Words Brenda Lavender Photos Honey Atkinson
Where GOOD HOPE, Yass Valley, NEW SOUTH WALES
We often get requests for tips on starting a flower farm, so here’s some things we’ve learnt along the way that might be useful for other budding flower farmers…
TIP #1 STUDY LIKE CRAZY!
Books, online, and podcasts were how we did it. It was thanks to the wisdom of flower farming gurus Lisa Ziegler from The Gardener's Workshop, Bare Mtn Farm and of course Floret Flowers, that we found our way. They all share their enormous wealth of knowledge and cover everything from planning, bed preparation, soil blocking, seed starting, growing, harvesting, post harvest treatment and selling.
Some great podcasts are Slow Flowers with Debra Prinzing and also Farmer to Farmer, both on iTunes. All of these resources gave us the information and inspiration - we just had to supply the dedication and perspiration!
TIP #2 IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SOIL
When you start flower farming it doesn’t take you long to work out that your job is actually more about nurturing the soil than growing flowers. We're still on a big learning curve when it comes to this.
Just like the human gut depends on a delicate balance of microbes for optimal health, so too does the soil. Those microbes form an underground weblike network that helps plants to absorb nutrients and communicate their needs to each other. We now realise that tillage is bad for this network of soil life, so we only till when building a new bed and then don’t till it ever again.
With our soil health improving our plants are getting healthier and more productive and we've noticed a huge increase this season in beneficial insects and birds in our garden. The garden was swarming with butterflies this year and we were expecting terrible caterpillar damage, but there were hardly any to be seen - thanks to the beneficials gobbling them up.
Of course, we still have trouble with certain pests (such as dahlia munching earwigs), and try to manage those with things like neem oil, peppermint oil and netting. We hope that as our soil and the eco system in our garden continues to improve we will no longer have an earwig problem - only time will tell!
For a simple and fascinating explanation of plants communicating check out the TED talk “Can plants talk to each other?” by Richard Karban on Youtube.
TIP #3 LOOK AROUND YOU
Wondering what to grow? Look around you for what grows well in other gardens in your area to help you decide what to grow. I was lucky enough to make a few visits to our local retirement village early in our journey. It’s like a virtual Botanic Garden! It’s filled with a huge diversity of gardens and plants that gave me great insight into what we could grow. So look around your neighbourhood for inspiration. There are a lot of seasoned, knowledgeable gardeners out there, happy to share tips, seeds and plants!
TIP #4 FRESH SEED IS ESSENTIAL
One of the first things you need to do when starting your farm is to have your soil tested, this will tell you of any imbalances in your soil and how to amend them so that your seedlings thrive. We have found Swep Analytical Laboratories to be great for this.
TIP #5 PLANT A WINDBREAK
Plant a windbreak before anything else! Not only do windbreaks protect your plants from wind damage, they also provide a home for beneficial birds and insects who eat the bad bugs in your garden. We planted wattle for our windbreak so we can also use it for flowers and green fill in our bouquets.
TIP #6 GET YOUR THRIFT ON!
The costs of setting up a flower farm can easily escalate, so we had to be super resourceful. We’ve re-used and re-purposed a lot of things to keep our costs down. We built a propagation heat bed for germinating seeds from left over building materials and a cheap reptile heating cable. For growing on those seedlings we bought an ex-shop shelving unit and fitted it with twin fluorescent light battens. We got all of this, along with some second hand poly pipe for irrigation, for under $80 from the salvage shed at our local tip.
We grow everything from seed (apart from, peonies, roses and cafe au last dahlias) and use soil blocks for seed starting. Not only do the seedlings transplant better but it saves money on cell trays and all the work of cleaning them between uses. We’ve given up on plastic flower support netting which is expensive and prone to getting cut when picking flowers, so instead we have been using old hinge joint fencing wire which we got for free and its brilliant!
A local business was throwing out polystyrene eskies, so we grabbed them and use the lids of these as trays for our soil blocks and the bases get used in the car to keep flower buckets upright.
We’ve sourced free mulch from tree loppers and are fortunate to be able to use our own grass hay as mulch, which means we don’t need to use awful plastic weed mat. So by going a bit Wallace and Gromit we’ve saved on both money and landfill.
TIP #7 EMBRACE YOUR MISTAKES
Mistakes are really just experiments given a bad name. I wish I’d realised this back at the beginning of our journey and not let the mistakes get me down so much. As long as you’re not making the same mistake repeatedly, they will actually teach you a lot!
TIP #8 INSTALL IRRIGATION NOW
As soon as you finish making a bed install drip irrigation straight away. It’s tempting and exciting to just get those plants in and think you’ll put the irrigation in later, but before you know it, you’re spending lots of time hand watering - and that’s a huge waste of time and precious water.
The same goes for plant supports - get them in early or before you know it you’ve got tall plants flopping over and bending everywhere (we’re still bad at this one!).
TIP #9 RULES CAN BE BROKEN
I did a short course in floristry early on, but I was the worst in the class!I I just couldn’t do those formal, structured type of arrangements - mine always looked woeful! What I love to do is wild, rambling bunches with lots of colour and thankfully our customers love them too.
It really shook me up at the time, not being able to do arrangements the way we were being instructed to and really made me doubt my ability. But then I realised that floral design is an art form, so it was a bit like becoming an artist and being told that you can only use this type of brush or these three colours ...flowers are nature in it's finest form and nature isn't rigid - it's rambling and it's multicoloured, and I like to think my bunches reflect that. What I took away from that experience is that you don’t always need permission, a certificate, or a recipe to follow….sometimes it’s ok to just do what you love.
There’s lots of advice out there, but everybody’s situation is different, so you need to experiment a lot to find out what works best for you - and be sure to keep records of the results of those experiments.
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