My name is Amber Rhodes and I'm the flower farmer behind Blooms on the Hill. My farm is located in the hills of Budgeree, which is a rural area in Gippsland, Victoria. Budgeree means "A Good Place" in the local Aboriginal language and that it most certainly is. Rolling hills, lush green paddocks, native bushland, meandering creeks and plenty of wildlife roaming happily around the countryside is all part of the regular scenery in Budgeree. It truly is a good place and the perfect place for my little flower farm. I have plenty of space to grow my flowers, good red soil and a constant fresh supply of fertiliser by way of our sheep and cattle who share our farm with us!
One of my first loves is cattle...I'm a little bit cow obsessed, so the cattle on our property are technically what I call "my department". I let my husband be in charge of the sheep. I have Angus/Friesian cross-bred cows and I use a Speckle Park bull, which is a beautiful Canadian breed of cattle that is black and white speckled, as the name suggests. My other love, of course, is flowers. I'm mostly dahlia crazy but having grown different varieties of flowers over this season it's pretty safe to say I love all flowers...except maybe zinnias. I have a love/hate relationship with zinnias.
The idea of a flower farm actually came to me before we even had a farm, so going back to the start of 2017 I discovered Floret, a flower farm in America. At the time Erin Benzakein was running Floret from a small plot of 2 acres and was totally revolutionising the flower farming world. It was a single photo of hers on social media, a ute full (or should I say a 'pick up' full) of dahlias that caught my attention, and I have been nuts about them ever since. The 1800 plants I have to date is a good testimony to my dahlia nuttiness! At the time I discovered her she had also just released her first book, 'Cut Flower Garden' and as I, of course, ordered it directly from her, I was lucky enough to receive a signed copy. From there I could be found digging up the lawn of my tiny back garden, in the regional town of Trafalgar where we then lived, trying to grow flowers in every spare spot of soil. Hmmmm....
Fast forward to later that year in August and somehow we were moving off to our own farm. With sheep and cattle and homeschooling three of my four children I was pretty busy so it wasn't until the following year in 2018 that I planted my first dahlias. I had 4 beds, that were of course meant for vegetables. (Phfft). I loved them but wasn't very good at it and it would be another two years before I was brave enough to start ignoring new buds and ruthlessly cut long stems. After that first season I dug and divided my tubers and so next season I had 16 beds, then the following season I suddenly had 450 plants. That was last season and here I was dealing with the terrible conundrum of too many flowers. Oh what to do?! So I started selling. That was last season and now my fall into 'half accidental' flower farming has seen an expansion into spring flowers like ranunculus, tulips and sweet peas as well as other summer annuals like cosmos, zinnias and celosia. I have also planted more roses, peonies, chrysanthemums and other perennials, as well as now having to shift my dahlia collection to a paddock due to the fact that there is 1800 of them.
I can mostly be found crawling about on my hands and knees in my flower patch, although sometimes I have to tend to livestock work on the farm, and each morning I can be found under my dairy cow that I milk for the house. Most Saturday mornings I am at local farmer's markets around Gippsland selling my flowers and talking all things dahlias to customers, and during the week I do a run to the local post office in Boolarra with fresh bouquets to sell. I teach workshops from the farm on weekdays and some weekends and would like to teach online to reach a wider audience. I have started reaching a more global audience via my YouTube channel, which is certainly not to become famous, I'm a middle-aged, fairly introverted woman who never wears makeup and always has dirt on herself somewhere, but I find it a good way to talk about my little flower business and share it with my customers. I have lovely people pop up to the farm to buy bouquets and buckets of blooms, which usually results in an impromptu tour of the flower patch. I have done a couple of lovely weddings over the season and have already started taking bookings for the spring of this year, 2023, and also for 2024. Bookings for weddings are most certainly open.
As this season begins to wind down and the dahlias begin to fade it's full steam ahead with planning for next season and getting stuck in with sowing and planting out hardy annuals. Already I have beds full of ranunculus corms; pinks, whites and salmons the perfect wedding colours. I have statice, stock, scabiosa and sweet peas planted out...why does everything start with 'S'....and the tulip and daffodil bulbs will be going in next week. Over winter it will be time to catch up with other things a bit, namely writing, as believe it or not, writing was my major at university. Among my cow/dahlia/general flower obsession I also have a love of flower books, flower farming books, flower arranging books....basically anything to do with flowers....and really one day I'd love to write my own. On that venture I'll keep you posted.
In the meantime enjoy the last of the summer blooms here in Australia and for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope you have a beautiful spring.
Flowers flowers everywhere. The supermarket and the florist are probably two places that automatically spring to mind. The florist might be dearer, but they have experience in creating amazing bouquets and incredible floral installations. A definite go-to for your wedding or for that extra special gift. The supermarket. They're certainly convenient but exactly how fresh are those flowers? And come to think of it, how come you managed to buy roses from the florist in the middle of winter? Aren't they normally blooming in spring and summer?
These are the questions that people are now asking and if they're not then they should be. Exactly where did those roses come from in the florist? How far did they travel before they ended up in your wedding bouquet? What is their country of origin? Are they actually even safe for you to handle? How come those supermarket flowers look like they've been dragged through a bush backwards? (they probably have) These are all good and very relevant questions. Unlike food products flowers do not have to be labelled with their country of origin. How far have your roses travelled....well that's really a grey area.
The Netherlands is the highest exporter of cut flowers in the world, something like 65% of Europe's flowers come from there and are shipped to countries like Germany, Italy and the UK. The US imports a huge volume of its cut flowers and, I'm sorry to say, so does Australia. Most of our flowers are imported, and in winter, approximately 90% of our flowers have come from overseas. These babies have done more mileage than I have. That's not a good statistic, particularly if you're conscious of the sustainability of the products you are purchasing and their environmental impact. Australia mostly imports flowers from countries like Kenya, Colombia and Ecuador and unfortunately the international trade is forcing smaller Australian growers out of business. It's the age old story. They can produce them cheaper overseas and ship them in, all for less than what I, and others, can grow them for on our small micro flower farms. The price might be right, and the volume and variety of flowers a bonus, but what about the negatives?
Firstly, there is the environmental downside, which I have already mentioned. The carbon footprint of an imported flower is huge. They're flown from where they are grown, sometimes on to an international market in a different country, and then on to their destination. From there they are unloaded off planes and put on trucks and shipped around the country to the cities flower markets. There they will sit a bit longer (after an already mammoth journey) and finally be picked up by the florist. How many days since they have been picked? Not really farm fresh are they?
Secondly, and probably the main question you should be asking here really is...what on earth have they been treated with to last this long? What kind of chemicals have they been sprayed with to keep them alive? And worse...what have those in charge of Australia's biosecurity sprayed them with as well?? Australia has some of the strictest biosecurity laws in the world so you can bet your sweet chrysanthemums those suckers have been doused in all kinds of nasties. Yep, these guys aren't fresh, and worse, they're also toxic. Burying your nose into your wedding bouquet or bunch of Valentine's Day roses is probably not the best idea.
Thankfully there are alternatives. There are a lot of small growers, like myself, popping up all over the place. A lot of them are women who find themselves blessed with a small, or sometimes even slightly largeish, patch of land to grow flowers. Often they are stay at home mums, women who want a more fulfilling job, something where they can get back to nature, get outside and get their hands in the dirt. All of us simply can't function without the beauty of flowers in our lives. Through buying from a small flower farmer you are buying directly from a real person, not a company, someone who works and lives on their farm, who pours everything into their patch of land, who works through the heat and the rain, the wind and the cold, who is out there madly staking up their dahlias in the middle of a storm. You are buying from someone who truly loves their product and pours their soul into their existence. Purchase from a flower farmer and you are not only buying the freshest flowers possible but you are putting money straight into the hands of a local farming family, not sending it overseas.
A lot of florists are now buying their flowers from smaller local growers, and making a point of doing so, sourcing out growers that are nearby to them. They are consciously buying in flowers that have done less miles, that are grown sustainably and where they know they are supporting a small local grower. In doing so they are also able to source flowers that they simply cannot buy from overseas. Things that just don't travel, like dahlias, sweet peas, cosmos and lilacs. Seasonal flowers that are old fashioned but are still beautiful none the less; in fact probably even more beautiful than the perfectly straight stemmed roses that have been flown in from overseas. Farm grown flowers are fragrant, which is something that is often lost in mass produced flowers, and the variety of blooms is almost endless.
Your local grower can often be found at a farmer's market, along with the freshly grown vegetables and locally baked bread and other goods. Instead of thinking of flowers as a luxury why not make it a weekly purchase along with your bread and potatoes? They certainly do in Europe. It is likely that you will find flower farmers have quite competitive prices for blooms, particularly as we don't have the same overheads as a florist, but also we usually offer more simple bouquets.
Often people get into the mindset that flowers are a bit of a waste of money because they don't last forever but here is where the benefit comes from buying direct from the flower farmer. The blooms will have been picked either that day or the night before and they will not have travelled far to reach you. You will also find the flower farmer is a wealth of information on how to care for that specific type of cut flower and will certainly be more than willing to pass on any tips or tricks to help extended their vase life.
Look for your own local flower farmer via Instagram, there is a whole happy family of growers sharing the beauty of what they grow on that platform, or keep an eye out at your local farmer's market. Perhaps even ask your florist where they get their flowers from and if they don't purchase from local growers you might even be able to request that they check some out.
As a local grower in Budgeree (near Boolarra) I sell my flowers from the farm gate, and I also have a stall at various farmer's markets. I sell small, large and extra large bouquets and you can also buy a 'bucket of blooms' which includes mixed flowers and foliage so you can create your own arrangements at home. Bunches and bouquets, as well as jars of blooms, are also stocked at the Boolarra Post Office. Flowers are also available for weddings and events and I run a series of flower growing and floristry workshops.
To follow me on Instagram go to @blooms_on_the_hill