Flower power

HAIDEE VANDENBERGHECountryman

Charles and Lee Reynolds might have made the unlikely transition from army careerists to flower farmers, but their past shows in the almost military precision with which they run Florescence Quality Cut Flowers.

In 2004, keen for a better work-life balance, the couple moved their young family from the fast-paced Canberra to the shores of Albany and a somewhat run-down 4.2 hectare flower farm.

It was intended as a sea change, a transition to a simpler life, but as the couple bustle amongst the rows of immaculate buds they admit life is just as busy.

“We came here with our rose-coloured glasses on and thought this would be a great idea, ” Charles said.

“The learning curve has been vertical and continues to be. But one of thing that helped us was that we had no preconceived ideas.”

First crop

The first crop of liliums made it to the wholesaler in April 2004 and, at that stage, Lee and Charles were sending out 60 to 100 bunches of flowers each week.

Today, that figure has grown to around 1500 bunches a week, with the Florescence team hand-planting in the vicinity of 5000 bulbs a week.

That equates to over 500,000 bulbs a year, with the farm, described by Charles and Lee as “small”, boasting up to 100,000 plants at any one time.

Liliums are the main focus, both scented and non-scented, but Charles and Lee are also investigating Calla lilies and have 50 viburnum plants to provide foliage for florists.

The bulbs are imported mainly from Holland, Chile and New Zealand and are inspected on farm by a quarantine officer once growing.

“We need a constant supply (of bulbs) brought over, but they have to be temperature controlled because they’re normally just a spring thing, ” Lee said.

“We can grow all year round if we control their temperature. The bulbs in the fridge are dormant, they’re at about -2C, so they think it’s winter.

“We bring out the varieties we need every week and let them thaw so they think it’s spring.”

Charles and Lee are by far the most southern lilium growers in WA and while the blooms might like the mild summers, growing flowers on the coast comes with its own set of challenges.

The original pH was as low as 4.8 in the sandy, coastal soils.

“We struggled with that for three or four years by putting in organic matter. Then we decided that we just had to build up our beds out of imported potting mix, ” Lee said.

“The liliums love the Mediterranean climate here, but we have trouble in winter because the temperature gets too low. We have got a big boiler system to heat water during winter and we put hot water in the lines so it heats the soil.”

While one might expect a flower farm to be a riot of colour, the blooms are harvested and transported to market before they’ve truly reached their best.

Stems are cut as soon as the buds begin to show colour and from that point they are temperature controlled throughout transport to prevent them opening prematurely.

But ever keen on a challenge, Charles and Lee haven’t stopped at flowers. They are also selling bulbs online and have continued the former owner’s plan for a cherry orchard.

From 150 to 200 low-frost cherry trees when they bought the property, the orchard has been expanded to include 500 trees as well as a few other fruit trees for their own use.

The older cherry trees — now eight years old — are now beginning to produce and Charles has set his sights on developing a line of brandied cherries.

“A 500 tree orchard is not a very big orchard — we’re not talking thousands and thousands of kilograms, ” Charles said.

“To sell cherries straight off is probably not the best thing to do, we would get much more from a business point of view to value add to them.

“Most of the cherries will go through (the brandied cherry line) and the rest will get on-sold or eaten by staff.”

The couple admit their success has a great deal to do with their staff and the support of the Albany community, but it’s also testament to their determination to tackle every problem with gusto.

As Lee said — they love a challenge. “Charles knew nothing about cherries but he thought if others could do it, we could as well, ” she said.

“All the trials and tribulations we’ve gone through, to get to this stage now where the farm is looking like this, it’s a product of using the local knowledge here, translating what they do in Perth to our environment and a tenacity to get things right.”

Florescence Quality Cut Flowers is open to the public 8am to 3pm weekdays at 414 Old Elleker Road, Albany

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