On the land with: Hannah-Lea Robertson, sustainable flower farmer and florist

We need healthy topsoil to grow 95% of the world’s food, but commercial farming practices have led to nearly half of earth's most productive soil disappearing in the last 150 years. Aside from growing nutrient rich food, we need topsoil to absorb carbon. Restoring the world’s soil has the potential to absorb more than five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is roughly what the US emits annually. 

Spending her days tending to healthy topsoil, Hannah owns and runs Our Little Flower Farm, a small scale flower farm on Bundjalung Country in Northern New South Wales. Moving away from industrial methods of flower farming that transports flowers all over the world, uses pesticides and single use plastics, Our Little Flower Farm operates without plastic and grows flowers using organic methods that focus on cultivating nutrient rich topsoil. 

This was a beautiful and grounding conversation about the joy of living aligned with the seasons, how healthy topsoil is a lot like a healthy gut and how improving the topsoil on the land you’re on is the best legacy you could leave behind. 

Hi Hannah, thank you for chatting with me today. I wanted to start by asking how your path unfolded to end up where you are now with Our Little Flower Farm? 

We started growing cut flowers by the river on Bundjalung Country in Northern New South Wales about six years ago. My background was textile design. After studying clothing production and manufacturing in my early twenties, I moved to Melbourne to study textile design at RMIT and loved doing studio work but had lots of kids and did lots of moving. So that was difficult to do once the fifth baby was born. We moved back here to this land that we’d lived on a few times before that and started growing flowers because it was something that I could do outside and stop and start really easily. So first it was just a real desire to be around beauty, colour and form and to be creative and use my hands and be creative. I discovered there was a need for locally grown flowers and started wholesaling to florists and that’s how I got started. 

You live close to nature on a beautiful farm on Bundjalung Country, what does a day in your life look like there?

We do live close to nature and close to a village so we’re not out in the country, there’s about 100 acres of community lands separating us from the little village that is on the banks of the Richmond river as you go out of town and round a big bend, we’re also on the bank of the river but facing a different direction to the town. So you get full day sunlight here and it’s big open plain country around here, so the flood plains on the river, 15 minutes from the ocean. So it’s a beautiful space for growing and beautiful breezes off the water in the middle of summer. 

A day in my life. Um, so that sets the environmental scene. School day, generally is, I get up and pick really early for whatever orders I’ve got for the shop. Get the kids ready for school. Often I’ll drop them on my way to work. There’s a few chickens to deal with in the morning. My seven year old, she’s getting pretty good with that job. Getting everyone in the car and hustle if I’m picking up from other growers. I’ll do that on the way. Pick here, gather whatever else we need, get to the store. Open up that beautiful building and everyday’s different. 

Could you please share a bit about the differences between traditional flower farming and your practices? 

Traditional is hard because then you’re going right back to when florists used to grow their own flowers to use for ritual and practice and ceremony and funeral and all those sorts of things. But it got industrialised like any industry. So then you’re talking import, export. Australia still imports around 40% of the flowers that we have in the market. So they’re often from third world countries, although we do import from Holland as well, South America, Africa. A lot of roses from Africa. So that’s big scale stuff sent a really long way, heavily treated of course by security measures when it gets into Australia. There’s no labelling necessary for that so you don’t actually know if that’s the journey flowers have taken when you’re purchasing them. Either does the florist, for that matter. 

So it’s the opposite of that, it’s flipping it on its head. It’s locally grown flowers in your region, grown to season, varieties that suit your area. Growing for the market that’s needing them, so it’s really important if you’re going to grow flowers to look around yourself and have a look at where you live and you know, if you’ve got a big wedding community, are you going to be able to grow those high end flowers. If you’ve got a farmers market you’re going to sell at, grow to suit your market and grow what you really enjoy as well. So it’s a real flip of the whole industry and with doing that, it’s awareness raising, it’s letting people know that the floral industry is either a massive indoor, heated cool space, or it’s grown to season at a small scale.

“It’s going to connect them into the memory of that special event, as opposed to getting something out of season and never really feeling that connection.”

A lot of the world, particularly in city’s, have grown out of touch with the seasons in the way we eat and live. What are some of the things you feel we gain when we align our days with the seasons? 

The joy I get from pre-planning for the season that’s ahead, being aware of what’s coming and where I’m at. It’s stepping out of that digital framework, it’s actually feeling where you’re at, it’s knowing how much rain we’ve had, how much rain is coming and by introducing people to that concept of this is what’s seasonally happening means they too gather an awareness. We talk to people when they’re planning a celebration about choosing what’s in season because when that season comes around the next year and they see those flowers blooming, it’s going to connect them into the memory of that special event, as opposed to getting something out of season and never really feeling that connection. So they’ll see the dalia’s coming back in midsummer coming into autumn — which is when I really like them after that heats passed a bit— and they’ll go, “ah that’s right that was when we got married this is what was blooming” and they’ll buy them again or put them in their home again or grow them. We’re teaching people to grow them. Just connecting like that, it’s a beautiful thing. It also means they start to care a little bit more about the state of the planet. Just for that reason they recognise that things are heating up. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

What flowers are in season at the moment? 

Summer’s great for flower varieties for me, because they are the easy grow varieties. They’re the first things I set my mind to. Things like gladioly, zinnias, cosmos, amaranth, celosia. They’re bright, they’re cheery, easy to use, easy to grow. A lot of things pop up from self seeding in summer. It gets pretty wild out there. I kind of get this false sense of organisation throughout winter and summer comes along and there’s, heavy weed pressure and things like that. So yeah, those colourful, beautiful come again varieties I love. 

“If you’re belly’s out of whack your whole health is out of whack. The garden’s like that too.”

In your “how to grow workshop” in Newrybar, you teach a ‘no dig bed building’ method, I’d love to hear a bit more about what this entails and its benefits?

So using a no-dig method, there’s a lot of reasons why we do it. Particularly here. We’ve got a pug soil, it’s not a pure pug but it’s pretty clay based. So the idea is that you don’t disturb the microbial base that’s already there. You leave the soil profile that’s already there, it’s doing quite well already. We’ll start with a cardboard layer to bring the moisture and bring the worms up and get that stimulated. We’ll then use small cuttings or prunings from lillie pillie and stuff just to get that height and tha aeration started. And a heavy wood chip layer, heavy compost layer. Beautiful aged manures and then the good mulch on that and let the weather and the heat and the soil and the pre-existing soil bed start to incorporate and do its thing. 

You can grow into that pretty quickly but what’s going to happen is it’s just going to improve and grow into what’s already pre-existing there and you’re going to be building yourself a layer of topsoil. On top of that we’ll cover crop, we’ll chop that cover crop in the mulches start to go in. Everything cooks in, we’ll go into that mulch again with the cover crop in and just keep on working like that and after six years you know we started doing that process, we just have some incredible topsoil that we’ve built down here. My focus is much more about the soil than the finished product. If flowers aren’t looking great, if something’s giving them a hard time, I get rid of them. I don’t treat the flowers to get the premium product at that stage. We’ll only cut what’s beautiful and sell what’s beautiful but if something’s giving it a hard time, something’s out of whack, something’s you know — stomach health, if you’re belly’s out of whack your whole health is out of whack. The garden’s like that too. So we’ll treat the issue, the imbalance and forget about cropping in that bed for that time. There’s a constant rotation going on. So yeah it’s being a caretaker of the soil, it’s building soil that’s much more important to us. 

“Understanding that soil is precious, that you can leave a legacy of increased topsoil and whatever bit of property you’re on it’s just the best thing to leave behind.”

Soil can sequester carbon and has an important role to play in mitigating climate change. However, the amount of fertile soil on the planet is diminishing. Do you have any tips on what individuals can do to support the movement towards regenerating and protecting our precious soil? 

So we teach that workshop, we’ve got one coming up in february that we’re actually taking booking for at the moment. We teach people, in whatever growing space they’ve got, whether it’s a tiny little backyard garden. How to grow, supporting the soil substrate that they’ve got at their place and to build on that. So building soil like I just said, is the most important thing. Then from there, we’ll talk about seasonal varieties and what to grow and the pretty stuff. 

If you’re not getting the soil stuff right and paying attention to what’s happening outdoors and your soil’s not alive, then there’s a problem. What I’ve noticed starts to happen is instead of having this sort of structured reality of clean, tidy garden beds. People seem to understand they can have structure there for easy picking and growing. But clean and tidy no longer becomes their priority. What becomes their priority is an alive ecology. It’s a balanced ecosystem. 

Weeds suddenly don’t become a complete nightmare. No actually, they’re helping keep the soil moist during this drought time or whatever it might be. They’re actually breaking up the heavier soils. When I do bring them out or cut them down, I’m actually just adding more life in. Understanding that soil is precious, that you can leave a legacy of increased topsoil and whatever bit of property you’re on it’s just the best thing to leave behind.