Kevin Twomey carefully raises the cover over a seed bed, revealing tender green seedlings that will grow in the coming weeks, ready for sale when it’s safe for outdoor planting.
While snow and ice still cover the landscape, the growing season is just getting underway at T & T Seeds, located at 7724 Roblin Blvd. in Headingley, as the greenhouses slowly fill with seedlings.
However, it’s already past peak time for the 68-year-old family business’ mail-order seed service.
"We get about half of our mail orders by mid-February," said Kevin, who runs the company with his brother Brian.
While still called ‘mail order’, many orders are now placed online, and this number climbs each year.
Kevin said the company ships up to 45,000 parcels a year to customers across Canada, with the highest number of orders coming from Alberta gardeners, followed by those in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Working since he was 17, Kevin has watched home gardening’s popularity wane and now begin to slowly pick up as the ‘grow your own food’ movement gains momentum among urban residents.
"I think there are more people now getting into gardening," he said.
From June to September, Kevin and Brian are busy organizing photos and information on more than 1,000 items featured in T & T Seeds’ annual catalogue that’s mailed out by the middle of November. Kevin said 140,000 copies are printed.
"The first catalogue out gets the best results," he explained, with the first order usually coming within two days after their catalogue is mailed. Their main competitors are seed companies in Ontario.
About 40% of orders are for vegetable seed, up to 20% flower seed, and the remainder for perishable stock, such as shrubs and fruit trees.
The company’s seeds come from suppliers around the world, but Kevin said they have long-term relationships with their main suppliers. Seeds are expensive and are packed by hand in packets that are labeled using a printing press inside the company’s main building.
Kevin explained that by printing their own packets they are able to save money and quickly make changes, if necessary.
Using seed scoops originally belonging to his father Paddy and uncle Jerry, who started the company together, he measures the correct number of seeds per packet based on their weight. Expensive hybrid flower seeds, such as geraniums and petunias, are counted out using a seed counting machine.
Mail is picked up at 7 a.m. and orders are shipped daily. Seeds packets are stored on shelves and staff members walk the aisles to fill orders, then wrap them for shipping.
Some customers prefer to bring their orders into the retail section of the main building, and wait while they are filled.
This is part of the personal service that Kevin said sets his company off from what big box retailers such as Home Depot and Super Store offers gardeners.
"We have expertise, personal service and high quality of seed," he said, admitting that they can’t compete on price.
Seed inventory is stored in rooms that are temperature and humidity controlled. Perishable stock begins arriving at this time of year and is kept cold to maintain dormancy.
Kevin said he partners with Vanderveens’ Greenhouses in Carman which supplies his company’s annual bedding plants, while T & T produces perennials and specialty plants in its greenhouses.
"We try to support local businesses," he added.
While the company now operates with about 30 staff during its busiest period in late March, Kevin said, when the family business was located on Lombard Ave. in Winnipeg, there were up to 50 people filling orders.