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A visit to Deep Creek Nursery, a family-run enterprise located five kilometres out from the South Gippsland township of Foster, offers some restoration of the connections between the plants we seek, as well as with the earth and the sun.
Economies of scale, along with modern processes of mass production, have widened access to many things previously exclusive to the wealthy and elite. Unfortunately, it has also brought a disconnection between the fundamental origins of these ‘products’ and our everyday relationships with them as ‘consumers’. Most of us are familiar with a weekend trip to the hardware superstore: squeezing in a cursory glance in the garden section for this season’s seedlings after negotiating the labyrinth of power tools, plastic lawn chairs and paint samplers wedged in between a concrete slab and fluorescent tubes. In this setting, acquiring plants is not very different to selecting a shrink-wrapped tray of meat from the supermarket.
Deep Creek Nursery is a grassroots business from both figurative and literal perspectives, situated amongst rolling hills on a family acreage that was once a working dairy farm. The journey there, through a gently snaking country road, could not be more removed from the suburban experience of weaving between loose trolleys strewn across a paved parking lot.
The nursery was created by Silvia Cardona and Paul Saulwick, with the business itself growing alongside its plants in response to the couple’s nurturing efforts and personal passion. It has also grown in response to their ongoing engagement with the local community, a combination of regular ‘old school’ outdoor market presence in conjunction with the dialogue of online platforms.
Silvia describes the beginning of the nursery, and how it grew as a business: “It really began from my own personal interest in horticulture and edible gardens. I just wanted to grow my own fresh fruits and vegetables to eat, as I loved the flavours that only the freshly picked could offer.
“My interest also came from my family’s history, as my mother used to grow her own vegetables in the family garden in Guatemala.
“I started my own seedlings, gathered my own collection of interesting varieties, and experimented with propagating from various plant cuttings. Paul and I built our first hothouse on the property to accommodate this.
“These efforts were more successful than I had expected, so I ran a stall at the local farmers market to share these results and gauge the level of community interest in my work. It turned out that there was considerable enthusiasm and demand for edible garden plant stock in the community, so I just continued to expand upon my personal interests to accommodate this demand.
“The property used to be a working dairy farm, so we were able to build extra greenhouse space and expand into a legitimate nursery. Paul converted the cattle yard and disused milking shed, and we established garden beds using plants that we had cultivated and propagated ourselves. I had also developed an interest in Australian native plants, so I expanded my repertoire to include these varieties alongside the edible garden collections.”
In April 2019, they opened the nursery grounds to the public, but continued to maintain a regular presence at the local farmers markets as it remained an important activity for their business.
“People in the local area find out about our nursery through the markets, and it makes us really happy when they come to visit after that initial contact,” says Paul.
“Word-of-mouth has probably been the most effective way for us to advertise the nursery. It’s even nicer when they return to tell us how the plants are doing in the garden, and show us what it looks like in their own places.
“In the larger commercial garden centres, plants are generally sold in a way to make them look good in pots. By having our own stock growing within our established gardens, we can show our customers a visual context for our plants regarding what to expect in the space of their own sites. It’s just a nicer experience for them to buy here.”
Establishing this goodwill helped them survive – and perhaps even thrive – throughout the uncertainty and multiple lockdowns of the past two years.
“When Covid struck, we weren’t quite sure of our status. We were told that we were an essential service because of the types of plants we produced. We kept the nursery open but removed the signage on the highway as we didn’t want to encourage foot traffic.
“It was very interesting during the first stages of the pandemic. People had this sense of foreboding, like it was the end of the world; and during that time when people couldn’t buy toilet paper, there was this mad rush to get seedlings. None of the major producers had them in stock as they couldn’t keep up with demand, so we had all these people come to us. We could sense the genuine worry in some of the customers – but there was also a comical side to this, with people buying a punnet of lettuce and thinking that they will survive on it!
“Many customers set up their home gardens during the first lockdown though, and we continued to receive telephone orders throughout the subsequent lockdowns for contactless collection. We were also delivering plants and Silvia’s flower arrangements as gifts on behalf of customers who couldn’t visit loved ones in the local area. More local people reached out to us over this period, and the business actually grew whilst the farmers market was put on hold until the easing of lockdown in September.”
In essence, Deep Creek Nursery appears to have succeeded because Silvia and Paul recognised three qualities: following personal passions, strengthening human connections, and adapting their practices to a dynamic social and natural environment. With their energy and optimism for the new year evident, Silvia described the success of the business in terms of the human relationships that they have nurtured over the last three years.
“We’ve had a lot of support from the local community. It’s so rewarding when we see someone return for a second visit, or when we meet someone new through a referral from another customer. I’m glad that we’ve earned their trust by sharing our knowledge and providing them with plants that have thrived in their own garden. It’s so exciting when customers are coming to us from further and further away because people have had such a positive experience and wish to share it with others.”