Grower of the Month: Wandin Valley Flowers

When a vegetable grower and a florist/daughter of a Dutch flower grower met, magic happened! With horticulture deeply ingrained in Femke and Michael Licciardi’s DNA, it’s a continuing theme extending to the rest of the family with their three children Isabella (16), Sophie (14) and Gianni (13) involved and keen to further the business.

It was Femke’s father Arie Vanderspek who was the main force behind bringing the first commercially grown Alstroemeria (our flower of the month – click to read more here) to Australia from Holland. After leaving school at 15, Arie started growing “Alstro” as well as Liatris,Lillies, Tulips, Statice and Ranunculi. He migrated his family in 1982 upon successful sponsorship by Blue Dandenong Bulb Farm trialling 3-4 varieties of Alstro bulbs he brought from Holland (including Carmen and Rio) in a sub section of land whilst working at the farm. When Femke turned 15, she started working as a florist until the age of 21 and her father commenced working at Maxiflora. During that time many big bulb breeders were entering the Australian market. Arie’s passion for Alstro influenced a separate start up division of Maxiflora called ‘Aussie Alstro’ and Femke joined her father on the production and propagation side expanding their Alstro varieties through international bulb agent Konst. Femke left Maxiflora after having her first daughter and shortly after her father passed away in 2009, began looking for a farm to start growing gladioli with partner Michael. In the middle of negotiations for “blank canvas” fields to be farmed, fate came calling with a cattle and oyster farming friend of Femke’s father recommending  a pre-established Alstroemeria farm in Wandin. The Licciardi’s had to sell off many beloved items including Michael’s motorbike and prized car to afford the deposit on the property.  Amassing  8 acres, the farm has progressively grown from housing 18 to 29 igloo’s including 6 that were added over Winter in 2015. The igloo’s are built with misting and hydronic heating and set to 7-8 degree temperature to counteract frost during Winter and chilly nights. Femke remembers a couple of sleepless nights prior to their heating investment many years ago where they battled the frost by lighting nearby bonfires to warm the air surrounding the igloos to prevent frost damage to their stock. Mother nature presented another challenge soon after with a mini cyclone hitting their property 3 years ago resulting in up to $5K worth of damage and the replacement of  6 x propagation houses .

With over 12,000 plants, 29 houses will be in production this year with roughly 500 plants per igloo and under rotation. A further 10 houses are planned to be built by end of 2016. Michael also indulges in his vegetable growing passions devoting a couple of igloos to sweet peppers.

Virginia White is the most popular of the Alstro grown with some of the plants up to 17 years old. All plants have four layers of flower mesh support to protect stems and need to reach 70cm to be picked for bunching. The best flowers are yielded from creating a ‘canopy’ which involves a technique of nipping buds to thicken foliage at base of stem. The plants are also loaded with fertiliser and water with all spent sticks removed to encourage new growth. A treatment of ‘chook poo’ and nutrient based fertiliser is employed twice a year. Alstroemeria is rhizome derived and the bulbs are very sensitive to heat.

Michael has found that some varieties are weaker than others and with a susceptibility to pests, frost damage and unpredictable weather conditions, it’s a tough balance to get right.

“We now have a 2 pronged attack” Femke says, “We want to try new things but need to ensure it’s a strong variety. The future is developing new ranges in addition to our popular lines”.

The couple’s venture “into the new” includes recent production of new truss Alstroemeria. Dutch bulb agent Van Zanten wanted to release this new crop in Australia, determined to keep it exclusive and boutique through Wandin Valley Flowers. Unlike the standard Alstro bunched in 7’s, the truss is a premium variety that is bunched in 10’s. The soft blush pink “Charmelia” truss has been successfully trialled with the snow white “Paradiso” available exclusively this Valentine’s day.

Wandin Valley Flowers wholesale their Alstro through Impulse Flowers, Koomen’s (Epping Wholesale Flower Market), Maybloom (Epping Wholesale Flower Market), and Sorace Flowers (Epping Wholesale Flower Market). They also distribute interstate to Sydney and Brisbane.

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Pictured from Left to Right: Michael, Gianni, Femke, Sophie and Isabella Licciardi