On a former orchard in Kentucky, Kate Hedges is growing David Austin roses for the cut flower industry. We find out more …
> What inspired you to start growing roses as a business?
My grandmother had a beautiful garden here in Kentucky, which I spent a lot of time in as a child. She had a lot of roses and flowers rambling all over the place – she was never very concerned with neatness and order! I suppose it influenced both my gardening style and my flower arrangements, and that’s probably from where the passion for roses came.
I must say, though, as a kid I was never that interested in doing any of the hard work involved in gardening. My Aunt used to give us bulbs at Easter, instead of Easter eggs. My sister would always plant hers out immediately, and mine were always left in the bag, sprouting and rotting! I think Mum was quite surprised when I grew up to be a gardener.
> What made you specialise in David Austin roses?
I chose David Austins because they are so natural-looking and cannot be grown in hot houses. I am not interested in that type of rose production. The Austins suit the type of arrangements and bouquets I do – I don’t much like contrived, artificial looking flowers.
I initially planted some extra roses to supply material for arrangements I was doing for local community events and weddings. I had been using roses from my garden, but even with over 100 of those, there still never seemed to be enough.
Every year the number of roses planted commercially has grown, and now I have around 1,500 bushes, mostly David Austins. I do also have a lot of the deep red “Mr Lincoln”, which are very popular too, and they have a magnificent fragrance. Last year I started supplying the Brisbane cut flower market, and this year I‘ve also been sending them here, there and everywhere to individual florists. Since Nicole Kidman had Austins in her bouquet, they have become very popular with brides.
> Do you still do roses for weddings and other events ?
I do, but I am selective about those I do – simply because I feel the Austins are best suited to a particular style of wedding or event, and I am quite busy with the wholesale side of things. Some brides want a more modern, funky look, which is fantastic, but often their gowns, and the overall style they are going for is suited to something more modern-looking than the English roses.
I am quite happy to supply florists with my flowers if I am unable to do the wedding myself. In Armidale, I work closely with the lovely Dianne Leedham, who has used my roses in many of the weddings she has done. It is really important the florist knows the characteristics of each variety of rose, as they vary greatly – some are really fragile and open quickly, while others are much tougher.
I am able to keep them reasonably priced for local purchasers (compared with ordering them from elsewhere) due to the reduced freight and handling costs. At this stage I would also like to say to flower buyers out there “support your local florists or small businesses – don’t buy your flowers from the supermarket!”
My customers do have to be people who appreciate the scented, garden-grown roses, as opposed to the “perfect” looking, usually scentless hot house rose. People are now starting to prefer a more natural, scented rose, albeit with some blemishes. When roses are field grown it can be virtually impossible for them to be blemish-free. This just adds to their character and beauty
> Is it hard work?
It’s incredibly hard work! I’ve had blood poisoning twice from thorns and spend most of the time covered in dirt and sheep poo! Dealing with pests, diseases and nutrition means I almost need a science degree.
My husband David is great, as he has had a lot of experience growing crops and is a huge help with the spraying and nutrition regime. We use only environmentally friendly pest control, which is no mean feat, as it is quite a difficult process the get the balance of fertiliser, predatory bugs and eco-friendly spray right – if it isn’t, the roses can easily be decimated almost overnight by various pests, which is very disheartening.
> It sounds stressful!
It can be sometimes, which is ironic, as I decided to grow roses so I wouldn’t have to go back to the stress of a nine to five office job and have to put the kids into care while I worked. I sometimes think I’ve just replaced one kind of stress with another… Growing anything, let alone flowers, is very fraught, and the potential for disaster is immense!
Apart from the growing side of things, transport is a wildcard, and once I put the roses on a truck or plane, their fate is completely out of my hands. I often have to fly roses to various parts of the country in high temperatures, and I’m always worried that they’ll end up at the wrong airport, or frying on a runway somewhere – though this has never actually happened, thankfully! The Austins are more fragile than the hot house roses, and extra care has to be taken in transport to ensure they are properly conditioned to arrive looking their best.
When we started, we learned through trial and error, as other rose growers were understandably reluctant to share information. Learning how to grow roses to a commercial standard, then how to condition, grade, pack and transport them was incredibly hard.
Without Graham from DJ’s Fruit Market and Knights Transport, who very kindly take our roses to the Brisbane markets, it would have been impossible to get started commercially. The Brisbane flower auction was a good launching pad, as the flowers have to be top grade to sell with such heavy competition.
However, the advantages far outweigh any disadvantages. I can work around the kids’ school hours and attend all their school activities, and I get a rest during winter as the roses only flower from November to April/May.
> Tell us about your family.
My husband and I have two children, Ellie and Joe, who attend Kentucky Public School – which they love. My husband David runs our main business – we supply granite gravel, which he is usually busy delivering to the RTA for roadworks and local residents for driveways, dressage arenas, housepads and tennis courts. In his ‘spare time’ he has to do all the spraying, mulching etc. on the roses – it’s a good thing we have a bobcat!
> You mentioned your grandmother lived in Kentucky – obviously your family has been in the area for a long time?
My father, Dan Ward and his brother Thor own Ward Bros Land Improvement, an earthworks business which has been operating in Kentucky for over 40 years. Their grandfather was an original soldier settler after WWI.
> Tell us more about the area.
After WWI, settlers cottages were built on small blocks as orchards for the returned servicemen. There were two designs of houses, most of which remain today, although most residents now live in houses that started out identical, and are all now completely different due to the various extensions/renovations people have undertaken over the years.
Because my family has lived here for so long, I have grown up hearing stories about the orchards, the schools, the social events – just about everything in Kentucky, and it’s fascinating to compare then and now.
One of the things that makes Kentucky unique is that the farms are so small, which gives it a real community feeling. It isn’t isolated at all. The sense of community here was fantastic in years gone by and, as corny as it sounds, that sort of cohesiveness in small areas needs to be preserved. It certainly has been in Kentucky.
There is still a great community feeling and a lot happening here. Everyone who comes here is made to feel really welcome, and it is quite a melting pot of people now, which is lovely. We have a great school and the recent revamp of the Kentucky store has meant we now have the convenience of great coffee and yummy takeaways!
I suppose I just love the fact that my family has lived here for generations and now my children will grow up here too.
> Thank you Kate.
Readers can visit www.kentuckyroses.com.au for more information.