In the past, rose propagation consisted of 18 months of field growing with sales being limited to two winter months. Gardeners ordered bare-root rose plants from catalogues, and particularly the Rand Easter Show, for plants to be mailed in July. Retail nurseries also bought these plants, heeled them into sand or sawdust, and then just pulled up the pruned plant and wrapped it in newspaper when it was sold. Sales were over by mid-August.
But that was until the German-born nurseryman Ludwig Taschner came along and pioneered the propagation of roses in containers. The shift revolutionised the way in which roses were sold; plants were now available throughout most of the year and allowed gardeners to select rose plants based on their flowers, fragrance and growth habit. It also formed the foundation of one of the most popular rose nurseries in South Africa – Ludwig’s Roses.
What did you do before you started Ludwig’s Roses?
I was born in Germany during World War II. I trained as a nurseryman and subsequently escaped from East Germany in 1960. Thereafter I gained invaluable experience by working in nurseries in West Germany, Switzerland and England, where I started specialising in rose growing.
My journey in South Africa started in 1962, when I was 20 years old. I came here to work for Buss Nurseries as a rose grower in Pretoria. In 1968 Mr Buss, who was by then elderly and had no heirs, sold the majority shares of the nursery to Lion Bridge Feeds Retail.
Why did you start your own nursery?
The horticultural scene changed a lot around 1968. Many garden centres opened and the black plant bag was invented, mainly for forestry trees, I think. Before then, nurserymen used to puncture holes in the bottoms of burnt-out oil tins of all sizes, and used these as plant containers. It was incredibly time-consuming and limiting, and no wonder the use of plant bags caught on so quickly.
At the time, wholesale customers bought Buss Nurseries’ field-grown rose plants to plant them into these plant bags. Great losses were suffered due to the use of fresh compost and fertiliser as well as over- and under-watering. I soon realised that it would be better to propagate the rose plants in plant bags from the start. We could then offer flowering rose plants throughout the year for immediate sale, virtually with a guarantee that the plants would not die.
Top management of Buss Nurseries, who were not horticulturists, bluntly rejected this idea, saying there would be “no experiments”. So I resigned and decided to do it myself.
Where did you get start-up capital?
I had little expenses at the time, so I saved a large percentage of my salary each month during my seven years at the company. My salary had increased from R100 a month when I started out, to R450 a month by 1968. I also traded in my smart Audi for a double- cab Volkswagen bakkie and actually got money back with which I bought a lawnmower and ordinary garden tools.
My previous employers held back accumulated annual bonuses. I complained and threatened to take staff with me, but they just laughed it off. I ended up taking four young men and two months later another 15, including a driver and those experienced in bud grafting and variety identification.
Were there any glitches?
Lion Bridge Feeds made me one of their directors when they took over Buss Nurseries. The contract stipulated that I was not allowed to start a similar business for three years in the Transvaal Province if I should leave the company. I was young at the time and did not pay much attention to the clause when I signed the contract. This meant that I had to find an alternative income until I could open my own nursery.
I started experimenting and propagating roses during that time and went to visit rose buyers in Zimbabwe and rose breeders in California. California has a similar climate to ours and it is the hub where most of the USA’s rose plants are propagated. The growing of plants in containers was also very much advanced there at the time. Not for roses, though. I was shown around and received lucrative job offers, but the huge rose companies producing many millions of field-grown bare-root rose plants in a desert-like region were not interested in changing. So I concentrated on checking out the huge container-growing nurseries. The black planting bags had not yet arrived, but they used proper tin containers specially manufactured for them.
For the nursery, I found a place north of Pretoria, part of a big farm that was just cut up into 10 morgen plots. It looked good, I knew the climate and it was proposed that the N1 highway, when built, would go right next to it with an off-ramp. The soil was poor and not ideal for growing roses, but I intended growing in plant bags and to bring in the substrate soil. Forty-five years later, it was the right decision. Buss Nurseries closed down just before I opened my nursery.
How has the company grown since it was started?
There used to be 25 rose-growing nurseries in business those days. Today there are only five with Ludwig’s Roses being sort of the powerhouse in the rose industry. In addition to my wife, son and two daughters, we employ three branch managers, one bookkeeper and 150 men and women. Several of these workers have been with us since the early 1970s, others are their children and relatives. There is no formal training in rose growing, hence it requires a lot of in-house training. Even our four delivery truck drivers were selected from the staff due to their knowledge of rose varieties. The bulk of our employees could not easily be replaced.
What have been your greatest challenges?
The drought in the early 1980s that resulted in water restrictions and the drying up of bore holes. Cash flow management is the greatest other challenge. Nurseries and garden centres used to be very laid back in paying accounts, sometimes taking up to six months to pay their debt. I had to cover the shortfall with an ever-growing overdraft with interest at times of nearly 20%.
What are your primary markets?
We supply rose plants direct to the public, to garden centres, cut rose growers and rose oil producers. We also export to neighbouring countries. Exporting to the northern hemisphere is difficult due to the reverse season. We used to export cut roses on a fairly large scale, but this has been taken over by growers in Kenya and Ethiopia due to much more favourable climatic conditions, and lower labour costs, air freight and custom duties.
How do you stay ahead of the competition?
The Ludwig’s brand is pretty strong right now. With roses, as is the case with other farming products, one can never relax when it comes to quality. In addition, we are a representative for many rose breeders, creators of new varieties, from all over the world. We also release new varieties that have adapted to our climate as well as creating our own new varieties.
This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 2 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.