By Kate Sharkey

A little bit of Mexico has come to Bungaree.

Flowers that is!

Dahlias – and lots of them.

Dahlias are native to Mexico but they’ve been extensively bred and over time have become a much sought-after, high-end cut flower for the florist trade.

Lorelie Merton, owner of Florelie Seasonal Flowers at Bungaree, knew nothing about growing dahlias five years ago, but after much trial and error Lorelie is now seeing opportunities beyond what she ever imagined.

With around 50 florists in Ballarat and Melbourne sourcing dahlias from the farm, Florelie Flower Farm is fast becoming known for its kaleidoscope of colours, varieties and cut fresh to order philosophy.

The variety café au lait was the one dahlia that made Lorelie want to start this venture. It’s a wedding favourite and a spectacular-looking flower.

Lorelie admits she unintentionally killed plenty of plants in the early days, but her dedication to research has paid off.

From 300 plants to now over 2500, the business has certainly gone from fun to full-on!

The open plan garden is divided into two parts: one for the commercial cut flower operation; the other for experimenting with breeding new varieties unique to Florelie.

Dahlias are genetically diverse, giving the plant enormous potential for so many new colours and varieties.

However, plant breeding takes a lot of time and patience but can pay dividends for those who persevere.

The farm has already been successful in producing their own home-grown range including Florelie Watercolour and Florelie Oracle.

In 2020 Lorelie received a small producer grant to install a cool room.

“The cool room is great but flowers don’t spend any longer in there than they have to. Freshly cut flowers are the best flowers,” Lorelie said.

“When it gets really busy I’ve been known to get outside once the children are in bed.

“Putting on a head torch and picking till 1 am to fill orders for the next day,”

Crazy? Maybe.

Passionate? Absolutely! [1] 

Dahlias are planted in October/November, ready to flower at the end of January through to the first frost, which usually hits sometime in April.

May is the month for digging up all 2500 plants.

Dahlias being a tuber, need to be dug out every winter or they may rot in the blessed high rainfall of the Bungaree district.

From the main tuber, multiple smaller tubers form.

These are broken off with a portion kept to replant the following season while the rest go to the mail-order part of the business, selling tuber stock to home gardeners and other farms.

It’s not only florists that get the inside running on dahlias. Lorelie sends care instructions and handy tips to her mail order customers too.

“I’m always happy to answer questions on the phone or through my Instagram page,” Lorelie said.

Tubers are mailed to customers all around Australia except Tasmania and Western Australia due to quarantine. Dahlias are also susceptible to dahlia virus.

Lorelie is acutely aware of keeping her plants disease free, not just for her own business and customers, but for the horticulture industry as a whole.

With so many cut flowers like roses and other well-known florist favourites being imported into Australia, dahlias are excluded, providing Lorelie another opportunity to corner the local market.

Despite being a busy mother to three young children and still working one day a week as a speech pathologist, it’s safe to say Lorelie doesn’t sit still for long.

Lorelie credits her partner Ethan who, with an agricultural background, plays an integral role setting up irrigation schedules, plant nutrient requirements and soil preparation.

Dahlias are the highlight but Florelie farm also produces other seasonal cut flowers including foxgloves, bearded iris and peonies soon to come.

For someone who didn’t grow up on a farm, have any horticultural experience or ambition to nurture flowers full time, Lorelie says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

While Bungaree has a history steeped in potato farming it now has a farm of a different kind on the horizon.

And it’s one that’s bursting with colour and excitement.

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Main image: Lorelie has made a living from the variety of flowers she fell in love with.

Great stuff.

Kate Sharkey
Author: Kate Sharkey