My name is Mike Wellik. I’ve done a lot of different things. I have a B.A. in Biology and a M.S. degree in Entomology. For years I worked with a pesticide manufacturer. After that I was in horticulture for 10 years. Then 5 years with an online business and another 5 years in real estate.
My interest in alpine strawberries started in the early 1990′s while I was involved in a greenhouse business. I was looking for a crop that I could grow in the “off season” which is during the winter. I tried a few strawberries in a corner of one of my greenhouses. The first variety tested was Tristar. While researching what I could find about growing strawberries I stumbled on tidbits of information about alpine strawberries (remember, this is before the Internet). I was intrigued enough to order a few seeds and I’ve been involved in one capacity or another since then.
Initially, I attempted to grow alpine strawberries in the greenhouse year round. With space at a premium and the costs of heating the area being very expensive – this was in South Jersey, I looked at ways to grow more plants in a given space. Of course this involved the third dimension – vertically. My first attempt was to purchase 6″ clear heat tube. I filled the tubes with soil and tied off both ends with wire and hung it on a crude structure build in the greenhouse. I then made 4 rows of vertical “X” slits in the bag as I called it and inserted plants. There were many problems with this including algal growth since it was clear plastic.
The next step was to purchase different diameter white PVC pipes and drill holes. The drilling process was grueling and many hole saws bit the dust in the process. The 10″ PVC pipes seemed to work best, at least under my circumstances. A drip system delivered the nutrients to the top of the pipes and it wasn’t recirculated. I knew that a lot of fertilizer was being wasted but recirculating systems were beyond my financial means. Many obstacles had to be overcome with this or any system. Pollination was one issue. I convinced a beekeeper to allow me to use one of his hives in the greenhouse. The bees were so busy that picking or even working in the greenhouse was not possible during daylight hours but we were getting great pollination. The other major problem was a market. At that time no local business was willing to pay a premium for strawberries, not matter what kind. I should have mentioned that a large portion of the crop was Tristar. Alpines made up a small part of the 1,000 square foot space devoted to strawberry production.
The next summer I had an opportunity to rent an acre of land that had irrigation water available. About three-quarters of the area was planted in Tristars and I had a local greenhouse grow plug trays of alpine strawberries. I planted about a quarter of an acre of alpines in all. At the time I got some plants bare-root from Walter’s Gardens in Michigan. They were growing and selling ‘Ruegen Improved’ at that time, 1500 bare root plants to a case.
Pollination and fertilization were no longer issues in the field. The problems were mainly weeds and labor. I hired a crew to pick the berries in the first spring. I had to come up with a system to refrigerate the berries in the field and deliver them as close to picking time as possible. I called Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia and spoke to the owner when I had the first berries. He asked that I bring them in for him to see. I believe that first “crop” of alpines comprised 5 pints. When the owner saw them and smelled them, he started tasting them. His eyes lit up. He asked how many I had and how many I could produce. I had no idea. He said that he would buy all I could deliver.
In the meantime I developed a delivery system using large plastic tubs with “shelves” and found half-pint containers with lids. Remember, all of this was before the internet so it took a lot of phone calls and many dead ends to find what I needed. Over the next year and a half Le Bec Fin purchased all of the alpine strawberries I produced as well as some of the Tristars. At one point they were a bit saturated with alpines. I think there were more than they expected but they took them. The pastry chef told me that they would make candy from them. I saw the large flat sheets with a thin layer of the candy that he referred to in their cooler. I think the most produced in one period of time was about 150 half pints in a week.
In the years since then I have continued to grow the plants in my yard no matter where I lived. And, I have continued to collect different varieties and started collecting other species as well. After leaving a job in the spring of 2007 I started some seeds and had more time to surf the internet for new varieties and supplies. I started selling a few things on eBay and thought why not sell some seeds and some plants as well.
I bought the domain www.fraisesdesbois.com and started writing about alpine strawberries and offered some plants for sale. A few mailorder catalogs sold a selection or two of alpines so I ordered some seeds and started plants. I started them in the fall and what didn’t sell in the fall overwintered and was offered the next spring. For a couple of years I learned about ecommerce and tried umpteen shopping carts. Truth be known, I couldn’t figure it out.
Finally, in late 2008 I figured out how to host Zencart. I bought the domain www.thestrawberrystore.com and installed Zencart and started fiddling with it. There was a LOT to learn. And, I made LOTS of mistakes.
One of what I call my first successes was selling what I called “orphans”. I’m one who can’t throw a plant away. I was running some germination tests (by now I was buying and reselling some seeds). I saved the seedlings. Sometimes only a couple a day. They were everywhere. A few of this and a few of that. I offered them as orphans at a great price. I only told customers that they would get a certain number of plants of several varieties, sometimes I didn’t even know the variety. Sales took off. Gardeners were looking for bargains. I was convinced that there was a business to be built.
I told my wife that someday the seed business would be worthwhile. It only stood to reason that I was buying seeds to grow plants, why not sell the seeds. Since I was collecting varieties and had a lot of them, I was periodically growing out seed from the collection to keep it viable. I stepped up the seed saving and started offering these rare varieties. Along the way I conducted productivity tests, tests on hydroponic production; I took a lot of pictures. I tried to answer questions I was getting and many times setup trials to get answers for customer’s questions and my own.
The business now consists of two ecommerce sites, one for plant sales and one for seed sales. It also consists of over 30 other domains, about a dozen of them hosted. These other sites including www.fraisesdesbois.com, the original site, provide information and traffic to the ecommerce sites.
In the last two years the plant business has taken a back seat to the seed business, by choice. Shipping costs are sky rocketing and shipping plants with soil is expensive and because we have Japanese beetle here in Delaware, shipping plants is a regulatory nightmare. In addition, alpine strawberries are now being grown by wholesalers and garden centers since the ornamental horticulture trade has shrunk due to the economy. The logical evolution for me is to focus on seed saving and finding opportunities with seeds.
So, that brings me up-to-date. We’ll see where we go from here.