The violet, lilac and mauve tones of the “Fancy Dress” variety is reminiscent of the flowering colour in the famous Vincent van Gogh painting “Irises”. Pops of oyster greys, tangerine, peach, cream, rich reds, burgundy and yellow tones – all irises and daylilies in bloom – become visible through trees, basking in the warm morning sun’s glow on the large paddock.
Driving up the winding gravel road towards property “Wargam” located east of Lockhart on Strongs Lane in southern NSW during the spring season, it’s certainly reminiscent of other traditional broadacre cropping properties in the region preparing for harvest, but it also boasts this crop with a difference.
Sunshine Iris Nursery has been owned and managed by mother and daughter Mandy and Elissa Strong since 2012. It was somewhat rather a chance business opportunity when Elissa approached former owner Tori Simmons for advice on establishing an online gardening business that would be viable in such a rural location, and after learning more about the iris and daylily nursery, they decided it was a venture they could also have a passion for.
The keen gardeners took over the nursery under their chosen new business name and haven’t looked back.
Since the relocation of the plants to this 3000-acre property “Wargam”, which has been owned and managed by the Strong family for four generations, the plants have certainly proven how tough they can be, flourishing in their new environment.
The initial nursery had been established in Lavington in the 1990s before it was relocated to Jindera, then Henty, before re-establishing at what had been Tori’s farming property at The Rock, where they survived (and thrived) through a harsh drought and widespread flood.
When Elissa and Mandy initially purchased the business, the irises were planted at a different farm, but they say the plants are very much settled in their current patch of dirt.
Choosing the exact paddock to ‘sow their new seeds’ was a somewhat challenging decision for the Strong family, with Mandy’s son and well-known international motocross rider Jackson having constructed several jumps and ramps as part of his large training compound at the farm. They chuckle that many negotiations took place before planting began.
However, they say that despite being selective over the positioning of the nursery, irises generally grow well in our region and climate in different areas and soil types, as they are drought tolerant, low maintenance and can handle frosty conditions during the winter months.
“The paddock here is in full sun and well-drained. The irises really like having a cooler winter and I think that’s what actually makes them flower well. We only water them a couple of times through summer, although at the moment I’m watering them quite heavily to promote new root growth,” Mandy says.
As an experienced local agronomist, Elissa has been putting her plant and soil knowledge into practice with this new venture too, however does concede, it’s “a whole new ballgame”.
“We’ve been trying to find new herbicides and investigating new ways of weed control, and have also explored new mulching systems as well,” she explains.
There were 450 varieties of irises initially purchased in 2012, however Mandy and Elissa have really grown the enterprise, also taking ownership of 150 new varieties that had been part of a nursery at Yarrawonga in February 2015.
“Being able to integrate that collection into our nursery has really brought our nursery up to date because that nursery had a lot of award-winning varieties that have been really good growers and have interesting characteristics,” Elissa says.
Whilst the nursery is opened on two weekends each year to coincide with the flowering window which is typically between September and November, they are focused on booming online sales throughout the year, all packaged from their rural location too.
“Customers are coming from all over Australia, and we are lucky to be one of just a few nurseries accredited to post to Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory too,” Elissa says.
She tells me that the orders vary from just a handful of irises, to larger orders to fill whole garden beds.
“We feel like some people are real collectors, interested in buying one plant at a time, while for others, they are looking for a really big display of colour, and it can be a real artists’ palette.”
There is also a smaller selection of daylily varieties as part of the nursery too, and whilst many are interested in their colourful flowers for their gardens, with a subtly sweet taste, the flowers can also be used in various dishes and are known for their eating qualities.
According to Mandy and Elissa, they can really brighten up a stir fry or salad and either the buds can be used before they open, or the petals can be plucked from the stems and tossed into dishes too.
Mandy and Elissa laugh that their personal favourite iris and daylily varieties changes frequently.
And, as we all glance at the rainbow of colour that surrounds us in the paddock, it’s certainly not surprising.
Words & Pictures: Rosie O’Keeffe