Blue Grass is a 3rd generation family business, dating back to 1950 in Manitoba when Grandpa Bert McEwen first started harvesting native pastureland for developments in Winnipeg.
In 1969, the Calgary Housing Authority began requesting sod for its projects. Always looking for new markets, Bert’s son Bill Sr. and daughter-in-law Gail purchased 155 acres of Native pastureland in Red Deer, choosing this location due to it’s good soil conditions and higher than average rainfall. While Bill Sr. completed the construction of Maple Ridge and Silversprings Golf Courses, Bert managed the farm and moved towards producing a registered nursery grown turf.
After extensive research, a blend of 80% Blue Grass and 20% Fescue was decided upon. By 1976 the entire property was in production with Premium Blue Grass sod. Although the cultivars have changed over the years with the introduction of dwarf Blue Grasses and hardier varieties, the original mixture has become the standard that most quality turf is measured against. Today, Blue Grass is much more than a family run business with more than 150 employees in Calgary and 80 in Red Deer during peak times. We’ve grown to two locations, one in Calgary and the other in Red Deer with multiple sod depots throughout Alberta.
Bill’s sons have now taken over the reins from their parents, with Bruce overseeing the production of the sod in Red Deer and Bill Jr. managing the distribution outlet in Calgary.
To date, over 2000 acres of sod are in production and over 135 million square feet of sod have been cultivated and shipped to markets as far east as Regina, Sask. West to Cranbrook, B.C. and North to Yellowknife, N.W.T. However, Calgary remains the largest consumer with over 15 million square feet of sod per year shipped in. If it’s green in Calgary or Red Deer there’s a good chance that it’s Blue Grass Sod. Due to good farming practices part of the original 155 acres is still in production today, 41 years later.
Technology has always played a large part in the sod industry and Blue Grass has continually updated as new and more efficient machinery became available. When Bert first started harvesting sod, he and his sons did it all by hand from cutting to stacking and delivering. At that time there were no pallets and ride on forklifts, everything was hard physical labour. In the 70’s, “Ryan” walk behind harvesters became available, similar to a Rototiller but with a scissors action undercutting blade these machines enabled long lengths of sod to be produced at a standard width and depth dramatically reducing manpower, however the sod still had to be cut to length and stacked on and off the delivery vehicles. This machine did improve over the years with a cutoff feature automatically controlling the size of the finished product and was the main harvester used by Blue Grass Ltd. over the next ten years.
In 1980 the farm made a major investment and purchased a Princeton Automatic Harvester. For Bill Sr. and his sons, now working on the farm, this seemed like the ultimate – no more manual labour. However it proved to be an expensive lemon being broken down more often than it worked, (this technology needed more time). The machine was quickly replaced with a Brouer Harvester, not as automated but still a vast improvement on the old Ryan with the sod being cut, rolled and conveyed to where it was manually stacked on pallets all in one process. The Brouer’s served the company well and were used up until 1997.
Starting in the early 80’s sod began to be used extensively on large commercial projects leading to the creation of big roll harvesters and installers able to dramatically reduce labour costs when installing the sod. Blue Grass replaced its Brouers with the new Bucyrus harvestors. These machines can cut big rolls and twice the amount of small rolls dramatically increasing production and decreasing costs for large sod jobs. With big roll machinery 360 square feet is cut at one time compared to the standard 10 square foot roll. Now 4 people and an installer can easily lay upwards of 50,000+ square feet per day. The future holds more advancement for turf equipment and Blue Grass will continue to be a leader in this field. On the future wish list, possibly another automatic harvestor, which have come a long way since its predecessor was trialed in 1980.
Research continually goes into tweaking and developing new sod varieties. Over the last decade demand for more drought tolerant sods has increased. In 2010, Blue Grass began selling a Fine Fescue blend sod that is a lower maintenance and more drought tolerant mix. Fescue is a great choice for sites with little to no foot traffic and no irrigation. It was developed for the commercial landscaping market but this new type of sod will be of immense benefit to municipalities, golf courses, environmental reserves, landscape architects and developers. Now in 2016, Blue Grass introduced another sod to the market. The new Holiday Lawn is a 100% dwarf Kentucky blue grass. This sod was developed to be a very low maintenance variety of dwarf blue grass that is great for parks, campgrounds, cabins, or really any other place that you want a slow growing, lower maintenance lawn. Blue Grass is proud to contribute to the quality of life in the province, by greening its communities and wishes to thank all of Alberta for its continued support.
Bill, Bruce & Gail McEwen
Blue Grass Ltd.
In 1988, Blue Grass Red Deer partnered with W.M. Holt Tree Farms Ltd. in order to establish a supply depot for its sod in Calgary. Mike Edgar, a friend of the family, accepted the position of manager and proceeded to establish a very beneficial distribution outlet at W.M. Holts nursery in Calgary. This relationship eventually led to Blue Grass purchasing the tree farm from Bill Holt in 1990. When it came to merging the two companies, a decision was made to keep the Holt name due to its long history (over 50 years) in the Calgary and North American nursery business.
Bill Jr. having just completed his diploma in horticulture from Olds College moved to Calgary assuming the role of project manager for the newly acquired company (W.M. Holt). Knowing that the nursery business is a long-term investment, the company was pleased to have a family member committed to its growth and development.
Along with sod the company’s tree business has experienced phenomenal growth in Calgary. Since 1990 it is estimated that over 300,000 mature trees have been supplied or planted by our nursery team. With an average 5 years growth, before supplying a tree, it is not hard to imagine the benefits to Calgary’s communities that these trees have provided.
By 1997, W.M. Holt had outgrown its location near the Calgary airport and plans were developed for an eventual move. In 1999, a 30 acre parcel of land was purchased on the service road just south of the Balzac overpass. At the time, this seemed a long way out but we can already see the city growing around us, with no traffic congestion and easy access from Deerfoot Trail, the site has proved user friendly for staff and consumers alike. This new property underwent development in 2001 and the Grand Opening was held in the spring of 2002.
Along with the planning to relocate, it was decided to replace the W.M. Holt name with Blue Grass Ltd. as this better reflected the companies culture. Red Deer became our hub for growing and supply for Calgary for trees and sod, while Calgary became the sales and distribution hub. Since the opening of the new Calgary location in Balzac the centre has seen tremendous growth and is a full service landscaping supply centre with the areas largest selection of Trees, Shrubs, Perennials, Annuals, Garden Centre and Back Yard Play.
Red Deer operations have also grown drastically over the years as demand in Alberta has increased. Bruce opened a garden centre in Red Deer in 1996, The original 150 acres of land of Prairie Hardy tree production has since grown to over 40,000+ trees growing giving a 5000+ unit tree production per year on over 250 acres. Having Red Deer grow more of Blue Grass Ltd’s. tree requirements has ensured that the company can move forward with control over the quality of its product and apply the same standards that built the Blue Grass Ltd. name in sod. In July of 2015, Red Deer purchased Dentoom’s Greenhouse on the northwest edge of Red Deer. The new facility has provided Blue Grass with almost 3 acres of greenhouse allowing us to move into growing and supplying Annuals and Perennials that are locally grown.
From a small family business, Blue Grass Ltd. has grown into one of Alberta’s largest Tree and Sod producers through its commitment to great service and quality plant material. Blue Grass is continually growing and expanding to better serve our customers, our goal is to be a one stop shop for all landscaping products and materials. With the family still playing major roles in the business, the tradition will continue for generations to come. Perhaps there is no better investment in the future than to plant a tree for our children and their children.