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  • Norfolk Farms

Waterford Welcomes Sawaya Gardens

In 2000 Mel Sawaya began a new venture in life when he undertook open air garden trials at his property on Hwy. 3, East of Simcoe. What began with just 150 planters soon blossomed into a major undertaking that would attract plant breeders from around the world.

Sawaya, originally from Lebanon, came to Canada in 1975 on a student exchange program. He had earned an Agricultural Engineer Bachelor of Science in Lebanon as well as a degree from the American University of Beirut. He met his future wife Maureen and they eventually married and started their family – Thomas, Lara and Nadia. Since good jobs were hard to find for migrant workers he enrolled in some courses at the University of Guelph and was eventually offered a job at Fernlea Flowers. He started as a water boy but worked his way through the ranks to managing some of the production areas, programming and planting.

Sawaya Gardens located on the Blueline out side of Waterford

After about 12 years at Fernlea he started his own greenhouse consulting business and now does consulting not only for Fernlea but also 44 other greenhouse operations. ”They’re like your family”. Sawaya continues to work for Fernlea, now over 40 years…and counting. He estimates that his travels for his work in the last 31 years would have taken him to the moon and back about 4 times. He is not ready to retire just yet.

The goal of these trials that Sawaya runs is to test the new variants of plants in an open garden setting.This gives the breeders, wholesalers, buyers, retailers and consumer the opportunity to see how each cultivar has performed in an Ontario outdoor garden setting. Sawaya states “I offer the missing link between growers, breeders and the public. No one was linking grower to grower or breeder to breeder”. This is important as Sawaya explains that one purple petunia starts out as 30 to 40 different purple petunias and then these are narrowed down to just 1 or 2 of the best that are then sent for open air trials.

“Knowing how to offer your best product means knowing how to serve your customer, wholesaler or consumer with confidence”. In its first year Sawaya started with about 200 pots.

This has since grown to about 3000. The plants arrive, from the breeders, the end of May or first week of June so that planting time is similar to when the regular consumer would buy their plants from a local retailer to plant them. Once potted they are then placed outside to see how they will truly perform. Sawaya estimates that he will have over 3,500 different varieties on the premises.

Melhem (Mel) Sawaya in front of the thousands of plant stands.

Each year Sawaya Gardens host an annual open house where over 300 horticultural producers, breeders, buyers, wholesalers and marketers are invited to attend the one- day event. Not only are breeders looking for leading-edge plants to watch but also the ones to avoid. Sawaya supplies them with objective reports on the performance of the different cultivars. Good or bad, the industry wants this information so they know which plants to avoid and which ones to promote. They are 100 % non- biased in reporting how products stand up against others.

This year’s Open House will take place at the new location of Sawaya Gardens at 1880 Blueline Rd., Waterford and will be held on Wednesday, July 21st. from 8 am to 5 pm with a lunch provided on site. The event is the largest outdoor, non-biased garden trials in the world.

You won’t find another one like it. Some who will attend represent Loblaws, Walmart, Costco, city parks ie Niagara Parks, wholesale and retail.

When the Open House is done all plants remain at Sawaya Gardens and will be sold at their annual Plant Sale. Not only will the 3000 or so pots be put up for sale but also some vegetables and herbs and perhaps some perennials. This year it will take place August 13th and 14th from 8 am to 6 pm each day. All proceeds from sales will go to Norfolk General Hospital. “These sales are 100% charity based. We have worked with them for 18 years now.

They (the hospital) serve multiple purposes and support local charities. Breeders do not get any product back and there is no waste. This helps everyone”, says Sawaya. He went on to add “What’s the point in doing anything if we’re not benefitting the community? We like to feel like we’re a part of something”.

Sawaya loves to teach people how to grow, to educate them about plants. He describes the plants as being just like children in that you have to feed them every day. His goal, his dream is to perhaps expand into mums and poinsettias – year round, not just seasonal – with the help of his son Thomas.

Sawaya adds, “I’m still learning new things. Some people buy cottages but me, this is my retirement plan, my hobby”. 
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