A Floral Twist of Fate behind The Big Bouquet
The Big Bouquet is not your average flower farm. Situated on 44 acres in the picturesque rolling hills surrounding Healesville, over 60,000 flowering gerberas of all colours and varieties flower all year round under 3 acres of glass. The farm also houses alpaca’s, originally from Peru, which farm founder Bert Rijk has proudly bred for over 24 years. A café, education room and gift shop have also been set up for visitors to experience the production, techniques and history of the flower farm and a welcoming coffee and lunch. Daily tours of the farm are held at 11am, 1pm or 3pm.
The Big Bouquet has evolved over the years from the humble beginnings of Holland born Bert Rijk, who migrated to Australia in 1982 seeking adventure. With a civil engineering background, Bert worked for rose propagators in budding season and eventually took over a farm in Silvan where he was working, which had 5 acres of roses. Recognising that no one else was growing Gerbera’s, Bert emptied out the farm and purchased his first plants through seed, importing tissue culture himself from Holland and heating plastic houses to keep Gerbera’s in suitable climactic conditions for year round production and supply. Bert was instrumental in challenging methyl bromide treatment and importation practices and spent three years attempting to revoke these processes, with several trips to Canberra. This resulted in the development of the largest tissue culture lab in New South Wales, now used to grow native trees and other plants.
The timeline of The Big Bouquet bunches together some fascinating fateful connections. Recent years has seen husband and wife Sander and Natalie Kerst take on joint ownership of the business with Bert planning to retire. Sander was instrumental in setting up many glasshouse builds for the flower farming industry (including TNB Tulips, Piovillico and Buncha Flowers). Fatefully, The Big Bouquet set up (including propagation systems and screening ) was part of this portfolio as his Father was an agent for the largest glasshouse company in Victoria. Sander was also fortunate enough to garner experience and mentoring from industry experts such as Kees Koomen, Cor Slykerman from Chrysco and Job Roskam. Sander assisted with the setup of Chrysco in Skye, Victoria and went on to work the business for a further 4 years where he learnt a great deal on technology, production and product development. He juggled his working commitments with annual 6 month working trips to Holland. Sander went on to purchase Kees Koomen’s old rose farm in Monbulk trading as Invaroses and developing premium roses yielding extra large rose heads that were a first at that time. Natalie completed her Horticulture apprenticeship at Swinburne University and was working at Kees Koomen’s rose farm when Sander purchased it. It was divine intervention and timing upon Sander taking over the farm, which also introduced him to future wife Natalie. The pair married and honeymooned in Peru, coincidentally where the Alpaca’s on the property originally hailed from. The couple always dreamed of owning and operating their own farm in the area and their vision soon became a reality with business owner Bert reaching out to the pair to take on the farm operationally.
Under Bert’s mentorship, the business has grown over the years thanks to his expertise and a collaborative commitment from the trio to “reinvent” the gerbera through advancements in irrigation, heating and implementation of the highest grade recycling system and sterilisation process which has been adapted from the juice industry. All Co2 emissions are used to pump into the greenhouse.
The farm is fully sustainable with the installation of a 25 kilowatt solar efficiency system set up earlier this year and recycled water irrigation from their dam. The glasshouses are kept at a constant temperature of 18 degrees with an intuitive computer system designed to heat both root system and adjust heating around the plants and flower heads. Overhead misting is also employed to create and maintain humidity levels at 70%. There is also a screening system in place in the roof line which ventilates automatically and can both lock in heat and lock it out (depending on the seasons) and in turn reduces the volume of area that needs to be heated , reflecting sunlight in the Summer months.
To stimulate and expedite growth, these temperatures are sometimes tweaked as gerbera plants can become complacent when too comfortable with conditions. It takes 5 to 6 weeks for plants to yield flowers from tissue culture and with 64,000 plants on site and a further 25,000 on their other farm in Monbulk the growing cycles needs to run concurrently to produce consistently all year round.
“Just like humans, plants can get lazy and need to get a bit of a wake up call if they get too comfortable as their production only improves when they are required to work harder” Sander says.
It’s an adage that Sander himself also subscribes to as he is not a fan of routine and spends a great deal of time and investment on innovation and research to ensure they are offering the highest standards to lift and deliver to the flower industry.
“Our focus is on quality, freshness and same day delivery anywhere in Australia” Sander says. The Big Bouquet has also invested logistically, assisting wholesalers to save on cost and waste to move more product, more efficiently. Through the acquisition of a new cupping machine (The Big Bouquet was one of the first to secure and trial from overseas) which “cups” flower heads individually with a small perforated sleeve – Gerberas are protected in transit both locally and interstate, arriving in 100% perfect condition.
The energy behind The Big Bouquet is infectious with Sander trialing new lines and colour variances that appear to be ahead of time with market demand for standard lines exceeding a thirst for the new. Spider, Pom Pom and Piccolini varieties (used widely for wedding work in Europe) have not proven to be as popular locally, much to Sander’s surprise.
Keeping a watchful eye on fashion trends and international colour trends and influences has inspired recent releases: Diablo (musky pink), Souvenir (orange/yellow bi colour), Trump (hot pink), Greenie (lemon), Capella(terracotta), Nobless (champagne) and Artist (pink ombre). Soft pastels which were on trend 15 years ago were replaced with brights and now experiencing a resurgence. Bi colours and cream/beige varieties are also trending.
The future looks as bright as a Gerbera for The Big Bouquet with many plans underway to further modernise the farm and improvements planned to revolutionise the visitor experience for floral enthusiasts, local and international tourists. Bert remains resolute that he has no emotional ties to the business, yet his commitment to the operation speaks volumes and Sander, Natalie and Manager Brendan benefit from his ongoing wisdom daily. We can’t wait to see what the next few years hold for this growing operation as the “no holds barred” approach will unfold with some sweeping innovation and change.