The Chilean Experience — Part II:
A horticultural tour of Chile

By Tom Invten, Canadale Nurseries Ltd.

Garden centres
As we toured Chile, it quickly became apparent that gardening was a new phenomenon in the country. The entire horticulture industry is not as seasonal a business as in Canada, as the climate is more moderate throughout the year. In Santiago (Chile’s capital), garden centres are concentrated in one area, and the wealthy and new rising middle class and professionals would make a day out of visiting all the viveros (nurseries) in the area.

     The first thing we noticed was the tremendous inventory of plants that each garden centre carried. Most garden centres produced many of their plants on site and displayed them directly in the growing areas.

     Garden centres dedicated large areas to annuals, woody plants (flowering shrubs and broadleaf evergreens), groundcovers, trees, evergreens and tropicals. However, as John Schroeder (Valleybrook Gardens and our tour leader) noted in particular, perennials were conspicuously absent in all garden centres. In addition, we saw no large caliper trees for sale at any of the stores and viveros we visited.

     All plants were displayed on the ground — garden centres utilized very few sales benches. We noticed few or no tags on plants and literally no signage in any stores. This was because staff was cheap to hire, so there were many employees available to personally guide customers through the store and answer questions.

     There was a virtual lack of display techniques, but the few garden centres that did use displays stood out above the rest. The stores also concentrated mainly on selling plants and stocked few accessories, non-plant items and tools. Fertilizers or amendments were also non-existent.

     We did visit two very progressively minded garden centres. A woman who had worked in the fashion industry and had traveled extensively managed San Francisco Garden Center in Santiago. This store employed excellent display techniques, had concrete walks, good signage, uniforms for staff, and was upgrading the facilities, planning to incorporate a restaurant for all the yuppies who traveled from Santiago. The manager was introducing a computer inventory and accounting system that would produce labels and provide information about the plants for staff and customers. (The software is being developed in Chile, the largest exporter of software in South America.) Her goal is to develop her facility into a destination garden centre.

     Another exceptional Chilean garden centre was Jardin Longquimay in Conception. A nurseryman of British descent operated this store, which used good display techniques and displayed an excellent product mix, along with extensive displays of pottery, accessories, fertilizers and tools.

     We also visited an interesting garden centre owned by the international pharmaceutical company Bayer. It was a well-kept operation with good plant selection. The only problem was the location of the entrance, which had customers crossing over a busy double set of railway tracks that ran the entire face of the store.

The boom in the housing market caused an echoing boom in the landscaping industry. In Chile, a current trend is for the professionals and nouveau riche to move out to the country and settle on ranchettes, 5000 sq. m parcels of land. (Tax laws favoured the purchase of parcels of land less than 5000 sq. m).

     These ranchettes had completely landscaped grounds, which often included a small orchard. We noticed a conspicuous lack of vegetable gardens, as these were restricted to the poorer households. Fruit trees, however, are a Chilean status symbol – particularly lemon trees. Because of the virtually frost-free year, landscapes often change with the season. Annuals play a big part in changing the colour of the gardens.

     A typical landscape in Chile would have $2,000 (U.S.) of plant material and often $3,000 (U.S.) of hard landscaping in walkways, walls, and driveways. All landscapes were irrigated and looked lush.

     We learned from one well-educated landscaper that there are approximately 250 landscapers in Chile. There are nine universities that offer landscape degree programs, although the amount of technical information available is limited. Information is held onto tightly due to competition among institutions and individuals.

     There is no sense of cooperation in the industry at all. Most ‘architects’ design and install gardens and agree to oversee maintenance for at least a year. Because of cheap labor, most homeowners have a full-time gardener to water and maintain the plantings. The landscaper/architect is responsible for training the gardener on how to trim, water and check for and treat diseases.

     Landscape design/architecture is a new profession in Chile. In fact, they are just starting to advertise (a new concept for them).

     The landscaper we met explained that there is no distinct “Chilean landscape style.” French, Italian and Spanish design influences are apparent in their landscapes. There was also interest in native plants, but a design style for these plants was not evident. Architects have a free hand in design, each carving out their own style.

     According to our landscaper friend, Chile has a long way to go in horticulture compared with the rest of the world. He learned that in North America, homeowners spend $25 per person per year on landscape plants. In Argentina that figure drops to $10, while in Chile it is only $2 per person per year. It is still common for Chilean homeowners to go into the wild to dig up plants for their yards.

The history of wine in Chile began around 1550. Pedro de Valdivia planted the first vines when he took Chile in the name of the King of Spain. Chile became the first wine producer in the new world, approximately 200 years before California, and never experienced the devastating phylloxera plague that wiped out vineyards in Europe.

     Today, there are 17 major wineries in Chile growing many types of grapes and producing many types of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted vine, and it is said Chile has the best climate in the world to grow Cabernets. Chile also has its own unique grape variety found nowhere else in the world; Carmenere makes a lovely rich full-bodied wine.

     The Chilean wine industry began focusing on export just 10 years ago, after modern wine making equipment and techniques were introduced from the U.S. and Europe.

     We were fortunate to visit several wineries, the most famous of which was the Santa Rita winery. Santa Rita was made famous during Chile’s quest of independence from Spain. Chile’s national hero, Bernardo O’Higgins, the George Washington of Chile, and 120 of his best soldiers found safe harbor in the cellars of this winery after battling the forces of the Spanish crown. We even tasted the wine, which was named to commemorate the event, called ‘120’ after the 120 soldiers. Santa Rita has very modern facilities, well-educated penologists and modern cultural practices. While we were impressed by this world-class winery, we were even more impressed with its incredible garden.

Pisco is the unofficial adult national beverage. While it originated in Peru, the Chileans are justifiably proud of their own brands. Chilean pisco is an aged, fermented drink made from the Muscatel grape grown in the northern Elqui Valley. Here the climate is very extreme, 100°F in daytime and 40°F at night. The long growing season and extreme daily fluctuations result in grapes with very high sugar concentration. The wine is distilled to make pisco.

     We enjoyed Pisco Sours daily as a before-dinner drink. The recipe is as follows: three parts chilled Pisco, one part fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice, powdered sugar to taste.

Fruit production
Chilean fruit production is export focused. Farmers employ the latest varieties from around the world, growing techniques and packing facilities. As mentioned in last month’s article, a recent trend is to concentrate on crop production for the Pre-Christmas North American market to take advantage of premium prices (see the May 2001 issue of Landscape Trades).

Fruit crops in order of importance are:
CropValue in $ U.S. Million Grapes570 Apples280 Avocados100 Pears85 Plums/nectarines75 Kiwis65

     We were fortunate to tour a large fruit farm owned by Walter Kuntz. His grandfather had emigrated from Germany and established a 700-hectare fruit farm. In the early 60s under the Allende communist government, he and his family were run off his land, barely escaping in the night to flee to Spain. Peasants destroyed his operation, squatting on it, and eliminating the orchards so each could have his own vegetable garden.

     After Pinochet’s successful military coup in 1963, Kuntz was invited back and much of his land was returned. However, he needed to rebuild his entire operation from scratch, and traveled the world in search of the latest and best varieties from British Columbia, California, France, Spain and Portugal. Kuntz employs the latest growing, espalier and pruning techniques and pest control mechanisms brought back from his travels and enjoys many working relationships with fruit producers from around the world. Modern pack­aging techniques were also employed. At this operation, we watched nectarines being processed, graded and packaged for air shipment to Canada. Kuntz’s philosophy of operation is that he is devoted to providing year-round employment for all his staff. New varieties must be harvested, trimmed and maintained in his staff’s year-round schedule.

Cut flower production
This seemed to be an area of growth. We visited a producer who grows mums and carnations for export to Canada and the U.S. The latest and best varieties were purchased as rooted cuttings from Holland under growing contracts. The Dutch growers helped their Chilean customers by recom­mending planting, spacing and cultural practices. Crops are grown in inexpensive wooden greenhouses covered in two-year poly.

     The ideal frost-free climate gives Chile a big advantage in the cut flower market. The inexpensive cost of labour is also a benefit to producers.

     Cut flower producers in Chile focus on crops that Equador and Columbia do not grow, as these countries already have a firmly entrenched competitive advantage in roses and other cut flowers.

The final word
All of us on the tour enjoyed the very laid back lifestyle of Chileans, which starts with breakfast at nine a.m. to 10 a.m. (even for the natives). Lunch is generally between 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and is often followed by a siesta. Many shops close at lunchtime until four or five p.m. to avoid the mid-day heat. We would enjoy a tea and snack break at five to six p.m., and then many people would go back to work until eight or nine p.m.

     Supper started between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. This was often the biggest meal of the day, which was hard for us to get used to.

     What made the trip most enjoyable were our gracious hosts, John and Kelly Schroeder, as well as the terrific nurserymen with whom we traveled on this trip. Our ground operator and tour guide in Chile, Fred Smith of Anglotin, was an invaluable source of information and a great guide. Friendships were forged and many memories made.

John and Kelly Schroeder will be hosting another horticultural study tour in late September, 2002. They will be touring Lake District in Italy (Lake Como, Lake Magiore), and ending in Florence. Once again, great food, great Italian wine, great fun, great villas and gardens and a good look at the nursery industry. Call Kelly or John at 800-824-1120 for more information.