Growing Liliums for the cut flower trade
Rob Dalby, Marryatville, SA
Having discussed with the supervisor the management of the cutting and subsequent regrowth the following season I established a cash flow and maintenance programme. The principle is simple – buy bulbs of 14-16cm circumference, grow them to a height of 1.2 metres, cut stems in bud of 60 -70cm in length, make bunches of 5 stems per bunch and send to the wholesale market. The growing season would start in August, cutting would start in early November and delivery to the market would continue until the third week in December.
The cost of each bulb was 30-35 cents depending on the variety and the price per stem was 50-60cents depending on the time of year. The bulbs would last approximately 4 years but stem bulbs could be harvested to reduce costs.
Property entrance driveway and shed
Caravan for refreshments and shadehouse
In the beginning the bulbs were planted using a template of mdf board with holes drilled at 100mm centres to allow the bulbs to be planted in a regular pattern 100mm apart. After mixing the sawdust/sand growing mix in a concrete mixer it was transferred to a wheelbarrow and emptied into the raised beds containing the bulbs. The beds were filled to the top and hand watered using a 50 metre long x 20mm diameter hose with ‘soft wash’ sprinkler.
Shade house stage 1 and 1st planting
Liliums in the wild require very little fertiliser, however, for the cut flower market the trade required a minimum of 3 buds per stem and this requires weekly fertiliser with high NPK. Too much nitrogen produces rapid growth and soft stems. Too little nitrogen produces smaller growth and shorter stems to cut.
The financial success of this venture depended on the advice I received from the grower in Victoria. Each bulb must produce 3 stems of 1.2 metre height. After cutting a 60-70cm stem the remaining leaves on the cut stem would recharge the bulb for next year which would produce another stem of similar height. The reality was totally different.
The timing of the erection of the shade house was delayed for a number of reasons. The 3 metre wide overhead shade cloth was attached to the structure at each end but each length needed to be joined together along their edge.
Shade cloth before stitching together
Information about growing liliums was freely available on the internet. One of the ‘facts’ I gleaned was that to ensure that flowers were set in the bulb for the next season the bulb had to cool down during the winter period to about 4 degrees celsius. When I checked the temperature of the growing mix I discovered that the temperature was unlikely to fall below about 11 degrees. So I began lifting the bulbs and transferred them to polystyrene foam boxes with sawdust and placed them in the cool room at 4 degrees. I did this for two seasons until I realised that it was unnecessary. The stem bulbs which I planted outside the shade house and remained in the ground during winter produced just as many buds as those which were lifted.
The medium term plan was to increase the number of bulbs to about 30,000. I would then compare the income and expenditure with my cash flow plan and decide whether I would continue to grow the business.
Shade cloth held together with butterfly clips
Stems in flower, but too short or insufficient bud numbers
During this time I was taking bunches of cut stems to the wholesale market at Thebarton but my expenses exceeded my income. The buyer at the market complimented me on the quality of my stems so all I had to do was to increase the number of bunches.
In the fourth year I extended the shade house and started harvesting the stem bulbs which I had been growing on in beds outside the shade house. About that time a new fertiliser appeared in the garden centres called Dynamic Lifter. It was organic and highly rated. I was aware of the risks associated with too much organic material around lilium bulbs so I applied the pellets on top of the growing mix to about 3 beds as a trial. None of the bulbs in those beds emerged! When I examined the beds later there was no sign of a single bulb! To be fair to Dynamic Lifter I may have applied the pellets too liberally – who knows?
Stems ready to pick
One day I was talking to a neighbour who told me that young lads were earning $18.00 per hour working at the Woolworths Big W Distribution Centre which I drove past on my way to my flower farm. I made some enquiries and applied for the position of casual worker. About 12 months later I was working for Woolworths. In the mean time we had to sell the house and move into rented premises after paying off the flower farm debt.
Several years later the owners of the lilium farm near Traralgon in Victoria went into liquidation.
In hindsight growing only liliums for the cut flower trade as a business venture is always going to be difficult. Compared to other cut flowers the lilium is unique. When cutting the flower stem most of the nutrition required for the next season’s growth is removed. This is not the case with other bulbs. Daffodils, and other cut flowers from bulbs produce a flower separate from the leafy part of the plant. Cutting these flowers doesn’t put any stress on the plant. On the other hand rose bushes produce numerous stems each season from the one plant and continue to do so year after year.