Just as the slow food movement made us more aware of local and seasonal produce, the slow flower movement is doing the same for blooms.
Tara Luca is a sustainable flower grower from the Northern Rivers area in NSW. Tara and her family live and work on Olive Gap Organic Farm in Woodburn. The farm, which specialises in native essential oils, as well as seasonal flowers, is run by two couples: Tara and her husband Alex (along with their three daughters), and Alex’s sister Tess and her partner, Nina. ‘Basically, we are a big girl gang, plus Alex,’ says Tara.
Tara developed her love for all things floral while studying an Organic Farming course. ‘Whilst at TAFE I discovered an amazing old floriculture section in the student library and I became completely obsessed with learning about flower production,’ she says.
The Slow Flower Movement
Commercial flower production in 2019 tends to be far from slow. Most conventionally grown flowers are mass produced, doused with chemicals and grown in resource-intensive greenhouses and climate-controlled facilities.
Flowers are often imported from developing countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, with workers receiving minimal pay and experiencing poor health conditions. It’s estimated that one-fifth of the chemicals used in the floriculture industry in developing countries are banned or untested in Australia, yet these rules don’t apply to imported flowers. ‘And as cut flowers are not considered edible crops, they’re not required to follow the same chemical guidelines as the food industry,’ explains Tara.
In contrast, the slow flower movement promotes local, seasonal and sustainable flowers. Chemicals are used sparingly, if at all, with organic sprays preferred. ‘The term “slow flowers” also points to putting holistic farming practices before quick profits, and challenging the norms of what is considered to be a “good” cut flower,’ says Tara.
Another benefit of this more sustainable model is that local growers can grow varieties that are hard to transport over long distances; they can therefore offer flowers that large flower markets can’t.
Olive Gap Organic Farm
With a regular stall at the Byron Bay Community Markets, Tara also supplies flowers to weddings, local florists and cafés, concentrating on nearby areas so her blooms don’t have to travel far from home.
Tara and Alex moved to Woodburn eight years ago, with self-sufficiency at the forefront of their minds. Together with their daughters Olive (thirteen), April (eleven) and Cedar (eight), they set to work designing a functional permaculture system and concentrated on growing their own food. ‘Over the years of establishing our orchard and food systems, it became clear that part of our dream included creating an income that was somehow integrated into our lifestyle and reduced our need to commute into town for work,’ says Tara.
When their neighbour’s organic tea-tree farm came up for sale, Alex and his sister Tess snapped it up, and now Olive Gap Organic Farm runs across two sites down the road from each other. The main farm is 110 acres, with around half of that being native bushland. The intensive flower plot, conveniently set up close to Tara and Alex’s house, is approximately half an acre. ‘I slowly began redesigning our garden to allow for more space,’ says Tara. ‘After a year of garden extensions and experimenting with trial crops, we had a productive biointensive micro flower farm integrated into our system, still with plenty of space for vegies.’
‘It took me some time to become brave enough to grow flowers!’ laughs Tara. ‘We’re such passionate food growers that flowers can be considered a frivolity, but integrated into a system they are a great way to bring lots of beauty and joy as well.’
Tara focuses on heirloom and hard-to-find varieties of flowers. She often experiments with new types, and plans to diversify into growing more Australian native flowers and essential-oil crops. The flowers blooming at Olive Gap depend on the season, but snapdragons are a favourite, as are roses, cosmos, zinnias and ranunculus.
‘My design style is quite whimsical and romantic so I love old-style roses, bulbs and incorporating lots of vines and dried and fresh herbs into my arrangements for that wild, just-been-picked look,’ says Tara.
Learning how to plant crops for a good, reliable succession of flowers is a challenge. ‘It’s preferable to have a mix of different colours, textures and sizes in bloom at one time in order to be able to create beautiful and interesting arrangements,’ she says.
Arranging harvest time can also be tricky. ‘Each variety has an ideal time in which to be picked, and then the window in which to sell the flowers is quite small to ensure people are getting the longest vase life possible,’ says Tara. ‘Picking every two to three days and having different orders to fill a few times a week helps with this, but it is an ongoing juggle.’
Despite the challenges, Tara loves being a slow flower grower. ‘It’s incredibly uplifting to work in such an environment, even with all the hard work that’s required,’ she says. ‘I enjoy witnessing the joy it brings when people feel connected to the flowers and where they have come from.’
Sharing this passion is important to her. ‘I love encouraging people to plant flowers in their own garden to increase their own sense of joy and make an offering to local bees and beneficial insects. There are so many varieties that are edible too, so it feels wonderful to go and pick a bright and happy rainbow salad straight from the garden!’
Clockwise from top left: Tara arranging a bouquet; The Olive Gap stall at the markets; Tara, Alex and the girls; Freshly harvested flowers ready for market. Photos by Bonnie Sevi from Lily at Dawn
‘Designing and planning using permaculture principles has been a huge part of establishing our functional micro flower farm in the middle of a dry sclerophyll forest,’ says Tara.
Fenced areas are crucial to keep kangaroos and wallabies from munching on the roses. With zoned areas for fast growing vegies and herbs, half of the no-dig raised beds are set amongst the fruit trees. ‘At times you’ll find beans climbing up tall sunflower stalks and lettuces popping up in between the poppies,’ says Tara.
Tara estimates that 90% of her flowers are grown from seed, and she collects seeds of her favourite varieties for the following season, so they’re adapted to the area’s conditions.
Something Tara hadn’t realised before starting flower farming is that most cut flowers need to be picked before they are pollinated to ensure a good vase life.
‘We have a hive that provides us with honey right next to our garden, so I plant bee-friendly sacrificial crops around our borders to keep them happy, and also leave a few plants from my favourite crops to be pollinated and go to seed,’ she says. ‘We are also very near to the heath in Bundjalung National Park, so the bees have plenty to eat.’
Most flowers are best picked just as they are starting to open, so Tara is constantly paying attention to what is happening in the flower farm. ‘I walk out with my cuppa every morning and do a little check in to see who is ready and willing for that day,’ she says.
Plastics are heavily prevalent in the conventional flower industry, whereas the slow flower movement aims to reduce waste. Conventionally farmed flowers are often wrapped in layers of plastic. Floral foam, used for floral arrangements, ends up in landfill (where it doesn’t break down) or in waterways, if it’s flushed down the sink.
‘We get around using floral foam by using second-hand chicken wire or similar alternatives, and all our bunches are wrapped in 100% compostable packaging,’ says Tara.
The Growth Of Slow Flowers
Olive Gap coordinates crops with another local flower grower in order to offer customers a broader range of colours. ‘We are really enjoying connecting with other local growers in our area and finding new ways to support each other,’ says Tara. ‘As a small farm, the ability to work with other like-minded farmers is a great benefit and really community building, and I think this is the key to making slow flower production truly sustainable in the future.’
Tara has noticed a shift in awareness from both florists and consumers as to how flowers are grown and sold. ‘We just need people to keep asking the hard questions to help make sustainable practices more widespread,’ she says.