Echoing the Slow Food movement, there’s now a burgeoning groundswell of sustainable, local and seasonal flower farming. We visit four flower farms in the NSW Northern Rivers area
“Some people believe organic flowers aren’t very long lived, but they have great vase life if grown in healthy soils and harvested correctly.”
“People are becoming more aware of organic food and plastic packaging, but they haven’t necessarily extended their concern to imported and chemically grown flowers.”
Are you somebody who loves a bouquet of cut flowers but have some niggling doubts about the provenance of them these days? Do you ever wonder what you’re breathing in when you bury your nose into a bunch of flowers? While cut flowers look the part, they often have no scent and a soulless quality.
In search of the old romance and scent of flowers once again, I discovered a flourishing movement of slow flower growers in the NSW Northern Rivers and went to see what it takes to grow and supply local, organic flowers.
Byron Bay Organic Flower Farm & Byron Bay Flower School
Janelle Johnstone’s family has been farming Weetalabah (“a place of many water springs”) since 1926. It’s now a certified organic farm. The paddock where flowerbeds now flourish was last ploughed using a horse and cart. There’s a greenhouse in the distance, something you associate more with growing in colder climates, not the subtropics of Byron Bay.
Janelle started out as an organic vegetable grower and branched into edible flowers six years ago. She uses the greenhouse for edible flowers, which need to be kept dry for harvesting. It’s also where she grows flower seedlings in the cooler months and it’s a venue for workshops.
“I started growing certified organic cut flowers because nobody was doing it,” she says. Some people believe organic flowers aren’t very long lived, but they have great vase life if grown in healthy soils and harvested correctly.
“Growing for cut flowers is the one time you ideally need to harvest before bees pollinate, otherwise the flowers think they’ve done their job and lose their vitality,” she explains.
Imported flowers are on the increase in Australia, driven by consumer demand for flowers like roses and orchids out of season, much like expecting avocados all year round.
They travel thousands of kilometres and are fumigated with methyl bromide, a nerve poison and potent ozone-depleting pesticide. They’re also dipped in “devitalisation” herbicides such as glyphosate so they can’t be propagated.
“I can tell if flowers have come from an industrial farm, or if they’ve endured a long plane journey and multiple cool rooms. They just look jet-lagged,” she says.
“It’s a question of educating people about local and organic flowers and their benefits, which is why I started the Byron Bay Flower School. My next mission is to educate florists and brides.”
Speaking of brides, the recent UK royal wedding has been a boon for the slow flower movement. Meghan and Harry chose self-taught floral designer Philippa Craddock to do their wedding flowers, which were all seasonal, locally collected and donated to hospices after the big day.
Back on Janelle’s farm, she’s also gearing up to cater for brides, who loom large in flower trends, it appears. Spring and summer look promising with David Austin roses, rows of delphiniums, chocolate Queen Anne’s lace, daffodils, phlox, calendulas, zinnias, long-stem marigolds, cornflowers, sunflowers, larkspurs, nigella, poppies, cosmos, sweetpeas, amaranth and coriander and dill.
Phoebe East grew up in country Victoria with an innate sense of nature’s rhythms that didn’t accord with her experience working as a florist. Dissatisfied with the industry and its negative impacts, she set out to learn permaculture and growing edible landscapes, then came full circle back to flower growing and floral design.
Her fledging farm near the village of Federal in the hinterland of Byron Bay has been expanding for two-and-a-half years. The flowerbeds are growing and the soil improving under no-dig methods, compost, green manure crops and mulch. Phoebe also plants by moon cycles, optimising the times for planting and nourishing the soil.
“The red soils have had grass on them for a long time and are acidic, so the pH needs to be brought back to neutral for most flowers, except natives,” she explains.
How does she cope with the subtropical climate? “I’m still getting used to the different climate and adapting to new planting schedules. There’s plenty of water here, sometimes too much. I grow in raised beds on terraces, so the water tends to drain away well.
“In summer, the heat and humidity are the challenge. The flowers are fine, but I wither. I work really early in the morning or late in the evening. Picking is done first thing,” she says.
Phoebe is already making a name for herself with her romantic floral designs featuring muted tones. “I’m very much a cottage flower gardener,” she says.
Alchemilla supplies flowers for events and offers weekly subscriptions for delivery to your door. Just don’t ask for peonies out of season for your wedding; you’ll be politely asked to consider other seasonal options, or move the date of your wedding.
Holly Shiach has a long association with plants and learns through “crazy passions”, which have included vegetables, herbs, seed-saving and tropical fruits. Flowers, it seems, have seduced her with their capacity for wordless communication, symbolism and cultural rituals around giving and receiving.
“I self-educated and read a lot of books about flowers, then went and worked with a florist and on flower farms in North Queensland and Sydney. I knew I wanted to grow my own flowers,” she says.
“There was an enormous gap between what I was seeing in the florist shops, which were limited in variety to the eye of someone with a lifetime as a gardener. I felt there was something missing, so I set out to work in that gap,” she says.
Holly found an unconventional property in the hinterland of Byron Bay, with steep terraces and the perfect aspect and microclimate for growing the flowers she loves.
“I had fantastic success with my first crop of lilies, which is one of my specialties. I find them very beautiful and love their strong sculptural form. The ones I grow smell amazing.
“I also love dahlias, which are my other major crop. They’re outrageous and come in every shade of colour. I lived in Mexico, where dahlias are endemic, so part of my aesthetic was born there,” she says.
“In my floral design work I love strong shapes, forms and colours. I also grow gladioli, many varieties of foliage, seasonal heirlooms and natives.
“As I progress in my green floristry practice, I keep experimenting and finding things out. One older grower told me about using half a potato with holes dug into it with a skewer as a floral frog, instead of floral foam.
“I supply locally for weddings and events and also do deliveries for regular clients and special occasions. It’s a nice balance between being in my garden and being out in the community. I also have a lot of quality control that way,” she explains.
Holly personally delivers flowers in vases, then returns to pick up the vases and spent flowers, which are returned to Wildwood for compost.
Our Little Flower Farm
On returning to the property she initially purchased many years prior, Hannah Robertson found herself in the historic township of Coraki at the confluence of the Richmond and Wilsons rivers, with a strong desire to grow flowers.
“My background is in textile design and clothing production, so the initial desire was to get my hands on colour to play with. Then I learned more about the cut flower industry and discovered there was a community of people growing seasonal flowers,” she says.
A major flood recently washed her precious flowerbeds away and tested her resilience, but she bounced back. She has strong family ties to the area and her children are the sixth generation to live there.
“People are becoming more aware of organic food and plastic packaging, but they haven’t necessarily extended their concern to imported and chemically grown flowers. As soon as they hear about it, it makes sense and a little switch goes on,” she says.
“I grow flowers and wholesale them to other growers, supplementing flowers they might not grow. I wholesale to event designers because I want them to have a sustainable option,” she says.
There will be plenty to choose from this spring and summer with 2000 ranunculus in the ground, as well as dahlias, cosmos and zinnias.
“You can have a pumping micro flower farm on a quarter-acre block, but you also need to distribute the flowers and social media can really help with that.”
Hannah sees a great opportunity for networking and started the Australian Flower Farmers Collective Instagram page and invites other micro flower farmers to send in their information to help promote each other and the movement.