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Nursery has entrenched roots

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CRANBROOK, British Columbia - Once inside the greenhouses at the St. Mary's
Indian Band, the hope that one can escape the winter cold quickly
dissipates.

Outside temperatures that dip into the single digits are not much warmer
under the tarpaulin on this site at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Indeed
the only activity in these structures, as the plant beds appear dormant, is
the occasional snow sliding off the roof.

It may appear obvious to turn up the thermostat, but it wouldn't do the
flora any good. In practicing cold stratification by replicating otherwise
natural conditions for these seeds and shrubs, the Aqam Native Plant
Nursery will have a healthier product when business resumes in the spring.

Starting with one building in 2000, Aqam has mushroomed to five greenhouses
in an operation that uses four seasonal workers and counts annual sales of
$100,000 Cdn. ($85,000 U.S.). Quiet during the winter, only the manager
Jason Meuleman stirs about on the property that's a 15-minute drive through
the forest, isolated from the center of St. Mary's.

Naturally lit, and then only when the sun isn't partially obscured by the
snow cover, the colors in the "hot"-house are muted. If not for the
greenery provided by the Rocky Mountain junipers and the eye-catching
purple leaves of the Oregon grape shrub, "scraggly" might be a more apt
description of the larger foliage.

"A lot of plants, like deciduous trees and shrubs, require a cold period,"
Meuleman explained about growing native plants. "The other more practical
aspect is the cost of heating as propane is astronomical."

Aqam is capitalizing on a landscaping trend where native vegetation is both
desired and required, especially for businesses. In the spring, indigenous
cuttings and seeds are collected from the surrounding area and, after
cleaning and treating, are permitted to germinate in the greenhouses.

There are about 30 species on stock and as the only supplier in the east
Kootenays of British Columbia, Meuleman sees how Aqam will continue to
flourish.

Government regulations state companies that disturb the land, such as
mining and forestry, need to replant with local species.

When non-native plants were introduced previously, Meuleman said past
eco-systems were disturbed and such flowers and trees became difficult to
remove. Aside from the legal and ecological ramifications, the manager says
native plants are generally preferred.

"Landscapers are becoming more interested in putting in plants that belong.
Plants that don't belong make you question that they should be there [in the first place]," said Meuleman.

It takes about 12 - 24 months from when the stock is gathered until the
plants are sold. With such a long turn-around time in nurturing the
inventory, like other companies, Aqam attempts to be speculative towards
any customer's immediate needs.

"Part of our niche is for smaller companies because they don't have the
lead time [to replant] as they'll ask for certain species that we have,"
Meuleman said.

One area where Aqam would like to penetrate would be the northern American
states that British Columbia neighbors. However, exporting agricultural
products across the border has its own regulations and Canadian agencies
are attempting to simplify the procedure with their U.S. counterparts to
minimize the bureaucracy of trade. For now, Meuleman says, the nursery will
predominantly remain as a local wholesaler.

With the plants needing minimal maintenance, Meuleman spends his winters
catching up on paperwork including preparing some grant applications for
the expansion of the nursery's operations. Whatever the future holds for
Aqam, there is the knowledge of how St. Mary's has pledged its moral
support.

"They like this business because it fits well with their idea of living off
the land," Meuleman stated. "This is a source of pride for the community as
a whole to have a successful business that's owned by the band."