Flower farming wasn’t in the plan for Craig and Mandy Purvis, but grew out of a shift away from the corporate world and towards organics. They’re now one of the few certified organic flower growers in New Zealand.

Craig and Mandy are originally from Scotland, and met in the UK. Craig was a forensic examiner with the police, and Mandy, who had earlier worked for a large bank, was a family liaison officer. Neither had any experience of horticulture, but Mandy was determined not to end up in the corporate world again.

When they arrived in New Zealand in 2007, they bought a house with five acres of undeveloped land in the Dome Valley near Warkworth. They didn’t have a clue what it would take to maintain, much less to generate an income from it.

Organic NZ was one of the coffee table publications Mandy subscribed to, and it inspired her to sign up for a permaculture course at Northtec. While visiting nurseries and orchards as part of the course, she decided it would be great to create an income with an organic nursery. She completed her Permaculture Design Certificate in 2008.

 Budding business

In 2009 Mandy began the couple’s herb and vege seedlings business and gained BioGro organic certification. By 2010 she was selling at local markets.

“I was growing dahlias as beneficial flowers amongst the veges to make the garden look nice and attract bees, and cut a few to add colour to the market stall where we sold seedlings,” says Mandy.

“Every week someone wanted to buy the flowers, so we realised there was a gap in the market.”

So alongside the herbs and seedlings business, she began a commercial organic flower growing operation, Organic Blooms NZ Ltd., and started selling flowers at the markets from 2015. She knows of only two other organic flower farmers in the country – there’s certainly room for more. At first Craig helped her on weekends and evenings, however since 2017 has worked full time on the land.

Healthy soil for resilience

The flowers are grown using not just organic but also permaculture principles – both approaches include creating healthy soil.

The entire property has clay soils but gradually the couple is improving the soil quality. They do occasional soil tests, and fertilise using products from Environmental Fertilisers.

“The healthier the soil, the more resistant, tolerant and stronger the flowers and seedlings are,” says Mandy. “Permaculture methods are working, but it is hard work.”

Their property also includes over 150 heritage fruit trees, and is a veritable Garden of Eden filled with blossoming gorgeousness.

 What’s blooming?

Organic Blooms has 1.5 acres under flowers, including dahlias, tulips, daffodils, larkspur, poppies, dianthus, corn cockle, anemones and ranunculus – more than 30 flower varieties bloom over the seasons.

Tulips are amongst the most popular, and they grow 4000 each spring; a full rainbow spectrum from white through to deep purple, plus a specialist double peony style.

A 21 x 6 m tunnel house for the high summer flowers – whites, creams, and peachy pinks popular at weddings – was recently completed, and will provide protection from petal-damaging heavy winds and rain.

The couple’s other brand, Organic Herbs & Seedlings, is housed in a 21 x 14 m plastic tunnel house where Mandy sows each flower, herb, and vegetable seed herself with seed stock from Kings, Egmont and South Pacific Seeds.

 Weeding, watering, feeding

Initially they laid weed matting and planted the flowers through it, but they pulled it up after the first season when it turned out to be a hiding place for slugs and snails. They now weed by hand.

“It’s hard work staying on top of it, but that’s just part of it,” says Mandy. “We like it to look nice because we live here too. It’s not just about product. If it no longer produced income, we could easily convert the property into beautiful gardens.”

A bore provides good year-round water and Mandy irrigates in summer. They make up their own potassium-rich foliar spray from comfrey and fish heads – which stinks – but keeps the blooms coming and the foliage lush and vital.

Pollination is provided by resident bees in hives managed by local beekeepers.

 Dealing with pests

Pests are a perennial problem for most flower growers. Mandy recalls rust hitting an entire crop of snapdragons just beginning to bloom; they had to pull the whole crop out.

Thrips and aphids are common and extraordinarily destructive pests, which she manages with the aid of a barely visible army.

“In the past we’d reach for neem, but we have so many bees, wasps and parasitic wasps that I don’t want to use any of that because it depletes their numbers.”

Instead, to control the various pests they get millions of tiny helpers delivered to their farm by the biological control company Bioforce. One insect that controls aphids lays its eggs in the aphid.

“These beneficial insects are minute and inexpensive,” says Mandy, “and Chris from Bioforce is really helpful. He can get us an antidote workforce within 48 hours and the problem is solved.”

Struggling with slugs and snails, which had a voracious appetite for sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), Mandy grew sacrificial plantings of pansies and violas around the crop. Now the snails trash the pansies and violas, but leave the sweet peas alone.

Dahlias – particularly sunflower dahlias – attract bees, because they’re laden with pollen. They also attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds which eat aphids, and parasitic wasps which eat thrips.

 By the season

In early spring Mandy and Craig are broad-forking for aeration, composting and fertilising a little, then planting like mad.

Tulips, daffodils, poppies and stock all blossom from late August in good numbers. January to February is high season; irrigation and harvesting keep them busy during the summer.

Mandy tries to keep blooms available up to Mother’s Day with a huge variety of dahlias, chrysanthemums, and rudbeckias.

In autumn the garden beds rest, but to protect them from erosion, difficult weeds and birds, they’re sown with a cover crop of nitrogen-fixing mustard, lupins, and clovers.

 The flower harvest

Tulips are harvested complete with their bulbs, allowing optimum stem length for longer storage and chilling, while the bulbs continue to feed the flowers. When it’s time to sell, the bulbs are removed, the flowers rehydrated for twelve hours, and then batched. The spent bulbs make rich compost. It’s much more cost-effective in terms of labour to plant fresh bulbs each season, rather than storing bulbs and maintaining their health.

Other flowers, including a good selection of roses (some very unusual), are harvested into buckets of water early in the morning, then rest in refreshed clean water in the flower room before being bunched and stored in more fresh water in a chiller.

“We cut hard every two to three days and take everything out to have a continuation of flowers,” says Mandy. “If there are dead heads, the plants stop producing new blooms.”

Most florists accept flowers loose in buckets without wrapping, but for retail or markets they’re wrapped in brown paper and secured with twine or rubber bands. Everything can be composted or reused and Mandy and Craig happily accept returned seedling pots and punnets for reuse.

 Market trends and outlets

There is more awareness of flowers these days, and many people grow their own, says Mandy, who grows a wider variety of flower seedlings than ever before. Flower trends are more around colour than species and she keeps an eye on UK and US trends, which are ahead of New Zealand and influence purchasing trends here.

On Thursday mornings at Grey Lynn Hall, eight or nine flower farmers supply to event florists. The growers start at 8 am and are always sold out within half an hour.

“The flower farmer collective is really helpful with each other, and so are florists.”

Florists phone, text, or email and collect pre-orders for weddings and events. Mandy and Craig also supply New World Warkworth (sometimes topping them up twice a day), and the Friday mini flower market with the Farmer’s Daughter in Omaha. From the first Friday of the season in October until Mother’s Day weekend, the mini-market of four flower growers sells out. Organic Blooms are also delivered to local florists in Whangarei, Mangawhai, and Auckland.

 Weathering the storms

“We farm as they farmed in the old days. No guarantees, but plenty of surprises, most of them good. Diversifying is the best option. Lockdown in August through November with a perishable crop was difficult [for the flower side of the business] but our seedlings continued to sell as an essential service,” said Mandy.

Probably the biggest challenge a flower farmer faces is weather – it can destroy a stunning crop just about to bloom. The property is subject to high wind from time to time and veritable rain-dumps from skies which freely open.

“Climate change is detectable, in that weather patterns are more extreme when they happen: a deluge instead of rain, and perhaps it’s a bit less cold.”

“We allow weather patterns to be there and we adapt. We only grow seasonal crops and don’t push beyond the normal growing season. Whatever we’re growing should be growing well outside. Glasshouses are expensive to raise.”

In an uncertain world, what is certain is that Craig and Mandy have created a successful and adaptable mixed business model with energy and enthusiasm, supplying organic nourishment for body and soul.

Flower growing tips & tricks

  • Pinch out tips to encourage more side shoots
  • Water and deadhead regularly for perfect blooms
  • Feed flowers with foliar spray
  • Use scrupulously clean vases and change the water daily to extend the life of cut flowers

Foodie flowers

Not all edible blooms are flavourful, but they do make culinary dishes look pretty. Some of the edible flower petals Mandy recommends are: calendula, viola, Cosmos sulphureus (the only edible cosmos variety), zinnias, dahlias, and rose petals.

Organic Blooms at a glance

Location: 761A State Highway 1, Warkworth

Labels: Organic Blooms NZ Ltd, Organic Herbs & Seedlings Ltd

Products: 30+ flower varieties, flower seedlings, herb and vegetable seedlings

Staff: Four full time (including Mandy and Craig), one half time, and three volunteers

Organic certification: BioGro NZ since 2009

© Theresa Sjoquist 2021

First published in Organic NZ magazine, January/February 2022 Vol.81 No.1