Roleystone business in full bloom

Ann RawlingsCountryman
Rowland Gwynne, of Mary's Produce in Roleystone.
Camera IconRowland Gwynne, of Mary's Produce in Roleystone. Credit: The West Australian

Horticulture occupies a special place in Rowland Gwynne's heart, and no wonder. Growing up on the family orchard in the Perth Hills encouraged a love for life on the land, but it took a few good years for Rowland to get into the growing game.

PICTURE GALLERY: Pick of the bunch |

"I was born on the original property - my grandfather owned it and my father had an orchard on it. My father's philosophy was that it was too hard to work on the land, so study and get a job," Rowland said.

After a career with the Department of Agriculture for nigh on 30 years, first in horticulture and then in quarantine as manager of plant health, his focus turned to life as a full-time orchardist on the very land that he had grown up on.

His father had sold the Roleystone orchard while Rowland was at university, but an opportunity arose several years later for Rowland and his wife Mary to buy back six hectares of the original property.

"We had an orchard for a number of years that I ran as a hobby, but I eventually retired early to work on the orchard full time," he said.

The Gwynne family's foray into the cut flower industry started in the early 1980s, first as a side venture to the orchard. But it was not long until cut flowers bloomed into the mainstay of the business.

"With orchards, if you don't do thinning and pruning at the right time, you only get one chance at a crop each year. With roses, if something goes wrong, six weeks later you have a new crop. So we decided to increase the flowers and the orchard was bulldozed. It was a bit sad."

The Roleystone property is now dotted with the tunnels where more than 40 varieties of roses and 35 varieties of gerberas are grown.

Each tunnel has a unique climate based on where it is positioned on the property, with roses grown in the tunnels high on the hill coming into bloom earlier than those in the valley.

"I tend to grow two rows for each variety," Rowland said. "Each row is grown in a different tunnel so they don't come in at the same time."

Rowland selects flower varieties based on their colour, growing ability and hardiness.

"We deal with a national wholesaler that supplies major chains and they dictate what they want. If something doesn't sell successfully, they don't want it," he said.

"If the colour is not acceptable, we put in a new variety that meets the wholesaler's wishes."

Rowland sticks to growing traditional flowers in the belief that it is important to grow blooms that will stay in fashion.

"Roses and gerberas are traditional flowers that always have a market," he said. "At times we have tried other flowers, but they have gone out of fashion."

Mary's Produce grew a crop of statice several years ago, but Rowland said demand waned. "You then have a crop that you can't sell," he said.

The business has also grown novelty varieties of roses, with Rowland referring to one in particular that had a fleck.

"It was a good novelty to start with and then customers tired of it, so we couldn't sell it," he said.

"People tend to like a straight, bright-coloured rose, unless you're getting married and you go for a paler rose. Then you get the seasonal demand - whites for Christmas and reds for Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day is pink, so you need to have a mix of varieties."

While some flowers are sold direct to florists and through various farmers' markets, Rowland said most of his blooms were sent to the one wholesaler.

"It's a good relationship," he said. "We'd probably get higher prices if we sold direct to florists, but then you need a refrigerated van, a driver to go around to service the shops and you have to keep up your contacts."

Having a strong relationship with the wholesaler also ensures there is a steady demand for the family's flowers.

"It's easier for me to have a consistent supply every week rather than try to produce for a peak," Rowland said - although that's not to say the family wasn't busy in the lead up to Valentine's Day.

"Peak time would be Valentine's Day," he said. "The spring flush is one of the smaller peaks, because you have just done your pruning and there are fewer shoots coming up. Then by February, it's all go."

With red roses in hot demand and wholesalers and florists paying a premium for the blooms, it is no wonder about half of the varieties grown on the property are red.

The roses are hand-picked with specially designed secateurs that grip the stem as it is cut, making it possible to hold harvested blooms in one hand and cut and lift stems with the other.

Workers wear long-sleeved shirts and a welding sleeve to protect their skin against the pinch of thorns.

"They have a quick look at the head to see if it's the right stage, usually when they are just starting to open but it depends on the variety. Some you'll pick really tight, others a bit open," Rowland said.

Each stem is cut at about 60cm, leaving a few buds for future flower development, with workers ensuring the stems are straight and the rose head is of a good shape with no insect damage.

Depending on the temperature and variety, it usually takes between six and eight weeks for a new flush to appear, with on average five crops a year for each variety. Following a flush, the roses are lightly pruned to reduce disease and encourage new growth.

Once they have been picked, the roses are placed in a specially built cool room in the packing shed, ready to be sorted into bunches. Sorting was previously done by hand; however, the purchase of a second-hand bunching machine from Holland has made life easy for Rowland and his team.

"Previously, you would be too reliant on one or two people getting the job done," Rowland said. "You had to be quick - you had to check the head was all right and that you had similar lengths together, and then bunch them up. Some people had trouble with that, particularly at speed."

Individual blooms are placed vertically onto a production line, passing through a sensor that measures stem length. The machine then sorts the roses into bunches of 10 according to stem length, securing them with a string. Each bunch is then cut as one to ensure equal length. Bunches are then passed by a robotic arm onto trays, ready to be collected and placed into buckets of water.

"It was a big investment but worthwhile, because anyone can use the machine. As long as they understand quality, and can see the stem and the heads are straight, they can use it," Rowland said.

For diversification, Rowland grows six varieties of Asiatic lilies, each year buying 15,000 bulbs from Tasmania. The crop may be labour-intensive - the bulbs are planted into hand-dug trenches and flowers are harvested by hand - but Rowland sees value in the bright blooms.

"I like to put something dormant in the ground and watch it come up with nice flowers, but no one else that works for me thinks I should grow them," he said.

Viburnum is another means of diversification on the property.

The evergreen shrub is grown for its foliage, which Rowland said had turned into "a good little crop".

While his background in horticulture and plant health has assisted in the development of the property in the Hills, one thing is certain - business is blooming. But when it comes down to which blooms are closest to Rowland's heart, he would have to say that life so far had been pretty rosy.

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