric milk-house heaters of the time. The second year, though, they weren't so lucky. The temperatures dropped, the heaters couldn't produce enough heat, and everything froze.
Birth of a Tradition
George and Claudia originally pre-picked and sold all the strawberries in the 1960's. In the early seventies, their daughter Debbie was bord, and in the mid-seventies, Peter was born. Peter happen to come right at the beginning of strawberry season, which was a terrible inconvenience for Claudia. People soon knocked on the door asking Claudia, with baby in hand, for berries. She just couldn't keep up. It was then that the first person offered to pick their own strawberries, probably feeling sorry for this new mother and all those berries left in the field ready to pick. That started the tradition of Pick-Your-Own Strawberries at Richmond Nursery.
More field crops were added over time. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melons, sweet corn, and more. The more crops that were grown, the more land was needed a better crop-rotation to keep the land healthy. They rented land across the river and build a seasonal pedestrian bridge to cross the river to pick berries.
The Next Chapter
1977 was a pivotal year for Richmond Nursery. A parcel of land was purchased at the corner of Richmond Road and Eagleson Road (at which time Eagleson Road was not connected to Kanata). With this new land purchase, came more commitment and dedication. George retired his position at the Central Experimental Farm to concentrate on his own business. George worked in the fields and production and Claudia took care of the selling and business aspects. It was and still is a true family business.
In the 1980's a number of lands were purchased to expand production of field crops. Without the time commitment of his previous employment, George planted more berries and corn. The strawberry field was moved to Barnsdale road on the outskirts of Richmond. Other crops were rotated around other fields annually to keep the land in good health.
The Garden Centre grew bit by bit as they could afford to expand. It started with one main house, plus some hoop houses. Then another gutter connect house or two was added, and so on. A retail store building was constructed to add more curb-appeal, shade areas, and so on.
Inside the facility, new equipment was added to make production more efficient. A soil mixer, a soil conveyor, a flat filler, and so on. Although rudamentary by today's standards, it was rather modern and efficent for the time. Field production of evergreens wound down since those plants grow better in warmer climates and ship easier than things like annuals. This also increased the diversity of plants to beautify Ottawa gardens.
To Be, Or Not To Be
In the mid 1980's opportunity knocked. A parcel of land came up for sale along Richmond Road near Fallowfield Road. George happened to drive by and saw the for-sale sign. He loved the land and knew he wanted to buy it. He called the real-estate agent, and signed the papers immediately for the asking price. George and Claudia had a vision for the best berry field ever in that location.
Then came a make-or break point. The adjacent land came up for sale, this one on the intersection of Richmond Road and Fallowfield Road. George and Claudia looked at each other, after a series of expansions and purcahses in the early 1980's and high interest mortgages and were torn. In the end, they said "We can't afford to buy it, but we can't afford not to." They then did the unthinkable and purcahsed the land, merging it with their previous purchase into what is now the Richmond Nursery Strawberry Farm. The roadway down the middle of the property marks the original division of the two parcels of land. Together, they worked long and tireless hours together trying to make ends meet. Mother Nature shone on them and blessed them with a bumper berry crop that year.
The Garden Centre continued to expand adding greenhouses and a new building in the early 1990's. Planting in the greenhouse and in the field was still very traditional. Many a young Richmond resident had their first job at Richmond Nursery planting annuals, picking strawberries, or working in the fields.
But hard work and long hours can take a tool on one's health. One day while George was out with a friend working in the strawberry field, a pipe fell on his leg. George fainted (which was unual for him). Not long after, he was rushed to the hospital with dangerously high sugar levels and he was diagnosed with diabetes. Claudia was diagnosed with Osteoperosis and her hips were wearing out quickly. Despite these heath setbacks, they kept doing what they loved doing.
In the late 1990's, reality set it. George's vision was failing because of his diabetes. Claudia was feeling the pain in her hips more and more. In the late 1990's, Claudia decided to reduce her workload and retired her position in the Garden Centre and only worked with the berry harvest. George, on the other hand, could not let go and continued work as much as he could.
The Next Step
At the end of the 1990's, George and Claudia's daughter Debbie tried her hand working at the nursery. She expanded by another greenhouse and modernized the business end of the company. A more diverse product line was added including giftware and garden accessories. Unfortunately, it was not her calling and she decided to move on after a couple of years.
In 2002, Peter came back into the nursery to try his hand at this challanging business. A few greenhouses were changed and upgraded. The production line slowly modernized as the older machinery began to show it's age. Peter's wife, Sue, helped to diversify the giftware and accessory department. The transplanting line was changed from hand-planting to CNC robotic transplanting to increase production and consistency. With changes in the fresh fruit market and distribution, field crops like corn, and melons, were slowly phased out, though strawberries remain as a point of tradition.
Strawberries continued with Claudia slowly easing her way out to address he health. By the mid 2000's, Claudia had officially retired from Richmond Nursery. She had her hips replaced, did some travelling, but still can be seen regularly around the nursery.
George loved to be involed and never stopped being at the nursery. His eyesight failed him, but he still could see a dry plant from across the greenhouse. During the 2000's, George participated less and less in the everyday operations and left that work to Peter so he could spend more time huntnig and fishing that he loved.
In 2010 after the last Brussel Sprouts were harvested and all the gardens were put to bed, George Rofner passed away in his sleep.He always lived his life the way he wanted to and, in his eyes, he never worked a day in his life, because he loved what he did.
Since George's passing, the Rofner family re-focused the Richmond Nursery back to it's roots. Ultimately, Richmond Nursery was founded on the principal of growing the best plants possible. Some of the add-on items previously added have been phased out allowing a dedicated focus on plant production - what we at Richmond Nursery love to do. In-house production of plants increased adding many perennials into the mix.
Moving forward, expect to see some exciting new changes happening at Richmond Nursery focused on growing more and more of the best plants in Ottawa.