Wednesday, August 07, 2013

In Conversation With...Ken Lander

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 31, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

“I’ve lived everywhere,” Ken Lander says. “I was born in Rangoon, Burma, and lived there for six weeks then I moved to Bangladesh, lived there 18 months. I lived in England till I was five, then back to East Pakistan and India [for school], till I was 12 then back to England for a year, then to Labrador City until I went to university then Ottawa for five years then I moved to Whistler.”
And yet, he’s made Pugwash home for 23 years, after taking over the 24-acre property on Route 6 that his father, Vincent Lander, bought in 1979. 
“I like it here,” says Ken. “I never really wanted to do a lot of moving  around but I hear people in Pugwash who have lived here all their lives saying ‘I hate it here’ and I want to say, ‘Go, look around, see what else you’ve got because it’s really good here.”
Ken, who calls himself a fifth generation Anglo-Indian (he holds British citizenship and is a permanent resident in Canada), moved here from the Vancouver area in 1990 after his father had a heart attack. He now runs Sunrise Greenhouses with partner Maxine Johnson on his dad’s West Pugwash land. Those colourful roadside baskets of petunias are the culmination Ken’s journey to find not only a place to settle but also meaningful work.
When he arrived in Pugwash, he started up a jewelry business called Clay & Roses and grew bonsai trees.
“It wasn’t quite me but here I was, in the earth. It was a step towards me. When I got fed up running around doing craft shows, I tilled up 20,000 square feet and planted 3,000 peppers, some melons, some squash. I can’t remember what else.” 
In 1996, Ken built three greenhouses to grow cucumbers and tomatoes which he then sold to local grocery stores. Those were long mornings of picking, grading, wrapping and delivering. 
Into that mix came a basket of purple wave petunias from a friend.
“I put it at the front of the house and I watched it grow. At the end of the year, I phoned and asked if he minded if I also grew them. So I started growing one greenhouse of baskets, one greenhouse of cucumbers and one greenhouse of tomatoes. I was spread thinner than ever,” he says. 
The stress of work and money ended his marriage but the worst was yet to come.
The following winter, on January 20, two of the greenhouses caved in under the weight of ice. 
“Best thing that could have happened to me,” Ken remembers cheerfully.  
“I’d never felt so sick. I came back in the house and sat down. Do you know what went through my head? Gideon got by on one -third of not enough.”
Gideon is an Old Testament character who complained he didn’t have enough men to do the job so God told him to send two-thirds of them home; Gideon learned he was still able to manage.
“So I stepped out and looked at the remaining greenhouse and said, ‘Okay, that’s one-third of not enough’. Four months later, I was standing in the driveway and realized I had four or five extra hours in my day that I didn’t have before. The money was about the same and I was having fun.”
Ken changed his focus to bedding plants, starting with seeds he had saved. Because of the cleanup of the collapsed greenhouses, “I couldn’t afford to buy seeds that year,” he says, “so I seeded those ones. Out of those 6,000 seeds, two were different so I put them aside. I sent them [to Proven Winners] the next February along with six others.”
Proven Winners is a propagation house for flowers and three years later, the company called Ken and told him they wanted to introduce one of those two different petunias he’d submitted, the Bordeaux, in 2005. That flower has become Proven Winners’ 6th best selling plant. 
“You have to realize, this is not proportional,” insists Ken. “I’m a hillbilly. This is a hillbilly operation. I needed help. I’m going to say this as simply as this: Let the reader look up Malachi, chapter 3 [in the Bible]. That’s where I got my help.”
But let’s not forget Maxine. She’s as essential to Ken’s story as Gideon and Malachi.  
“I met Ken in 2003,” Maxine explains. “After his plant [the Bordeaux] came out in 2005, he said to me, ‘Next one that comes out, I’m giving it to you.”
That plant became Lavender Skies. In 2009, it was approved by the propagation house and went on to win 79 awards in its first year (and it can be found in the gardens at Disney World). 
“This is an incredible plant!” Ken says. “The Bordeaux won awards but not like that.” 
How do you create a new plant? Ken’s method is simple: “I collect seeds and I grow seeds. I watch them, chuck out the bad ones and I keep the good ones.”
“It’s like making a baby,” Maxine adds. “You mix plants.”
But that’s not the happy ending yet. 
“Maxine’s petunia came out in 2010 and we did 600 of them,” Ken says. “Out of those 600, one of them mutated so I separated that mutation and watched it grow for the season. It was a white flower. I sent it to Proven Winners and last November, we got a call. We were told they wanted to introduce it as Supertunia White Improved. They’ve had a Supertunia White for the last 14 years; they want this to replace it.”
Ken has been told this is the best white the industry has ever seen. 
“I say with knee-knocking humility that it’s a mutation. Neither Maxine nor I could have done anything to engineer it. My greatest skill is saying, ‘Oh, look at that!’ It’s my contention that because Maxine started to give an honest 10% of her royalties [from Lavender Skies] to the IWK, the mutation falls into the realm of ‘hand of God’.”

Ken & Maxine and the Supertunias, from "top": Lavender Skies, Bordeaux, White Improved.

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