Growing Liliums for the cut flower trade

Rob Dalby, Marryatville, SA
In the year 2000 my wife and I bought 10 hectares of farmland at Monarto with the intention of growing Asiatic liliums for the wholesale cut flower trade. We had visited one of the largest lilium farms in Australia on the outskirts of Traralgon in Victoria. There the bulbs were grown in the ground with 70 % shade cloth overhead and no protection from strong winds.
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

The land was purchased from our own capital but the establishment of the shade house, shed [with cool room and toilet], water and electricity was financed from a loan with interest only payments each month. I engaged Contractors to erect the shed and install the electricity. The shade house, water reticulation [stand pipes and branch lines] I installed myself.
Refreshment shed and shadehouse

Caravan for refreshments and shadehouse

I erected the shade house using 3 metre x 90mm treated pine posts, with 150mm x 40mm timber joists and 70% shade cloth. The initial structure was 25 metres x 25 metres x 2.4 metres high. Rather than grow the bulbs in the ground – clay /limestone marl – I made light timber frames from 40mm x 9mm treated pine battens most of which were 2.4 metres long x 200mm high lined with black plastic. These formed the sides of long growing beds. The ends of the beds were made from 1.5 metre long x 200mm high frames lined with black plastic. The idea was to grow the bulbs above the high ph soil and cover them with a sawdust/sand growing mix containing slow release fertiliser and trace elements. I obtained the saw dust from a furniture manufacturer nearby which used a high percentage of hardwood in the furniture. The coarse sand was from the local landscape supplier.
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.
Stage 1 of shadehouse

Shade house stage 1 and 1st planting

The initial batch of 5000 [8 varieties].were planted in October/November during a hot spell of weather. I had a part time casual worker to help. Once the new shoots appeared they were fertilised using a watering can containing soluble fertiliser. This was a slow process and was soon replaced using a hose attachment where a concentrated solution was placed in a container attached to the sprinkler.
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.
Shadecloth before stitching

Shade cloth before stitching together

I didn’t have time to do that before planting. When strong northerly winds blew, the shade cloth separated and allowed the hot sun to scorch the new growth. Had the bulbs been planted in the cooler months of the year (May to July) the separation of the shade cloth wouldn’t have been as severe a problem. Needless to say there were no stems to cut that season and no cash flow.
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.
Butterfly clips

Shade cloth held together with butterfly clips

The second season started full of hope. The shade house was secure, the bulbs which had been planted the previous season and had not been too severely scorched would emerge. In the mean time I had ordered another batch of 8000 bulbs which were planted. In August the bulbs appeared and were looking good. About a month later several beds of the new season bulbs looked different. While the other beds of liliums were growing tall and strong the odd ones looked healthy but were stunted. As they matured and produced their buds their height was only 200mm !! The flowers opened up and I had a magnificent display of beautifully formed lilium flowers filling 3 beds each 10 metres x 1.5 metres. When the stem of a lilium grows there is normally about 3 cm between each leaf node. In this case the separation between the leaves was about 1mm!! Nobody could explain why. However the next season they grew normally.
Stems too short

Stems in flower, but too short or insufficient bud numbers

It wasn’t until the third year that I watched with some satisfaction the beds full of healthy tall growing liliums. Surely this year I could expect to take a large number of bunched flowers to the market. The buds emerged and grew until one day as I was watering the beds the stems began to lean over under the weight of the large buds and the water clinging to the leaves and over they all went. This happened to about 5 beds. Over the next few days the buds which were still developing turned upwards to face the sunlight. The solution was simple. Lift the bulbs the following year and change the spacing on the template to 125 mm instead of 100mm. The reason for growing liliums close together is to force them to grow tall. The recommended spacing was 100mm!
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

Stems ready to pick

By this time my finances were looking shaky so I decided to give the venture one more year. What I hadn’t realised was that the bulbs which I had planted in the first two years were now starting to thin out. I needed to replace those bulbs with new bulbs. I also re-evaluated the cash flow on the basis of reasonable expectations of flower production from each bulb. What I had been told in the beginning bore no resemblance to reality. Even after correcting all my mistakes the prospect of cutting a saleable stem from each bulb each year was ‘pie in the sky’. Even with fresh bulbs from Holland I could only cut about 50% of the stems in the first year. I would then have to wait for two years for the bulb to regenerate for the next cut. The bulbs cost about 32 cents each and I was paid about 50 cents per stem. To make a comfortable living would require the planting of at least 500000 bulbs and a lot more work!
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.