Learning to grow
My Flower Journey
Only a few years ago, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be (trying to) grow flowers for a living. I'd never really paid much attention to flowers or gardening, and I couldn't tell you what a zinnia even was or what it looked like.
But after it turned out I didn't actually want to be a graphic designer after graduating, I realised I really didn't have any back-up life plans at all. I had however always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to start a business (which design would always be oh so relevant at least), but could never quite figure out what that business would be. I knew it had to be creative in some way, and something tangible, not staring at a computer all day, but otherwise the details were just coming up blanks. So while I was floundering away, paying the bills with a job I kinda hated, I bought an old villa to do up, and then whilst I was supposed to be renovating I got distracted and discovered gardening. I delved in deep and grew waay too many weird & wonderful vegetables, and with my love of colour it was inevitable that all roads were heading to growing flowers next!
However just as I was starting to dot flowers around my garden, and starting to contemplate that perhaps flowers might possibly be that perfect creative & tangible business idea I had been searching for, I was essentially made redundant, again! But this time I was totally done with working in supermarkets, but alas there were no half inspiring jobs in Taranaki. So I moved back to Taumarunui (my hometown) in with my grandparents, hijacked a paddock off my parents farm and started a little trial flower farm so I didn't waste any time learning more about growing flowers.
Year One: Take One
That first field felt overwhelmingly massive (all five or so rows!), and my Nana & Poppa were there helping me out most weekends. Moving back to my hometown and living with my grandparents felt like a complete life fail, but I knew that I'd also never regret spending that time with my grandparents, and little did I know how right I was, when my Nana sadly passed less than a couple years later. I will always, always treasure that year my Nana & I discovered flowers together!
We crammed as many flowers as I could cram into those few rows! My timings were off, and I barely sold anything, but despite not really knowing what I was doing the flowers eventually burst into a riot of colour that summer! I learnt what a zinnia was, and had a ball just growing, learning, and playing with flowers. It was offical, I was hooked!
Year One: Take Two
Armed with the tiniest sliver of knowledge and the very naive confidence of youth, I officially started Emerden in 2017. I sold my villa, moved back to Stratford hijacked another paddock off my parents (that came with another construction site of a half renovated villa).
My first season I honestly had no idea what I was doing with my seed sowing, and completely winged it. Somethings handled my blasé sowings, but my success rates were all over the place. So this season I was determined to master my seed sowing. I got myself a proper wee propagation house, invested in some soil blockers and trays, imported my first professional cut flower seeds and actually researched what everything I was growing specifically needed to germinate their best selves.
While things were germinating much better, I fell majorly behind on my sowing/planting plan waiting to be able to move in and get started. That spring was so wet, then it flipped and we went from mud to dust within just a few weeks in late spring. By the time anything flowered it was summer, then two cyclones howled through shredding the field two weeks apart and without any later successions, my season was all over as fast as it had begun!
YEAR ONE: Take THREE
After totally mucking up my timings the last two years, I was determined to get it right this year. So this was really my first proper full season. I actually had flowers in spring for the first time!
Having learnt my cyclone lessons, and lost my first sad little tunnel that lasted just one week before one of the cyclones claimed it. I got the biggest, meatiest, cyclone proof tunnel I could afford! It was a little late going in, so our spring crops were still mostly outside. But oh what a total jungle of dahlias we had come summer!
This season, was the season I finally started to learn about actually selling the flowers. So I tried all the different ways to sell to again cram that learning in, so I tried little grower markets (HokoLoko), direct to florists, did a couple weddings, had a few stalls at the Seaside Market, and I think this was the year we had our first farm tour & Open Day, and we started dabbling in selling bulbs & seeds.
This season was full on but it felt like I'd finally graduated from my Year One holding pattern! The business was anything but profitable, but there was a glimmer of hope that it was achievable at last!
YEAR TWO (or Three)
So after finally having spring flowers in spring the previous spring, and armed with a big glorious tunnel, this season I was determined to master spring!
I'd been hooked on ranunculus since the first year I grew flowers (the very first flowers I ever cut to put in a vase were ranunculus). But as amazing as the ones I'd been growing were, I knew there had to be a way to grow some of all the unbelievably beautiful varieties teasing me online! So this season was our first big flower gamble. Ranunculus corms had been effectively banned from importing, so I never had the chance to grow them, but with a little sleuthing discovered some of the most popular ranunculus series were seed propagated series, and seeds were importable in NZ! There was however next to no info around in the world about growing ranunculus from seed, but I forged ahead and very nervously tracked the breeders down, imported seeds, sent them off to become plugs, planted, nursed and anxiously held my breath if they'd even flower in their first year! (learn more about why we have to grow the good ranunc varieties from seed in NZ here).
And flower they most certainly did! I gamble big when I gamble, so we maxed out the tunnel, overflowed into lots of mini-tunnels outside, and before I knew it we had buckets of the most gloriously beautiful flowers I'd ever seen or even dreamed about!
After finally having had a good season the year before, it obviously warranted expanding the field. Looking at my journey in hindsight though, this was probably the year things started getting out of hand. Expanding is easy, but maintaining that expansion is the hard part, and this year was the year the burnout cracks started.
The part of going big on spring I hadn't factored in this season was that I was effectively doubling my peak season, to not just last a few months in summer but, to instead last from very early spring till summer. So the end of season autumn weary set in before summer had even begun this season. On top of that this ended up being our last season in Stratford, and the looming mission of setting up our new farm began in Autumn! So by the time the first lockdown began, I was well and truly exhausted and ready for everything to just stop.
The Stratford farm was always a temporary location, and whilst I loved the cold Stratford temps, it was a very challenging climate to grow in. But eventually we found our forever farm in Tikorangi, the property needed some love, but it was flat, bare and came with amazing established shelter.
This season should have been exciting as we could finally put down permanent roots, and began creating my dream farm. But this was 2020, and it almost broke me.
However while covid wrecked soo much havoc with flower farmers seasons in NZ and around the world, I felt like it barely had an effect on mine, as shifting and re-setting up the farm already obliterated everything I had been working for on its own regardless.
I thought I could just pick-up from where I left off the season before, and as there was soo much space at the new farm, I should expand in the process. An then on top of that the second big flower gamble I'd been working on for over a year or two (importing and introducing all the Northern Hemisphere dahlia varieties I oh so coveted) finally came to fruition and we had thousands of dahlias to pack, ship, plant, tend, lift, divide (and just plain stress over at every turn).
I tried to do it all, and I needless to say I stretched myself waaay too thin!
But while our flower season was a bit of a fail, we did despite it all make impressive headway in physically setting up the farm. We set up tunnels (now plural!), our harvest shed when it was finally completed is a total dream compared to the cramped space we had in Stratford. Hedges & hedgerows were planted, beds were ploughed and painstakingly raked back together. So while we didn't come out of the season in one piece or with a profit, we did come out with a flower farm (and Caitlyn!) all set up and ready to go for the next season!
Last season was the season of setting up the flower farm, so this season was the season of finally properly setting up our seed & bulb part of business. I'd been dabbling with seeds & bulbs here & there right from our very first season, but this season I decided to stop putting it off, and just make it happen.
So I scaled back the flower farm quite dramatically, hired help when we actually needed it, and that winter we released our first big seed release along with our first ranunculus plant sale. And the day we released them, it felt like our whole business changed from that point! We spent the rest of the season playing catch up trying to keep things in stock, ironing out all the new systems. It was effectively like starting a whole other new business compared to our flower sales. My Mum quickly took over our seed counting/packing as if it was up to me alone nothing would ever be in stock for long enough.
Since moving we'd set up the farm, set up the seeds, so this season we finally pulled the focus back to our flowers. Selling retail bouquets was always the original dream, but somewhere along the way it got put on the back burner as we went with the pull to primarily sell to florists. But this year we drew the line, and finally went all in on selling our bouquets, it was a little terrifying at the start of spring as the flowers started piling up, as we'd effectively blown up our whole flower sales model to start again from scratch. But with a lot of help from Kelly, we pivoted and ended up having our best flower sales season of them all!
The hardest part of growing flowers is figuring out how to sell them and sell them in a way that matches your own personal way of working. This season it finally felt like we'd started to crack that balance that had been missing with our flowers in previous seasons.
This season was also the first season the field started to feel settled. The hedges actually looked like hedges, and they actually helped save the field from the cyclone this time.
But while the field was settled, I found that I was not. The business had grown and grown, and I spent months trying to figure out what my place in it was now. We'd spent the last few years pushing through the biggest plans, the biggest projects, and now they'd all kinda came to an end, I found myself disillusioned with what to do next. I couldn't spend all day in the field anymore, I couldn't keep up with the unrelenting admin, planning and endless juggling anymore. I needed to hire help, but I knew I couldn't just hire on whim, I needed a plan.
Which is about where I'm at right now, I've been mulling over & tweaking a plan for months and I think I'm almost ready to start making it happen now. So next season our next big mission is to just really iron out and hone all the previous missions to make the farm run smoother, and saner, and be more reliably profitable in the process. It's not as big or exciting as other plans, but I think it's actually going to be one of the most game changing missions of them all!