Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award

2012 Winner

Deroose Plants Inc.
Apopka, Florida

“Derooses came from a bromeliad family, so our passion has always been bromeliads,” said Paul Deroose.  “Bromeliads are not so easy to grow. “That’s why there’s not that very many people that jump into it. We have an extremely aggressive breeding program on them. A result of that is that we constantly have new products, new varieties, introducing those in the market. You always have these new plants that nobody’s seen before. You have to figure out how to grow them. You have to learn all that, and it’s always a challenge. And it’s fun to do that.”

The name Deroose translates as “the rose,” but today the family is known for growing quality bromeliads, which make up 60 percent of the company’s overall product line. An international enterprise, Deroose Plants is one of the top three suppliers of young plant bromeliads in the world, growing between 200 and 300 varieties. Headquartered in Evergem, Belgium, the company also has locations in Shanghai, China and Apopka.

“People ask me on a regular basis, ‘Why Apopka?,” Deroose said. “We didn’t choose Apopka; Apopka chose us. We were at a show and an owner of a business that had retired approached us to see if we would lease a part of his company that was vacant. And his goal was to revive the business and get income from his property.”

That chance meeting in 1994, at a Florida trade show, got the Belgian-based company to take a closer look at expanding into Apopka. Owner Reginald Deroose, with his brother Paul, did his homework and learned that -- with plenty of rainfall and easy access to greenhouse supplies and shipping -- Apopka had everything they needed to make it a perfect spot for the company. So they rented the property.

In 1997, Deroose decided on plans and a location for its new greenhouse, a move that was not well received by the neighbors. The Deroose property sits on the western border of the 41,000-acre Wekiwa River Basin State Parks. Meandering through the park is the spring-fed Wekiwa River, one of only two nationally designated wild and scenic rivers in Florida.

Environmentalists -- and the conservation group “Friends of the Wekiwa” -- feared an operation the size of Deroose Plants would draw a detrimental amount of water from the aquifer and that runoff would damage the pristine river. Much to their surprise, Deroose explained that there were no plans to dig wells and there would be no runoff. And, after delivering on those promises, the nursery has since been honored for its environmental practices and commitment to water conservation by the “Friends of the Wekiwa” and the St. Johns River Water Management District.

“They quickly saw that we’re the good guys,” Deroose said. “You know, we make an example for the other people, how it should be done. So now they’re not only friends of Wekiva River, they’re also the friends of Deroose.”

Realizing that building the new greenhouse would cost much more that they had hoped, the Deroose’s decided to do a lot of the work themselves.

“So we took it upon us to install everything that is inside, all the benches, the pipes they drive on, everything, we build it ourselves,” Deroose said. “It took well over a year to do that, me and the maintenance people and a crew of eight. We worked full time to install everything. We saved money, but I would never do it again.”

Creating an operation like the Apopka facility is costly but Deroose says it’s worth it. They’re able to grow a quality product in less space, in less time, with much less crop loss. Beautifully designed in the Dutch style, the glass greenhouse, known to neighbors as the “crystal palace,” covers nine acres and was built to withstand 110-mile-per-hour winds. While it incorporates remarkable automation to handle the 7 million plants it produces annually, its connection to water is its most impressive feature.

“People probably ask me how you save on water,” Deroose said. “Water comes out of the sky for us, and that one is free. You know, so the more it rains, the better it is for me.”

All the water used at the massive greenhouse comes from the sky. Rain falling on the greenhouse’s roof is collected in glass gutters and channeled to collection boxes at either end of the building. Funneled into huge downspouts, the rainwater is gravity-fed to four 600,000-gallon storage tanks. Four inches of rain will supply the greenhouse with enough water for about three months. With this much rainwater Deroose Plants, Inc., can nourish all of the nursery’s plants without drawing water from the ground.

The plants are irrigated by filling benches with rainwater. Mixed with fertilizer, the water is absorbed upward by the potted plants. The benches are designed to fill quickly and drain slowly so the plants get a good soaking. As the benches drain, the water is gravity-fed back to the main tank where it’s strained and pumped back to the plants as needed. With this system, Deroose applies only a fraction of fertilizer once used, since it too is recycled with the water.

Rainwater is not only used for irrigation, it helps to cool the greenhouse, too. Huge fans blow cool, moist air throughout the greenhouse by drawing warm air from outside and passing it through wall panels saturated with the stored water. Humidity can be increased with mist, and temperature is regulated with radiated heat by running rainwater through a boiler, then through pipes above and below the benches.

The bright sun streaming through the glass roof can be modulated by drawing one or two layers of screen, cooling the greenhouse in the summer and insulating it from the cold in the winter. The screens can essentially control the length of the day and regulate the plants’ growth.

Controlling the amount of sunlight the plants receive; calculating when and for how long they will be irrigated; determining the proper levels of humidity and ambient temperature; for Deroose, all of the functions for the best growth and health of the plants are programmed into the greenhouse’s computer.

Heavily automated, the facility pays for itself in minimizing labor and maximizing efficiency.

Long aluminum benches on rollers can be moved throughout the greenhouse on tracks with minimal effort. The train-like internal transport system can move numerous benches at once, routing them to the shipping department or the spacing machine as needed. The programmable spacing machine transfers small plants from one bench to another giving the plants more space as they grow. It provides great inventory control, counting the plants as it moves them. Once the plants have been moved, another robot retrieves, washes and delivers the clean benches where they’re needed. To get the most out the greenhouse’s production space, Deroose not only grows plants on the aluminum benches, they utilize the overhead space as well.

Paul Deroose comes from a long line of nurserymen, including a royal gardener in Brussels. It began with his great-grandfather, nursery owner Francis Steyaerts.

“In my family we go back more than a century in growing plants,” Deroose said. “It started with my great grandfather, who was a gardener. My father’s father was an azalea grower. My father helped his father in growing azaleas in, in his azalea business. That was the only thing that they did. And their greenhouse was bombed several times in the World War.

Following his internment in a World War II German prison camp, Paul’s father, Albert Deroose, returned to Belgium and helped his father rebuild the family’s greenhouse. In the 1950s Albert started growing bromeliads. He continued running the business until the late 70s when his son Reginald took over. Today it’s still a family affair, with three of the 12 Deroose children actively involved in the company.

The process begins at company headquarters in Belgium, where older brother Reginald oversees the whole operation. Its niche is cloning plants and was at the forefront when it started the practice in the early 1980s. Original specimens are cloned in their labs, and then shipped to Deroose’s largest operation located in Shanghai, China. The plants are multiplied in the Shanghai facility, managed by Paul’s sister, Anne Deroose, and her husband, Hugo Messiaen, before being shipped to Apopka and Belgium to be grown. Large shipments of up to 350,000 plants arrive in Apopka where they’re planted by hand in a peat medium.

When the plants reach three to four inches tall, Paul’s wife, Annick, handles the sales to the wholesalers where the plants will be fully grown out. While most of its plants are distributed in Florida and California, Deroose Plants ships the remainder to Canada and to other countries in North and South America.

“Bromeliads are the most beautiful plants you’ve seen in the world,” Deroose said. “We have probably more than a thousand varieties in our collection. And we have I think a good 200, 300 plants that we produce on a regular basis. The colors go from A to Z, shapes, new colors, bicolors, tricolors, the sky is the limit. And we keep coming up with new ones, new color combinations, new shapes. It’s just unbelievable. Bromeliads are unbelievable. And they always will be.” -- 2012


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