Lorelie Merton is the face behind Florelie Seasonal Flowers in Bungaree, Victoria. We visit her farm regularly during her flowering season, and headed out early one morning in March to photograph her amazing dahlia patch, and ask her what it's like to be a full time flower farmer. Lorelie, her husband Ethan, and employee Hannah grow high quality dahlias through Summer and Autumn, as well as Spring/Summer varieties including bearded iris, feverfew, zinnias, scabiosa, amaranthus and more.
Reading Time | 7 minutes
What was your inspiration for growing flowers, and what made you choose dahlias in particular?
I've always enjoyed flowers but have never been much of a gardener. When I was a stay at home Mum with a baby I wanted to spend more time outside, and that's when I started growing flowers, and reading more about them.
My husband Ethan also wanted to have a small farm and I thought it would be nice to grow some cut flowers on our property. When I started looking into flowers to grow I wanted something that gave me a niche advantage. Dahlias are ideal for this as they don't transport well over long distances, which means I am not competing against imported flowers or flowers grown interstate.
The quality of locally produced dahlias is incomparable.
How big is your farm now compared to when you started?
Our farm is 20 acres, however we are currently growing on around 2 acres with a combination of dahlias and other flowers. This year we grew around 5,500 dahlias which is roughly an acre of dahlias.
Our first year on our property (4 years ago) we grew 300 dahlias, and before that it was a handful of dahlias in pots at our rental.
Can you take us through what happens on a regular day during harvest?
In the mornings our start times vary depending on the weather, however 7am is fairly usual. If it will be a particularly hot day Hannah and I will start harvesting earlier in order to beat the heat and get flowers to the coolroom as soon as possible. We have a harvest list for orders that need to be picked which we work through.
The dahlia paddock is separated into colour sections for ease of harvest and we then drive them back to the coolroom as buckets are picked. Usually we finish harvesting mid-late morning by the time we have picked dahlias and annuals.
We do a Ballarat delivery run twice a week around 11.30-12 then home for lunch. After lunch we head back to the coolroom and sort the buckets we've harvested for each florist's order, labelling everything ready for collection.
After Hannah goes home for the day I spend time doing admin like invoicing, emails, social media etc. Depending on the weather and how the plants are going we may also have to water, fertilise, or deadhead damaged flowers as well.
Harvest is obviously very busy on the farm! But it's not the only part of growing - can you also tell us about all the things that happen on your farm in the lead up to, and post-harvest?
Before we even get to planting the preparation begins with the soil. Ethan does the tractor work; first he works the soil with the tractor and then we add organic matter so that the plants have a base fertiliser to access. Then we measure the beds, set up irrigation, and plant according to the plans we put together from the previous year (which include what colours were most popular, what varieties were most productive, did we grow too much or not enough of something etc).
After planting the weeding/hoeing begins. When the plants are about 10cm high we go through and pinch out all the growth tips. Yes by hand. Yes all 5,500! Yes, your back hurts when you're done. (Pinching out encourages more flowers on each plant). Then back to weeding, watering and fertilising until the plants start blooming.
After harvest season the work doesn't stop either as we dig up all the dahlia tubers (again by hand with a garden fork to reduce damage and keep colours separated) and store them in the shed over Winter. We also divide the tubers and sell the excess over Winter too. With dahlias there really are jobs to be done year round!
Do you find the sales & marketing side of the business challenging, and what has helped you to reach new customers the most?
At the start I was definitely unsure about how I would find customers. At first we started selling dahlia petals to an edible flower farm and then I started visiting local florists with a bucket of dahlias and letting them know what we were growing.
As our business has grown I've had more florists contact me through Instagram. I love working directly with florists and we now have a stable base who order from us on a regular basis. Instagram has been a wonderful marketing tool for connecting with florists.
What other varieties do you grow, and what do you have planned for your farm in the future?
Aside from dahlias we also grow a range of Summer annuals to coincide with their flowering season including strawflower, scabiosa, zinnias, achillea, feverfew and amaranth.
We have also recently planted our first crop for Spring harvest which includes ranunculus, anemone, stock, nigella, bells of Ireland and a few other annuals.
Do you have a favourite dahlia... or is that like choosing a favourite child!
I have lots of favourites! Usually I'm swooning over the newest seedling though. We love breeding our own varieties.
To read more about this amazing local farm, or to order some tubers when they go on sale in Winter, head to Florelie Seasonal Flowers and sign up to their newsletter to be the first to know!
You can also follow along the farm's journey throughout the year on their Instagram @florelieseasonalflowers where Lorelie shares amazing tips and growing information regularly.