Life at Soho Rose Farm (it’s blooming)
There’s apocalyptic weather the morning I visit Soho Rose Farm. It’s 7.28am, 28 degrees with northerly winds, the sunrise is bright orange and I can see a rainbow.
Clare Russell is checking the radar on her iPad when I arrive. There’s a moving blue and white splodge on the screen. Rain. Her husband, Wally, is rubbing Dencorub on his sore shoulder and making predictions that the rain will hit in 30 minutes. No way, I think. Won’t rain. But I should tell you I’m no meteorologist, nor farmer. Just a girl who’s come to see some roses.
Clare and Wally have been running Soho Rose Farm since their daughter was two. “We were so busy getting ready with the roses on Milly’s second birthday that we didn’t have time to celebrate it. You can do that when they are little, right? And not tell them?” Clare laughs. Milly is now 13 and just like the farm, is all grown up.
The first pings of rain hit the shed roof, proving Wally (and myself) wrong. Clare hands out raincoats to the staff assembled ready to start the day’s work. Protected from the fat drops, they head out into the rows upon rows of roses to start picking. They look like individual Pac-men, spreading out and moving through the straight rows of bushes, snips in hand, collecting roses along the way.
I wander along behind Clare, taking photos and trying not to get in her way as she deftly snips stems and amasses them over her shoulder.
“It all started by accident,” Clare tells me about the early days of Soho. “Like a pregnancy?” I say and she laughs. Clare is always quick to laugh, no matter how inappropriate the joke.
“The rose farm was in another location, and was run by someone who loved roses. But then this person realized she had too many and wasn’t having a life or seeing her grandkids.”
Taking it on was huge for me, even though at the time it was so much smaller than what we’ve got now. I had three small children at home. It was big, to ask Wally to give up some of his work to help me with the roses and the kids. It was a risk.”
“I would wake up in the night stressed about having spent so much money ordering lime for the plants,” Clare says. I wonder if the roses know how lucky they are, to have someone thinking about them in the wee small hours of the night. “Then we moved the farm. It was a matter of water. That was even more stressful,” Clare explains as she makes her way through a row of fluffy apricot blooms.
Clare deposits her collection of roses into a bucket. This bucket will then go up to the shed where staff strip, snip and sort them. The roses are grouped into orders for florists, labeled accordingly, and then delivered to market later on.
I meet Jane along another row as she snips off a steam heavy with white, fat roses. Jane is a horticulturalist and rose aficionado. “I got my job here through Instagram. I saw a photo of a row of secateurs and I thought ‘who’s that?’” Jane says.
Instagram has helped raise the profile of Soho roses. Florists all over Melbourne snap photos and put them up for all their followers to see, like and share. “We love seeing what florists are doing with them. It’s nice to see that they appreciate them like we do. I don’t get impressed by masses of roses anymore, but an individual one can still stop me and make me go wow,” Jane says. She too has a huge bundle of roses over her arm, and I wonder where these flowers will end up.
I wish we could track them,” Jane tells me. “These roses go all sorts of places. Apparently some of the ones we are picking today will be going to Madonna.”
I look at her face to see if she’s having a lend of me because I’m prone to believing such things. “No really”, she assures me. “And some went to Mariah Carey last year.”
Walking through the rows of bushes taller than me, I wonder about the technique that’s involved in picking the roses. “Is there much to it? To picking?” I ask Clare when I find her again. I’ve already got images of me madly snipping away at the roses like an expert Edward Scissorhands flashing into my head. “So much. It’s not just cutting off the pretty ones,” Clare explains.
“Each variety needs to be picked at a different time, so they are not too open or too closed when they get to the florist. The stems need to be the right length. The bush needs to be left so that its future growth is maximized.”
No picking for me.
A rose farm, what a beautiful and amazing place to work and live, right? A bit like Taylor Swift growing up on a Christmas tree farm. I’m quickly set straight by Wally. it’s not all Mozart piping across the fields and frolicking like Pollyanna.
“Just because the end product is beautiful, doesn’t mean the work is,” Wally tells me while he kneels amongst a group of untidy bushes that need his attention. “It’s hard physical labour and you’ve got to be out here no matter the weather,” he says as the sky above us continues to leak.
I’m constantly pushing the roses to give me the most and best flowers they can. I’ve got to make sure when they arrive at their destination that they don’t turn to soup.”
To soup? “You know when you get flowers and they go brown and horrible really quickly? That’s soup.” Soup. “I’ve got to always be on the look out for disease and other things that can affect the roses and be on top of it, all while trying to get the best flowers we can.” So it’s all about trying to prevent the bad stuff happening while encouraging the good stuff?
“Well, that’s pretty much life, isn’t it?” Wally says.
Does he think about where the roses go after they leave the farm, of what becomes of his smelly babies?
“I don’t. I used to. It would upset me that after an event they end up in the bin. It’s the truth, they do. I concentrate on them while they’re here and give them everything I can, and try to shut off after they’ve gone.” There’s something reminiscent of a hardened cop to Wally. Pushing away the bad thoughts that can hurt, and focusing on the good instead. He makes Salada biscuits with vegemite and cheese and shares them with his staff every day. “Helps get me through,” he says.
I wonder if, despite the physically punishing work and flowers coming to unceremonious ends, have Clare and Wally still got a love of roses? Did they ever actually have one at all? “I do, I definitely do. I really like the one that smells like lemonade,” says Wally.
Even on super busy days I will stop everyone in the work shed to show them a really stunning rose,” Clare says. “I definitely love them.”
Clare snips off a bloom that I think is perfect and lets it fall to the ground, then moves ahead to the next row. I check to see that no one is watching me, and pick it back up again and hide it in my pocket. I’ll put it in a glass jar on my kitchen windowsill when I get home.
Clare and Wally love their roses the way parents love their children. Sure, they might bitch and moan about not getting enough sleep, about misbehaving bushes and never getting a moment alone to themselves without the roses looking on. But they also pour an immense amount of love into each and every one of them. They want the roses to be the very best they can be, just as they do their three teenage children.
“You don’t want your kids to just be a part of you. You want them to grow up to be themselves,” Clare tells me. When she says kids, I’m not sure if she means her humans or her roses, because it applies to the way she approaches both.
“I’m very close with them. But it’s also just the best to see them getting out there and doing so well.” Roses? Human children? I don’t think it matters.
I finger the rose in my pocket to make sure that’s it’s safe. I feel lucky to have a very small piece of Clare and Wally’s heart as my very own, even if I did steal it.