In April, Vrt-Express is opening a garden centre in Istria, on the Porec–Pazin road in Žbandaj. But why am I telling you this? Why should you care? Because this isn’t simply the latest in a big company’s chain, it is a far more personal affair: the realisation of a dream by local nurseryman, Srdjan Ryšlavy. Its tale embodies the challenges faced by so many small Istrian businesses, struggling in today’s economic hard times; and, for once, it is a story on the verge of success: a testament to one Croatian family’s dogged determination to succeed, despite continuous set-backs.
How it started
Today, Vrt-Express is a nursery, raising plants (Vrt is Croatian for garden), but that’s not how it started. When the Ryšlavy family returned from Australia in 2002, the Istrian property market was booming and, as horticulturalists (they both have horticultural degrees from Zagreb University) they set up Vrt-Express, doing landscaping and garden maintenance. The nursery only started when they found imported plants often struggled here. “They weren’t raised for Istrian soil,” explained Srdjan. “So we decided to grow our own plants. We rented some land at the bottom of our garden and built the greenhouses.”
The first few years went very well and Vrt-Express’ business rapidly expanded, but so too did their outgoings, as they invested for the future. “That was fine in the good times,” said Srdjan. “But, like everyone else, we were caught out by the property crash and didn’t react fast enough.”
“It was an awful time,” said Snježana, “but we eventually had to admit defeat and let our workers go. And because we’d struggled on, as our work dried up, we were left with serious debts.”
Rather than give up, it was at this point they changed their focus, as Srdjan explained. “I’d had my fingers burnt several times by bad payers in the landscaping business, and keeping the garden maintenance side going was too capital- and people-intensive. So we decided to stop these and focus on greenhouse work, growing plants for other landscapers, as well as the general public.”
It put them on a long learning curve, changing the type of plants they grew to match their new market. “When we started, we were mainly selling the plants we’d been growing for landscaping: perennials such as lavender and rosemary,” explained Snježana. “But this wasn’t what many customers were looking for: they wanted flowers, colourful annuals.” And so these are now the focus of much of Vrt’s production. “It’s great,” said Srdjan enthusiastically, “as it’s all repeat business. Customers buy annuals every year; they usually only buy a perennial once!”
So with Snjezana looking after sales and marketing (which she says “sounds very grand, but really just means a stall in Porec market”), Srdjan concentrated on the greenhouse, assisted by their son, Sven. And while growing plants has always been his first love, as he himself admits, my goodness, it’s hard work!
The growing year
It all starts with sowing, for Spring and Summer annuals – a huge job. This year, they’re sowing around 50,000 seeds, starting in mid-January. Now (towards the end of March) they’re nearly finished. Indeed, that’s what they were doing while we sat round their kitchen table – putting tiny seeds in one of hundreds of seed trays, each itself holding hundreds of seeds.
To germinate, the seeds need to be kept warm, so they start off in the house. This means the living room has stacks of seed trays piled in every available corner. After about ten days, they’re ready to move into the greenhouse, where they’ve created a warm space with two fan heaters. “It’s not high-tech,” said Srdjan, “but it does the job.”
By mid-February, the oldest seedlings are ready for potting on, along with cuttings taken last Autumn. Then, when Snježana shifts into sales mode in April, Srdjan is running flat out looking after ‘his babies’. Good quality plants need a lot of tender loving care and they have to do everything by hand, which is an extraordinary effort. As Srdjan puts it, “It’s a never-ending cycle of planting, weeding and watering.”
Come late July, most of the Spring and Summer plants have been sold and it’s time to start sowing again, mainly pansies for the Autumn market. This time the challenge is keeping the seeds cool – to germinate they must be kept below 18 °C. With greenhouse temperatures regularly topping over 40 °C (and peaking over 50 °C!), once again the living room is taken over by seed tray mountains. Only this time, it’s out with the portable air-co unit and cries of “Shut that door!” are regularly heard echoing round the house. “Once they’ve germinated, they can go into the greenhouse,” said Srdjan, “but before then it’s vital they don’t get too warm.”
“When we’re rich and famous we’ll have a proper warm room for the Winter and a cool room for the Summer,” said Snježana, with a laugh, “and I’ll get my living room back. As I’m dreaming, we’ll also have an automatic watering system, and our greenhouses will be temperature-controlled with automatic flaps, so we don’t have to do everything by hand.” She pauses. “Oh it would be lovely…” she sighs wistfully.
With taking cuttings, seed planting and plant raising, it’s a constant yearly cycle, with very little let up. “We do get a break,” said Srdjan with a grin, “for two weeks in early January – that’s when we catch up on sleep!” Apart from that, there is always something needing doing.
The realities: foreign competition, tough climates …
Like the rest of Europe, most garden plants sold in Croatian garden centres are raised in giant Italian or Dutch greenhouses, which cover hectares – places with those automatic watering and ventilation systems Snježana dreams about. “Your business is so small-scale and labour-intensive, how do you manage to compete with these guys?” I asked.
“In reality, we don’t,” said Srdjan. “The big boys have huge economies of scale, so even selling plants cheaply, they make huge profits. Obviously, we have to be price-competitive, so our margins are tiny and our profits…” He knows they’ll have to grow further to start making real money, and they have a plan (more on that later) … but in the mean time, it’s an awful lot of work for a tiny return, so why, I ask, do you do it? “Simple: it’s what I know!” replied Srdjan. “I love working with plants and I’ve always wanted to run my own horticultural business.”
“And really, we have little choice,” added Snježana, with a wry smile. “In today’s Croatian economy, jobs are hard to come by. We might not be getting rich, like the big international companies, but we are making a living – just.”
… in difficult times
But it’s not always competition from the big boys which Vrt-Express has found hardest, it’s been challenges posed by the climate – economic and physical.
Changing their business focus, just as the recession started, meant things were always going to be hard and, as the economic situation worsened, things just got tougher and tougher. “Much of our business came from other landscapers who stayed in the business,” said Srdjan. “As their business dried up, so did our sales.” “And with the recession biting hard, many locals had little money to spend on luxuries like garden plants,” added Snježana.
As if that wasn’t enough, the weather then dealt them a double whammy. In simplest terms, people buy plants when the sun shines and, in 2011, it seemed the sun would never shine. A long cold winter was followed by a wet Spring and Summer, and sales plummeted. And after that, when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse – they did. The nursery was flooded!
The greenhouses stand in the low point of a valley, drained by a deep sink hole close by. After yet another period of wet weather, the night of an exceptionally high tide was accompanied by torrential rain. The sinkhole, connected to the sea, just couldn’t drain the land enough as the tide rose and it overflowed, drowning the greenhouses. “We were a metre deep in water and there was nothing we could do,” said Srdjan. “It was awful, we lost almost our entire Spring and Summer production for the following year, and had to start again.” “It was such a set-back, I hate thinking about it,” said Snježana. “We were struggling enough to make ends meet: this almost finished us.”
But it didn’t. Showing the extraordinary determination which had kept them going this long, they dug deeper and soldiered on. And by sticking it out, gradually capitalising on the contacts they’d being building up, they started to expand business beyond their local area.
Building the business
Central to this was setting up a website and Facebook page. “Very scary!” said Snježana. “I’d never done anything like this before, but luckily I had some good friends to help and Sven knew all about Facebook.” This proved a good move and they soon started to get orders from further afield. While it was an effort setting up the on-line catalogue, internet sales are steadily increasing and it’s really getting their name out to the wider world. And finally, the economy seems to be improving.
“It’s been a long, hard haul,” said Srdjan, “but staying with it during the bad times is now really paying off. As the landscapers are at last waking up, they’re coming to us – we’re still here! And we’re starting to get large orders from hotel chains and local Councils.”
Fulfilling a dream
With business finally growing, Srdjan’s now ready to take Vrt-Express to the next stage: opening their own garden centre – a long held dream.
Until now, their main retail outlet has been Snježana’s market stall. “Not only was it our only affordable outlet, it’s also the traditional location,” she explained. “Most of the small, local producers have stalls and it’s where people have always come for their flowering plants.” But while it proved a good place to build contacts – and at least provided a basic income in the tough years – its tiny size meant sales would always be limited.
So, as garden centres are relatively rare in Istria, they decided there was definitely room in the market for another – especially one selling locally raised plants. But that has also meant again looking carefully at what they produce. “The past few years have taught us a lot,” explained Srdjan. “When I started here, the first years went well and I naively assumed the good times would roll and roll and I didn’d really think about what I planted. I’m far more prepared this time. With our experience in the market, and talking with landscapers, we know what sorts of plants people are looking for and so what to grow; and we have built up good contacts to source what we won’t be able to grow ourselves.”
Despite their intensive preparation, opening this garden centre is nevertheless a huge step for this small business. Knocked back time and again by the harsh reality of doing business here, I’m stunned by their resilience and optimism. “It’s scary, but exciting,” said Snježana, summing things up. “We’ve always dreamed of having our own garden centre. Against all the odds, it now seems to be happening! We came back from Australia, so our boys could grow up in their homeland and because we wanted to help a new Croatia succeed. Our first attempt, with landscaping and gardening, didn’t work out. But the nursery has kept us afloat and now, hopefully, it will carry us through to fulfil our dream.”
Vrt Express’ garden centre opens in April, so now you know where to go for your Istrian plants. And when you walk in, it won’t be just another faceless business to you – you’ll know what a huge achievement it is for them simply to be there. We’ll be back to see how they get on.
For more information on Vrt Express see their website, or call Srdjan on +385-(0)91-4632555, or Snježana on +385-(0)91-4632556.