The scenery is so captivating in the Hunter Region of New South Wales that it’s a wonder anything gets done; there are mountain ranges, towering native trees and gardens bursting with flowers of the season, all alive with the buzzing of hundreds of bees.
But Vanessa Garcia and her friend Dominique Northam seem completely focused on the task at hand. After harvesting blooms from their respective gardens, the two women work away in companionable silence, skilfully arranging a mix of delicate flowers into nostalgic hand tied posies. The table in front of them is laden with freshly cut cottage garden blooms, heirloom flowers, and large bunches of Wattle foliage.
Nearby, their respective partners chat under a shady tree, while Dom’s 18-month-old daughter, Evelyn, plays with the family dog. It’s an idyllic setting on this slice of rural paradise just outside of Dungog, NSW, a mere two-and-a-half hours from Sydney.
Vanessa and Dom run the Flower Farm Collective, a collaboration between their two family’s ‘farmlets’ – Four Acre Farm and Sugarloaf Lane. They grow and harvest seasonal blooms, selling their wares to markets, events and through a Community Supported Agriculture model locally and in nearby Newcastle.
The pair first met in 2014, not long after Vanessa and her partner Josh Tefay relocated from Sydney. A friendship quickly developed based on the common interests that had drawn them out of the city – a longing for a quieter, more sustainable life, and their shared passion for flowers.
‘There’s a growing awareness that buying locally, and eating seasonal, organic or chemical-free food is better for you and the environment. The same applies to flowers – imported, chemically sprayed flowers just don’t make sense.’
Vanessa and Josh live on a six-acre property a short drive down the road. Both grew up on the North Shore of Sydney, and until just a few years ago, worked in demanding inner city IT roles.
‘We used to visit the Hunter Valley on weekend breaks from the city. We’d turn off the freeway and I’d say – oh wouldn’t it be nice to live in a little cottage somewhere in the country and grow veggies!’ Vanessa recalls. ‘Neither of us had any farming experience. We lived in a tiny self-contained studio in Sydney with great water views but no room to grow anything. But we’d been binge watching River Cottage Australia so we felt like we knew what we were doing!’
Life in the country continues to be a series of ‘learning experiences’ for the couple, with their ever-expanding orchard, vegetable and flower gardens, as well as a small herd of Dorper lambs, and all the bees. ‘We’ve had to learn how to build shelters and put up fences along with gardening skills and animal care,’ Vanessa explains. ‘We never would have had the opportunity to learn these life skills in the city.’
While Josh continues to work for the same Sydney IT company remotely, Vanessa spends her days tending the gardens and animals. ‘We also run our own IT business, sell our vegetables at the market, and of course there’s the flowers,’ Vanessa adds.
‘Our life is crazy in a different way now. When we lived in the city we always seemed busy commuting, eating out, watching sport and visiting friends. We’re still busy, but we’re working to build a life that we truly love. It’s incredibly satisfying.’
Dom and her partner Tom Christie tell a similar story. Originally from Newcastle, they made their move to the country about four years ago. ‘We had a house in Newcastle that was a 200-square-metre block, which we’d completely filled with vegetable and flower gardens, so we started looking for something with more land, and just kept widening the search until we ended up here,’ says Dom.
Their home now, a picturesque ‘partly renovated’ farm cottage, is surrounded by chickens, ducks, a splattering of fruit trees, gardens filled with vegetables and flowers, alongside a large, neatly ploughed paddock full of garlic that Tom sells annually at the markets.
They both continue to supplement their income with part-time jobs, and once a fortnight attend local markets to sell their freshly harvested vegetables. ‘The rest of the time we’re working here on the property, tending the gardens and bees, and looking after Evelyn. It’s a balancing act but we love it.’